Dawn of the Planet of the Apes Review
How do we know it’s the summer in England? Well, normally weather is a sound indicator, the maelstrom of cloudy disappointment signifying ‘Great British Summer’ but this year it’s uncharacteristically too ruddy bloody hot to gauge whether summer has started or global warming has finally brought impending worldwide catastrophe so instead we’ll have to use the Mayan endorsed season signifier; cinema’s blockbuster prompted torpor.
Ah yes, summer in the cinema, a humdrum of crowd pleasers doused in a healthy dosing of CGI and material we could have sworn we saw last summer or the one before that, or even about 46 years ago in the case of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Ever since Pierre Boulle’s novel La Planète des Singes was successfully adapted in 1968 with big names Charlton Heston and Roddy McDowall the primate filled dystopian future has been a staple cult favourite of cinema; 2014 heralding the latest instalment in the franchise.
Sequel to the prequel Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (DOTPOTA) bares all the touches of finesse and predictability that comes with a summer blockbuster release, but rather than lapsing into a turgid orgy of mass destruction favoured by Michael Bay’s Transformers abominations, Matt Reeves’ monkey fest of a film is saved by the presence of eerily human like primate protagonists over robotic bores.
Following directly on from the well-crafted enjoyment of Rise of the Planet of the Apes we find earth and humanity on the brink of extinction due to the ALZ-113 virus transmitted through the extra clever renegade chimps; all this is communicated to us in that familiar style of true to life news montages in the prologue, not dissimilar to Godzilla’s opening gambit. In this new barren landscape formerly know as California, overrun with undergrowth resembling the Jurassic bygone, sit two factions of the new age- the depleted humans scavenging survival in decaying San Francisco and tribal power of the ultra-clever apes, led by head honcho chimp Caesar in the cavernous redwood forest. While the rival groups are initially blissfully unaware of each other’s existence the peace and anonymity is challenged when the humans require access to a power station deep in ape territory, what follows is an uneasy truce between the amicable leaders Malcolm (Jason Clarke) and Caesar (Andy Serkis) and sceptical lieutenants Dreyfus (Gary Oldman ) and Koba (Toby Kebbell).
The narrative dynamic bats between the two opposing groups’ tensions, collaboration and conflict dominate the script as the audience ponders whether Caesar and Malcolm’s visions for peace is viable or Koba and Dreyfus’ hope to obliterate the callous barbarians on either side is the only option. If you really read into the deep thematic quandaries posed in the film you can draw all sorts of interesting debates- does man fear, and therefore need to dominate, nature? Do humans and animals ultimately run on the same primitive urges? Is humanity self-destructive and marred by a reliance on technology? You could even extrapolate some Animal Farm-esq ape equivalent; “Ape good, man with gun bad” becoming “ape good, ape with gun better”. These discursive ruminations stemming from DOTPOTA add weight to the proceedings but they aren’t bred from clever filmmaking, rather they’re intrinsic by-products of the original story. Credit where it’s due, the production team may not have cleverly crafted these ideas but they have aired them out in the film rather than stifling them with special effects, at times the narrative irks heavily on maudlin and trite side but this is to be expected with a massive, all-encompassing audience of a summer blockbuster.
It’s an odd rarity when the animal protagonists outshine their human counterparts but here the apes are indeed top of the food chain. Ape sympathiser and human lead Jason Clarke is a forgettable bundle of flesh and sinew, lacking the star power, personality and devilishly handsome good looks of predecessor James Franco. Clarke’s Malcom is the stereotypical hero, understanding and faultless in the face of adversity and aided by a lovely nuclear family, his overly wholesome character breeds distrust and distance from the viewer. The decline of Gary Oldman into mediocrity continues in another supporting role, perfectly adequate as the human to play devil’s advocate versus the apes he fulfils his bit part with a shrug of acceptance.
In contrast to the humanoid let downs are the enduring apes; Caesar is a likeable lead who despite not being real bridges the gap between chimp and man which makes him a torn, intriguing presence. Caesar’s on screen presence is aided hugely by the ground breaking CGI, compared to the laughably camp ape men from 1968 version Caesar and co are indomitable, dark terrifying masses of power and pace that make us mere humans rather puny in comparison. These hulking animals are at their most striking when they’re seen swarming the forests in pursuit of their prey, the marauding gorillas the most daunting prospects along with the hunchback treachery of Koba, he could well be the ape answer to Richard III.
DOTPOTA doesn’t steer to far aware from the safe, well-trodden blockbuster path, what saves it is the enjoyable warmth of apes ruling the planet and the personality crafted from the CGI monkeys- seeing them charging on horseback, wielding machine guns, on course to do battle is a wonderful bit of cinematic engineering that stands out amongst several powerful scenes. The soppy music and predictable narrative are to be expected, but it’s entertaining enough and a solid blockbuster in contrast to Godzilla and Transformers– the morale of the story? Less giant robots and monsters and more human threats please. With the weather blistering hot DOTPOTA won’t be high on agendas, but when the drizzle, rain and comforting cold air swarms in apes on horseback suddenly sounds like a great draw- it’s not The Simpsons’ brilliant Planet of the Apes Musical, but what will ever be?
6/10- Solid bit of Monkey Business