Friday, July 11, 2014

Review: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

When it was announced that Hollywood was rebooting Planet of the Apes, no one had any interest. No one wanted to see an action movie featuring monkeys. It looked truly stupid in Tim Burton 2001 movie and there was slim chance of improvement. But then Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes came along, and it turned out to be a surprisingly well made film. It wasn’t just an origin story, it was a layered, and at times moving film with an ape named Caesar as the (anti)hero.

And if you liked the first film, and thought there was no need of a sequel, or assumed there was no way a sequel could be any better than part one, I have five words for you: prepare to be blown away.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is an incredible, astonishing achievement. The easiest, laziest simile to describe it would be to say it is the best sequel since The Dark Knight, but it IS that. It rendered in me the same maddening, crystalline pure cinematic thrill as that movie. You don’t need to read anything else about the movie before you see it, but proceed further to know why I need Caeser’s poster and director Matt Reeves’ autograph at the earliest.  

Generally a Hollywood sequel is an attempt to steal some money from your wallet – there is little effort involved in the filmmaking and tons of money thrown in marketing. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is not that kind of a sequel. This movie was made by a bunch of ballsy people who decided to give you a special moment at the cinema.

Right from the opening scene featuring a close up shot of Caesar’s eyes, it becomes clear that this is not a standard issue action movie. It’s different in style and tone compared to its predecessor, and there is a tense, powerful surge of emotion throughout its narrative. The first fifteen minutes feature no dialogues – director Reeves weaves through the narrative smoothly, establishing that it’s been ten years since the previous film, the humans are dead, and the Apes have colonized the world. We follow Caesar’s life as the leader of the apes. We’re introduced to the other characters in his colony like his son River, his lieutenant Rocket, his advisor Koba, his friend Maurice and Rocket’s son Ash. I remember these characters and their names, because that’s how attention grabbing this film’s narrative is.  

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There is plenty of great, gritty action, but a hell of a character based journey to get to it. The script by writers Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver and Mark Bomback contains rich, emotional character development, and actual conflict between the characters. Conflict not just between the humans and apes, but between the apes themselves as well as within the humans. Every single character in the film, be it ape or human, carries weight. And the sum total of the weight falls upon the shoulders of Caesar. There is social commentary and political themes in the film garnished so well you’ll start to wonder why this movie about apes is so smart and layered. If that doesn’t shock you enough, I’ll have you know that a scene featuring a father and son ape will move you to tears. Big manly tears.

That feat would never have been possible without the insane special effects by Weta. I don’t recall the names of the humans in the film, but I can tell you what every ape in the film looks and sounds like. The motion capture is so incredibly detailed the apes exude more nuance than the human actors. When an ape character feels betrayal, or loss, or anger, or pain, you feel for the ape. Caesar’s ascension in this film is epic, to say the least. There are many shots of Caesar that feel iconic, and Andy Serkis who plays Caesar in a mocap suit gets the subtlest of simian moves dead on. Watch the behind the scenes YouTube videos of the movie and you’ll know Serkis’ performance in this film is the reason why the Academy needs to revise its rules on Oscar nominations.

The human actors are impeccably cast too – Jason Clarke feels completely natural as the bridge between the apes and the humans. Whether it’s Gary Oldman or Keri Russel or Kodi Smit-McPhee, none of the actors seem like ‘actors’, they all serve a purpose in the story and they’re embellished into the film rather than ‘acting’ in it. The terrific CGI, direction and acting are only elevated by the immersive sound design and Michael Giacchino’s haunting music that makes the dramatic scenes subtly powerful.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is better than its predecessor in every single way. It’s a truly great science fiction film, and certainly one of the best motion pictures of the year. It reminds you why you go to the theaters to see movies, and convinces you that the future of summer blockbusters is in Reeves’ good hands.

(First published in Firstpost)

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