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All Hail Caesar – Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

July 11, 2014

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  1. Much has been made about the motion-capture acting of Andy Serkis, who’s made a name for himself in a brand of performance that didn’t really exist until fifteen or so years ago. I think sometimes he gets a tad too much credit, because if it weren’t for the unsung animators hunched over their computer consoles, he’d be a dancing idiot with little dots all over his face and body. But whoever should be credited, they deserve it, as Caesar is now one of the most richly realized characters the silver screen has held in years. Seriously. As I was watching the plot unspool, I kept trying to think of any other characters with as many dimensions to them. Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood was the only comparable I could come up with, and this isn’t hyperbole. You have to remind yourself that it’s a collection of pixels you’re seeing up there in front of you, that this isn’t a living, breathing creature who leads, smolders and feels fear and love. There’s so much going on inside that hairy skull of his, and you can read every bit of it in his delicately crafted expressions. You want him to be in frame every second of the two-plus hours. This is a very, very good thing. (And this is also conversely a sad comment on the general state of movies and movie stardom.)
  2. Indeed, all the apes are compelling, especially those returning from the previous film. There’s Koba, the former lab ape who feels loyalty to Caesar for rescuing him from that living hell, but who harbors a cancerous hatred of humans because of his plight. There’s Maurice, the huge, kindly orangutan who’s Caesar’s closest friend and adviser. (In one early scene they sit and talk — through sign language — so naturally that you almost expect them to crack open beers.) And there’s Blue Eyes, Caesar’s son who wants to make his father proud but who falls into some dubious allegiances along the way. All of them shine, especially Koba, who has the most arc of any, going from risking his own life to save Caesar’s to staging his own version of the Reichstag fire.
  3. The human cast — well, they try, but they’re saddled with the usual rote stock characters. Trigger-happy lunatic who doesn’t trust apes? Check. Good scientist (Jason Clarke)? Check. Good doctor lady who there to conveniently heal the sick and who lost a daughter to the simian flu and we’re supposed to care (Keri Russell)? Check. Kid (Kodi Smit-McPhee)? Check. There’s nothing offensive about any of them (well, maybe the paint-by-numbers stupidity of the trigger-happy guy), but they don’t have a whole hell of a lot to do, and the movie drags when they’re the only ones onscreen. Even Gary Oldman, as the leader of the San Francisco survivors, is left without much to chew on, and it feels like he’s playing Jim Gordon of the post-apocalypse. But it wouldn’t be much of a Planet of the Apes movie if there weren’t people in it, so we have apes and humans developing a frail truce so that the humans can get power from a dam generator on ape ground — and off we go.
  4. Up until we meet the first human the film is sans dialogue, as we get a glimpse of the everyday sign language the apes have developed (speech is reserved, like your fine silver, for special occasions) and the elementary society they’ve developed in their enclave outside San Francisco. It’s Quest for Fire, but with apes. And a budget.
  5. Many are going to go to see this for the action, and they won’t be disappointed. The main battle between man and ape is violent and fiery, and filled with the preposterous shenanigans that only a fight with apes carrying guns while riding horses can provide. A cache of FEMA weapons that’s meant to be a safeguard against an ape attack is commandeered and used against a human bastion in San Francisco — yes, this is bad. There’s a unique element of terror with all the ape violence, as there’s something simultaneously charming and horrifying about our nearest primate cousins — just ask that lady who had her face ripped off by a chimp. But this is one of those movies where the characters are actually more compelling than any bangs and booms. The ape characters, that is.
  6. Director Matt Reeves burst onto the scene six years ago with the over-hyped but still effective Cloverfield, a standard for the found footage genre. Here he makes a science-fiction action extravaganza with a brain and a heart and a soul. These are some big credits on the curriculum vitae. Keep doing what you’re doing, Matt.

The only thing holding this movie back from rocketing into the stratosphere is the wet powder of the non-CGI cast. They try, and Malcolm, the good scientist, has some fine scenes with Caesar, but the tension derails a bit when we’re forced to care about their backstories. Make no mistake though, the apes run this show, and make it special. I’ve seen people call this an Empire Strikes Back level sequel. They’re not wrong. If you like your popcorn flicks with a bit of depth to go along with the extra butter, don’t miss it.

Four big red baboon butts out of five.

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