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Movie Review: 'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes' (2014) Directed by Matt Reeves

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During medical experiments on apes at the GenSys Corporation, scientists unwittingly create a deadly virus. The “Simian Flu” quickly spreads across the globe, wiping out almost all of humanity. While the hyper-intelligent, escaped test monkeys create their own community in the Muir Woods, the remnants of the human population attempt to thrive in the industrial wastelands of once-grand cities. Years pass with no contact between the two species, allowing Caesar (Andy Serkis), the leader of the apes, to assume their primate relatives have long since become extinct. But when a small band of humans are discovered near the ape village, Caesar sends Koba (Toby Kebbell) to follow them back to their settlement.

In a show of force, the intrepid simian commander confronts the humans at their stronghold in San Francisco and warns them never to trespass on the apes’ territory again. But altruistic Malcolm (Jason Clarke), along with his girlfriend Ellie (Keri Russell) and his son Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee), knows the humans’ desperate need for a new power source and returns to the forest to beseech Caesar to permit them to repair a dam just beyond the apes’ home. A shaky alliance is formed until Koba, distrustful and embittered by his treatment while in captivity, threatens to create a disastrous war between man and ape.

For the first time in the history of the “Planet of the Apes” franchise, the apes are believable when they talk. Finally, the special effects have reached the point that the non-human characters are just as realistic as their counterparts, conducting activities ranging from riding horses to shooting machineguns to communicating through facial expressions. In fact, as evidenced by the lack of big-name cast members, the apes are far and away the stars of the show – and for once, that’s quite acceptable. The computer graphics are simply electrifying and seamlessly integrated into the tangible elements to a degree eclipsing just about every other effects-heavy blockbuster of late.

Comparable to “King Kong” with bits of “Jurassic Park” and “Avatar” blended into the tone and feel, this new adventure is a heart-pounding thrill ride from start to finish. It’s undoubtedly overlong, but there’s so much story carefully worked into the script that the runtime never bores. Satisfyingly, the previous film has little impact on the setup (which is reiterated briefly before the title is flashed onscreen), imparting just enough of a premise that “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” can jump straight into the action without being bogged down by exposition. Humanity is thrown into a post-apocalyptic, ramshackle environment, while the simians have thrived in the dense jungles, creating a comparably primitive civilization in isolation. It’s a delicate balance that is tipped by predictable yet amusing factors.

Like most great science-fiction/horror designs, moral complexities balance out the evils that descend upon the heroes. Here, there are not only two sides of protagonists, but also two types of antagonists. Where uninformed, defensive, self-centered people stir up trouble, their equals exist in the realm of the monkeys, ready to engage in very humanlike struggles for power and respect while harboring notions of deception and betrayal. Perhaps a comment on the ineffectiveness of communication amongst warmongering militarists exists in this world of dubiously opposing species, but it’s the clever cinematography (bookending with contemplative imagery, duplicating video game perspectives, and framing characters with fiery visuals), awe-inspiring sets, and motion-capture performer Andy Serkis’ spot-on enactment that will leave audiences stunned. Though it may be a single component to a larger picture (it’s the second part, but practically holds its own as a first), which will likely see director Matt Reeves return to finish off the tale, it’s wholly enjoyable all by itself.

- The Massie Twins (GoneWithTheTwins.com)

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