Much more than going ape

BY MATTHEW BYRD | JULY 17, 2014 5:00 AM

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Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
4.5 out of 5 Stars

What made 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes better than expected was that its primary motivation was not seeing apes tear apart their puny human counterparts but rather, seeing why those apes and humans got to tearing each other apart in the first place. And, much to its benefit, that clever little conceit has transmuted itself into the sequel, the perfectly loquaciously titled Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

We enter 10 years after the conclusion of the last film. A botched anti-Alzheimer medication has led to hyper-intelligent apes that make their homes in the redwood forests of Northern California. They learn to read and write, gather food, build humble abodes, fall in love, and create families with one another. The apes are even beginning to transition from sign language to speech; they’re a civilization on the rise.

Across the bay, the humans in San Francisco are headed in the opposite direction. A virus derived from medication that made the apes pipe up has decimated humanity’s numbers and infrastructure, leaving only a few thousand to try to rebuild.

This is made much more difficult because the gas power is running out. There’s a dam that can feed hydroelectric power into the city, but it’s in the woods. With the apes.

The fascinating thing about Apes, is that, in a normal blockbuster, this would be a simple black and white moral conflict. Think Brody vs. the Shark in Jaws or Harry Potter vs. Voldemort. We root for the good guys and want the bad ones to bite it.

Apes, however, is basically anchored in four main ideological viewpoints. There is Caesar (Andy Serkis), the Mandela-esque leader of the Simians who seeks a détente with the humans, knowing a war would end up with as many dead apes as it would dead humans. There is the human scientist Malcolm (Jason Clarke), who sees the apes as equals to humans and also feels allying with them will get the power up and running sooner rather than later.

Then you have Koba (Toby Kebbel), Caesar’s horrifically scarred right-hand man, whose torture at the hands of human scientists has made him hate and distrust Homo sapiens. He believes the apes must crush the humans before they get powerful enough to do the same to his kind. Rounding out the quartet is the ex-military man Dreyfus (Gary Oldman). To him, the apes are animals, standing in the way of his hope for a return to normalcy. If they won’t give him his power plant, he’ll walk on a path of ape bones right to it.

Rather than take sides in an easy-to-understand conflict, screenwriters Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver have decided to upend the normal structure of a big-budget action film to present what is essentially a mediation on diplomacy and politics. No view is seen as wholly moral or unreasonable. While certainly not equal, by the end of the film, you get a sense of where everyone comes from, how they all see the world, and why the actions they take make sense in this time and place. That level of understanding is impressive in an indie film about domestic conflict, much less a $170 million action movie.

Speaking of that action, it’s impeccably directed. Avoiding the manic camera that jerks around like a ragdoll (which seems to define modern blockbusters), director Matt Reeves lets us sit and watch the duels between man and ape. We’re never lost; we always know where we are, whose shooting whom, and what just blew up. When the camera does move, it’s with purpose, to enlighten our understanding of the scale of a scene or to bolster the tension of one. There’s a shot where the camera moves along with a tank that has more power to it than a thousand cuts in a dozen other more dizzying films.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes has no right to be good; it’s yet another reboot of a classic sci-fi property, the creative team is responsible for much more traditional blockbusters such as The Wolverine, and Live Free or Die Hard, and it’s got apes with machine guns riding horses. And yet, inexplicably, Apes manages to be one of the smartest, most brilliantly constructed films of the summer. Almost as much of a miracle as making the apes talk in the first place.

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