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DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES
(***½)
Reviewer:   Jim "JR" Rutkowski
Directed by:
Matt Reeves
Written by:
Screenplay by: Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver. Based on the novel "La Planète des Singes" by Pierre Boulle
Starring:
Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, Andy Serkis
Length:   120 minutes
Released:   071114
Rating:
PG13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief strong language.
“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes gets better the more you think about it..." 

In 2011, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” was considered a risk by most box office pundits. Arriving a decade after Tim Burton’s financially successful but poorly received remake, it appeared as through the fire died out long ago for “Planet of the Apes” fandom. Turns out, the public was just waiting for quality damn, dirty ape entertainment, with “Rise” becoming one of the most successful movies of the year. Now there’s “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” a second chapter in the rebooted saga, and a sequel that is sure to please those who enjoy this premise serviced with the utmost seriousness. Captured with a refreshing patience and attention to character, not just pure spectacle, the continuation has moved beyond careful thin-ice dramatic advancement to establish itself as a powerhouse franchise that will likely inspire additional talking ape adventures to come, perhaps even rivaling the first go-around with the brand name in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

After a decade of spreading, the dreaded ALZ-113 virus has claimed a good portion of humanity, with a cluster of survivors holed up in San Francisco, finding leadership in Dreyfus (Gary Oldman, in a surprisingly minor role). In need of a new power source, a select team of humans, including Malcolm (Jason Clarke, “Zero Dark Thirty”) and his wife, Ellie (Keri Russell), travel into Muir Woods to figure out how to bring an old dam back to life. Entering dangerous territory, the gang encounters Caesar (Andy Serkis), the leader of the apes, who presides over a community of creatures, taking care of his impressionable teenage son, River (Nick Thurston). Without contact with humans for over two years, Caesar is wary of Malcolm’s intentions, gradually learning to trust the friendly trespasser. Detecting that Caesar’s peaceful ways will allow humans to rule the apes once again, Koba (Toby Kebbell), an ill-tempered advisor, works to undermine such authority, urging his kind into war with Dreyfus.

What’s immediately striking about “Dawn” is how it simply slows down to soak up the mood. Humans don’t actually show up in the movie for quite some time, leaving the opening to the apes, with Caesar overseeing a hunting party in the deep woods, tracking a group of deer with numerous soldiers, confidants, and the young. It’s a glimpse into the ape way of life, built over a decade of distance from the humans and their own struggle for survival. Caesar speaks, a gift brilliantly revealed in the last picture, but the primary mode of communication is sign language, keeping the feature a behavioral study instead of an exposition slog. It’s remarkable in this day and age to see “Dawn” so subtle and quiet as it commences, but the reward is a full understanding of Caesar’s rule and the reasoning behind his continued dominance, with the addition of a newborn son contributing to his dream of family and unity.

When humans do enter “Dawn,” they arrive brandishing weapons. Guns are a major focal point in the picture, representing a metallic tool of aggression new to the apes, shifting the balance of power with their heavily-armed enemy. The screenplay divides the human characters into those willing to work with Caesar and discover ape life, and those who kill without thinking, permitting fear to manage their lives. Both sides of the city share a common fracture in evolution, a parallel “Dawn” milks mercilessly, working to unite Malcolm and Caesar as protective fathers who want to avoid violence, yet remain aware that such hope is limited when primitive instincts are in play. There are provocative themes explored and sincere exchanges of emotion, while tension is stoked as Koba generates a plan to disrupt the tentative union, luring River into his malevolent scheme. While the feature spins a familiar web of deception, it does so with a richly dramatic presence, creating a genuine rapport between the humans and apes that’s completely believable and engrossing, building into an epic story of betrayal and resignation that eventually leads into more action-oriented pursuits.

Director Matt Reeves (“Cloverfield” and the misguided “Let Me In”) gives “Dawn” an impressive cinematic look, allowing the motion capture characters an opportunity to deliver performances underneath incredibly detailed CGI artistry. The apes are simply stunning, urging viewers to lean toward the screen, just to make sure these aren’t real creatures. Sequences involving warfare between the humans and the apes deliver intensity, while more personal moments are just as exciting, as Reeves is not one to edit his way in and out of scenes. “Dawn” is artfully composed and periodically breathtaking, creating a dystopian environment with atypical blockbuster self-control. Just watching the apes interact is worth the price of admission, as exceptional performances from the likes of Serkis, Thurston, and Karin Konoval (playing a wise orangutan who befriends Malcolm’s teen son) are merged with seamless visual effects, permitting the fantasy to take hold.

There are a few problems with “Dawn,” including an excessive run time (130 minutes) that’s in need of a tighter edit. Clarke proves to be an ineffective leading man, perhaps a tad too bland to compete with his ape co-stars. Overall, criticisms are few with such bravely measured work, and “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” succeeds at moving this tale of discord and leadership along, continuing to refuse the invitation to mimic the narrative path of the original series.

In a welcome surprise, and unlike most summer movies, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes gets better the more you think about it, and it can linger; the human characters and ape characters are all capable of strength and weakness, good and bad. And like all great science fiction, this one has a moral core and important topic under the action and the acting: Why do we fight? Smart, strong and as morally intriguing as it is physically propulsive, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes somehow turns what might have been a lazy reboot of yesterday's camp 'classics' into vital, exciting and resonant movie making for our time. Not only the best film of the summer, but surprisingly one of the best of the year.


DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES © 2014 WARNER BROS PICTURES
All Rights Reserved

Review © 2014 Alternate Reality, Inc.

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