Film of the year? Well, if it isn’t, its awfully close, and off the top of my head I can’t recall another film from this year that has impressed me quite as much as this remarkable film. Ladies and gentlemen, here is that rarest of beasts- the thoughtful, intelligent summer blockbuster. Sure, some people may point negatively at elements of the plot or some minor superficial characterisation, but that’s surely nit-picking. On the whole this is a fantastic movie, an example of high production values and magical effects married to an intelligent and nuanced script, a combination that raises it high above most genre offerings. I’d heard it was good, but I wasn’t prepared for just how good this is*.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes begins with a prologue that largely recaps the first films finale, with the Apes on the loose and the ALZ-113 virus wreaking havoc as it spreads across the world. The film then shows us the state of the Ape colony ten years after that prologue, and its already clear that the effects technology has moved on from that of the first film. Its really utterly magical and breathtaking watching these ape characters come to vivid life, and its evident that this is a film impossible just a few years ago (some of the CGI here is so beautifully crafted and rendered that afterwards I had to pause some shots just to marvel at the detail). We stay with the apes for some time and even the apes begin to wonder what has happened to the humans. Soon after two apes wandering in the woods happen across a human who panics and shoots one of them, nearly triggering an all-out conflict when the apes rush in on the small party of humans that have ventured into the woods. Its a microcosm of the movie; the suspicion and fear between ape and human and the precipice of bloody conflict. The humans retreat back to the ruins of San Francisco and we witness how far they have fallen, we learn how desperate humanity’s few survivors are.
Knowing the overall arc of the original Apes film series, its obvious that things won’t end well for humanity. The clever thing about Dawn is that it shows that there was a chance, albeit slim, that things might have gone differently here. While there is a dark undercurrent of inevitable doom it is nonetheless countered by hope of forgiveness and reconciliation: the moment, say, when Malcolm’s artistic son shares a book with the ape Maurice and we glimpse of a peaceful co-existence that might have been. The complexity (such as it is in a Hollywood blockbuster) in this film, is that it is not just the (predictable?) evil of humanity (albeit born by desperation) at fault, but also that of the Apes. And even here things aren’t as one-dimensional as they might have been. What might have been a poorly written ‘bad’ human, the engineer Carver (Kirk Acevedo), is here rather more nuanced- here is a man mourning for his lost life using the apes as a scapegoat/figure of blame. Likewise the ape Korba, who rebels against Caesar and instigates the eventual bloodletting between ape and human, is clearly traumatised by years of captivity and experimentation at the hands of human scientists. Korba isn’t evil, he just can’t forgive the humans what they did or trust they won’t do it again in the future. There is no real black and white here, rather welcome shades of grey. Indeed, even the noble Caesar has to admit that the humans and apes are far more alike than he had expected, his only mistake being that he thought that apes were better than the humans. Events spiral towards the war between ape and human that will no doubt be depicted in the next film.
I loved how so much of this film, particularly when it moves to the forest-infested ruins of San Francisco, harkens back to some of the wonderful imagery of 1960s and 1970s science-fiction films- particularly the original Apes films and Logans Run‘s ruined world outside its futuristic domes. There is a clear lineage of past films here in this dystopian future, with a sophistication impossible back when those films were made. There is such a strange and yet familiar beauty to the desolation, but the real beauty of Dawn is that it doesn’t simply rely on advances in effects wizardry- it has a clever and nuanced script and wonderful acting, particularly (and remarkably so) in the motion-captured characters.
So much just ‘clicks’ and feels so right in this film, its almost a revelation. Its curious to consider that this is ‘just’ a Hollywood summer blockbuster that might well have been just a dumb action romp with humans battling CGI apes in elaborate idiotic set-pieces. Often I watch flawed films and wonder what might have been- its a pleasant change seeing a good film and wondering at how bad it might otherwise have turned out to be. I’m not suggesting for a moment that this film is perfect. If I had to point towards any fault at the film, well, I’d liked to have seen a little more of the human society. As it is, the sense of loss and grief has to be conveyed in short moments, such as the poignant scene when Gary Oldman’s character, Dreyfus, manages to access old photographs of his wife and children, his old life that he has lost and is over-ridden by grief. It is so easy for that grief to turn to hate. What do you do at the End Of The World? You can empathise with some of the hatred, understand the causes for some of the ill-judged actions of both human and ape. Its all part of the inevitability, the remorseless movement towards disaster as one civilization falls and another rises. Its a very good film and one of the best summer blockbusters I’ve seen.
And yes, so many subtitles in a summer blockbuster- so those snotty kids that blockbusters are usually aimed at can actually read, eh? Who’d have thought it….
*I just wonder if this will be The Empire Strikes Back of the eventual Apes trilogy? It develops the premise set up in Rise and largely sets up events for the as yet un-named third entry, but is such a leap forwards for the series, and suffused with such a sense of dark inevitability, that I often thought back to TESB. Its even manages that clever trick of TESB that so many ‘middle’ films fail at- its got a very satisfying cliffhanger ending; I am eager to see what happens next and yet completely satisfied with what I have just seen- yes, certainly more TESB than Desolation of Smaug territory here.