The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

One of the most frequent accusations against the major studios is that they're making movies that are increasingly stupid and bereft of anything legitimately challenging. The theory is that mainstream movies are all mindless mayhem, and little else. It's hard to disagree with that assessment when you're watching something like Transformers: Age of Extinction. The truth, however, is that there are plenty of people in Hollywood who still want to make commercial movies that are smart and ambitious in scope. Some of them have made Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, a sequel that could have coasted on the success of its predecessor but instead builds on its ideas.

Directed by Matt Reeves (Let Me In, Cloverfield), Dawn begins a decade after Rise of the Planet of the Apes ends. A simian virus has wiped out most of mankind. Only a handful of humans survive. The apes, on the other hand, have prospered. Led by Caesar (outstandingly played by Andy Sirkis via motion capture), they are able to speak, and they have created their own society out in the woods. They don't know humans still exist until a group of them stumble through their domain. One of them, Malcolm (Jason Clarke), explains to the distrustful apes that they need to repair a nearby dam so the survivors in their camp can have electricity and, consequently, a chance at sustaining life. Caesar reluctantly allows the small group, which also includes a CDC scientist (Keri Russell), passage. A fellow ape, Koba, thinks it's all part of a trap and encourages Caesar to declare war against the humans before they can do any harm. There's someone like that on the human side, too. He is Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), the leader of the camp, who blames the apes for the virus that eradicated his family and many others. Dreyfus believes the sooner the apes are gone, the better everything will be. Malcolm and Caesar attempt to negotiate a truce in the midst of this perilous situation.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the most insightful, engaging political movie to come around in a long time. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see parallels between the film's plot and current events in the Middle East (the dam can be viewed as a metaphor for oil) and North Korea (a nation that may be interested in “preemptively” striking us, much like Koba wants to strike the people and Dreyfus wants to strike the apes). The screenplay by Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, and Mark Bomback goes into a lot of detail showing how there are different human and simian philosophies at work, often clashing with each other. The ape end of that equation is especially interesting, as Caesar has to decide whether it's worth the risk to trust the humans, and whether he can live with himself if he makes the wrong choice. While there are a number of exciting action sequences in Dawn, particularly one in the final twenty minutes, the most thrilling moments involve characters attempting to see their way through a situation fraught with danger, continually weighing the potential consequences.

The characters are very well-developed, the apes slightly more so than the humans. But they're also the central figures here, so it makes sense. Aside from the screenplay, the big reason they are so fascinating is that the CGI is thoroughly convincing. The motion capture process that allows actors to be digitally converted into apes has improved vastly since the last movie. You completely forget you're watching CGI creations. They look so real and convey so much emotion that it stops being an illusion and becomes a reality unfolding on the screen in front of you. Yes, the effects are that good. I kept thinking about how much fun it would be to take Dawn in a time machine back to, say, the 1950's. If you showed it to someone from that era, they'd panic, thinking that apes really had evolved to this point.

As mentioned, a couple of the human characters, most notably Malcolm's son Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee), should have been fleshed out more. The only other thing that didn't quite work for me is that the story wimps out on what is perhaps its most intriguing plot development. Something happens that reflects the cold, hard realities of ideological warfare the movie is attempting to portray, but it doesn't stick. I understand why they don't follow through with it, but there was also another way the story could have gotten where it wants to go while letting this event stand. Keeping it in would have made Dawn of the Planet of the Apes even more ambitious than it already is.

Regardless, this is an intelligent, thoughtful, entertaining movie that's also a lot of fun. And by nature of its complex themes, it sets a path that will require future sequels to be just as probing. The best sci-fi pictures are always the ones that are really about where we are as a society. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes has its finger right on that pulse.

( 1/2 out of four)

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief strong language. The running time is 2 hours and 10 minutes.

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