Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

"Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" surprised me. While i enjoyed "Rise", I was expecting a more straightforward sequel that focused on conflict. I expected to see Caesar lead his tribe of apes into war. I didn't expect much from this movie, but then the word spread of how remarkable this film was. I was happy to find "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" to be a sequel that outshines its predecessor. 

Warning" This is a spoiler-filled post on "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes". If you haven't seen it yet, turn back now.

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”Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” may not have been the most fun that I've had the movies this year, but I don't know if I’ve been told a better story. This is a more advanced movie than typical Summer fare, it’s evolved (sorry, it just came out that way). After a steady diet of superheroes, giant robots, and monsters, I wouldn’t expect the apes to keep the excitement level at the same height. This movies is complex. When you start to recall the emotions that you had throughout this movie, from the fascination with the ape civilization, the empathy for the humans who have lost so much, the desire for both to find peace, and the sinking realization that peace just won’t work. “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” has a quite a range. It seems rare that our summer films contain such substance. “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” presents us with complex characters and asks us to think about whether peace is truly achievable. 

The Villian

Just who are the villains of this movie? On paper, perhaps the apes, a threat to our human species. If you've seen this movie, you know that's not true. Most of us spent the movie with conflicted feelings about the human characters. Of course, that's what a “Planet of the Apes” movie can do. We are shown a twisted mirror image of ourselves.  We see a different perspective in how we can treat ourselves, how we treat others. You could say the Koba is the villain. But it's not as simple as that. Koba had a point. Koba’s motivations became clearer as the movie went on (leadership through lies and fear is usually a bad choice), but he uncovered the humans’ potential to wipe them out. From what we've seen of human nature and the desperate state of humanity in this film, I'm not so sure Koba was that far off. 

On the other hand, its not so easy to point to a human villain either. It would have been easy for Gary Oldman to play an unlikable extremist who pointed to the apes as a scapegoat, but that was not the character we saw. We could identify with a leader of a human tribe that was on the brink of collapse. It was clear that he was just trying to do what we could to help others survive. He seemed to be a good leader. Like Koba, he had a point. 

Its not so easy to classify these characters. Loyalist or traitor, hero or villain, human or ape. These labels have lots of meaning behind them, but they keep changing throughout the movie. It was fascinating to watch as Caesar came to terms with the notion that apes were not above the negative actions he had seen in humans. Hard as he tried to instill a strong culture where “Ape must not kill ape”, Koba complicated things. Like our human world, the apes world is filled with shades of gray. These characters, ape and human, had complex motivations; which made for interesting decisions. 

What is a human performance?

We've seen this coming for years. The predecessor of this movie helped to blur the lines between human and computer performance. “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” contained another remarkable performance by Andy Serkis is Ceasar. There was a movement to have him nominated for Academy Award for his acting. That was not to be. We can debate that decision another time, but the progression of motion capture has caused me to think about what qualifies as a human performance. While all the actors who played apes did a remarkable job (they are all different, and Tony Kebbell as Koba is fantastic), it is Serkis’ complex performance as the leader of the apes that makes or breaks this movie. He gets top billing for a reason. The range of emotions that he displays, while remaining true to the animal displaying them, is beyond anything that we've seen before. At what point do we recognize all the work that is done that is still represented on screen, but with just a little more makeup? Serkis was on location, making the movements, providing the voice, as well as well as the expression. It's becoming harder and harder to define a human performance. 

Then again, I'm not sure this debate over motion caption really matters. I could even see that as an indirect message of this movie. “Dawn” examines the boundaries of what constitutes one label versus another, exposing that some things are just too hard to classify. Perhaps we just have to decide out how important defining the “human” part of acting is, and whether or not that matters. I'm asking a question about how this movie can be awarded. The trappings of the movie business are far less important than the art itself. 

Instead, what really matters is the work that Andy Serkis done over the last 15 years or so. He has elevated his motion capture work into an art form. He's the only publicly recognizable name of the business; and has likely inspired a whole generation of artists who will follow him. He is not unlike voice actors we have the pleasure of hearing today. Serkis, and the thousands of digital animators who have supported him, surely continue to inspire leagues of other aspiring digital animators. There are no limits as to what stories we can tell anymore. We are filming the “unfilmable”, just not always on physical film. Our digital tools have advanced us to a place that we can do so much more, and now it looks just as natural. Suspension of disbelief is not that hard these days. You really have to look to see any seams in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”, and “Dawn” seems flawless. The art is continuing to improve, beyond where it feels that we need improvement. This may look flawed 10 to 15 years, when we can see from the new lens; but its hard to see anything wrong from the first viewing. The acting and the work of the effects artists are just that good.

Closing

“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is being noticed as one of the best films of 2014, and for good reason. The suburb acting is a strength of this movie. I’ll repeat: one of the strengths of this movie filled with talking apes is the acting. We haven't even talked about Jason Clarke’s great work (who I want to see more of). “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” tells the story that resonates. It tells a story about ourselves in a way that science fiction does best. The changes a few details of our lives around, swapping out people with apes, shows us back how human nature can work. It shows us how we can act when pushed to the brink. Matt Reeves gives us a lot to think about, a lot to chew on. That is the strength of the “Planet of the Apes” series.

The end of the movie is very fitting. Nothing is resolved, then we're left with a number of questions. What about humans that are coming in? Where will the apes go? What will Cesaar do next? As you look into his eyes, you see this Caesar has the exact same questions. I can't wait to see the next installment