Friday, July 18, 2014

Review: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Andy Serkis has become the go-to actor for motion capture performances in cinema. After playing Gollum in Lord of the Rings, King Kong and consulting on dozens of other movies, Serkis may have outdone himself in his second portrayal of Caesar, the lead ape in Matt Reeves' outstanding Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Dawn is a follow-up to 2011's reboot Rise of the Planet of the Apes and manages to outshine its excellent predecessor thanks to a quality no-frills cast and visual effects that pack an emotional punch.

I thoroughly enjoyed the first film in this reboot ape world, helmed by Rupert Wyatt and starring James Franco and Freida Pinto. Reeves (Cloverfield, Let Me In) takes the reigns of this 8th installment of the Apes franchise and easily makes the best film of the series in a rare Summer blockbuster film with an emotional core that makes the audience think about race/species relations. In a plot that picks up a few decades after the events of the Rise film, Gary Oldman, Jason Clarke and Kerri Russell lead a cast of humans that survived a pandemic and try to rebuild a civilization in San Francisco. On and expedition, they end up encountering an ape village in the woods led by Caesar himself, the ape that James Franco raised and experimented on in the earlier film. 

Caesar and his followers attempt to try to work peacefully with the humans to resolve their differences. A rogue ape named Koba, however, cannot forgive the humans for the way they experimented on apes in the past (in Rise in particular) and he eventually rivals Caesar for the leadership title of his species. Tensions build and the final third of the film is a brilliant full-scale war between man and ape.

While Clarke, Oldman, Russell and company give adequate performances, the REAL stars of this film are the computer-generated simians. The shear amazing geniuses that work at Weta Digital have done it again. They have finally perfected the motion capture process and their technical prowess is readily evident in scene after emotional scene featuring apes who are emoting and questioning their place in the world in relation to humans. We see family bonding and a sense of community that mirrors the way humans relate to one another. When Koba struggles with his decision to go against his leader, we can feel the internal challenges he is facing.  Never before have I seen such emotional weight given to digital characters in a film. Another kudo should be given to Serkis for bringing a primitive, yet purposeful voice to Caesar. I really believe Serkis should get an Academy nomination for his performance here, but I fear the Academy is still not ready to recognize this style of acting.

This movie is a near-perfect Summer action film with way more depth than one can expect from a movie released in July. Top-notch visual effects, full-scale epic battle sequences and an excellent musical score by budding composer Michael Giacchino make for a tense gripping tone throughout the film. This is one of the best effects-driven movies i've seen and a real testament to Reeves and Weta Digital for building intricate empathetic CGI beings that more than hold their own compared to their human adversaries. The film ends off with a cliffhanger of sorts and I for one can't wait until the follow-up film, which reportedly will be directed by Reeves again with a release date in 2016. 4.5 solid JRs for the best film I've seen in 2014 thus-far.

NOTE: I plan on seeing Richard Linklater's much-lauded Boyhood this evening. This film was shot over 12 years and is getting incredible buzz. Expect a full review over the weekend.

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