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Review: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

An ape knees before Caesar in 'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes'
An ape knees before Caesar in 'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes'
Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Hey Hollywood, it’s me. My name is Brian Zitzelman. I’m pretty sure you don’t know me, but I know you. I’ve been contributing to your coffers for decades. Sure I’m a critic and get into a lot of your movies for free Hollywood; I also see a lot of out my own pocket too.

Now, since we aren’t exactly besties, maybe you don’t know how often I bash you. I know that talking behind your back isn’t exactly cool. Yet, what can I say, you’re a much bigger deal than me and I’m quite positive you don’t hear me when I say your product has been lazy and uninteresting 95% of the time. Bad, uninspired, cookie-cutter movies which are more processed than Taco Bell beef will make a person lose faith in the good you can do.

What I’m trying to say is this; I love you when you get it right and this whole Dawn of the Planet of the Apes thing is pretty amazing. It’s an invigorating picture that stirs up all of the goodwill and passion I’ve ever had for you. Basically, to paraphrase Tracy Jordan, the movie is so good I want to take behind the bleachers and get it pregrant.

First off, let’s discuss that opening act. Largely free of traditional dialogue, it boldly reintroduces us to this world of highly-intelligent apes ten years after mankind’s slow fall via a vicious virus called Simian Flu. Allowing director Matt Reeves and his trio of writers to dish out the details piece by piece is a terrific decision. Instead of lengthy monologues about how this society of peaceful creatures came to be, they show us. We see how the apes gather food, interact and teach. Via wordless gestures and action, Dawn shows how Caesar (Andy Serkis) has taken his amplified brainpower and become the leader of his group, while additionally hinting at the relationships he shares with his fellow ape.

Reeves make a world one just wants to absorb. With the visual effects team at WETA bringing each creature to life in a startlingly realistic manner, the creative team shapes an action film where one yearns for peace. After two years of no contact with humans, Caesar and company are confronted by us. FEMA reserves have allowed a few hundred/thousand people to resume a fairly similar life. A handful of individuals trek out to a dam that happens to be by the apes. Both are startled by the presence of the other, each unsure what they truly want or are capable of doing.

If Dawn has any issues, it’s that the humans are a tad underdeveloped. Jason Clarke, Keri Russell and Gary Oldman are amongst the homo-sapiens and each deliver fine performances; the movie only truly thrives when Caesar and his like are on screen. That screen-time is plentiful; easily the majority of the picture.

Caesar is one of the great movie characters of recent times. Brought up by loving humans in the first picture of this rebooted series, Caesar is a conflicted soul now. He has a home now, with those similar to him, along with a family and friends. The arrival of man changes it all. Many of Caesar’s fellow apes were caged and tortured by humans with no knowledge of the kindness that comes with our harsh nature. Koba (Toby Keddell), an ape that was experimented on in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, is especially distrusting. Watching Caesar wrestle with how to do with the human presence is fantastic. He has loved mankind and been beaten and caged by it. Caesar longs to protect his home, even has he frets about war and peace, knowing that each option is shaky ground upon which to walk. Serkis’ performance is heartbreaking stuff, with the motion-capture team bringing to life his conflicted, if imposing, manner; ever present on his face. His emotional twists and turns are a natural ebb-and-flow of uneasy relationships.

Really, the movie is blockbuster entertainment at its highest level; smart and invigorating. Michael Giachinno’s score knows its place, only there to bring out the undertones of a feeling and never overstaying its welcome. There is a restraint to the music that is frankly shocking for a movie of this scale in this day and age. The editing, pacing, look; the whole damn meghilla is a stunning achievement. Reeves has managed to make a movie epic in scale, intimate in presentation via its structure of strong character work.

So, Hollywood…I don’t know how long you have me for. Let us enjoy this snippet of warm fuzzies as much as we can, while we can.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes opens in Seattle tomorrow.

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