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Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Dir. Matt Reeves, 2014
In the first scene of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes there’s a musical cue that demonstrates the difficult balancing act in making a movie about talking apes. As a group of Apes are hunting elk, we hear a song that recalls Ligeti’s “Requiem, for Soprano” ie. that kind of creepy vocal thing from 2001 (also featured in Godzilla; so to recap: a good summer for Ligeti, a bad summer for San Franciso in Sci-Fi films). The opening sequence, of rather grotesque looking apes hunting and then fighting each other, while structurally similar to the plot of Dawn, suggests the way in which they hold a fascination to human viewers; a mix of terror and awe is conveyed in that sequence. Those feelings have never really found their way into the Planet of the Apes franchise. In large part because the makeup never quite looked realistic, but also because the apes have mostly stood in as allegorical figures for human political issues. And that’s the difficulty of the series: to make the apes human enough that we care about a movie with talking chimps and gorillas, but also strange enough that our imagination is sparked at the idea of what a simian society would look like. Dawn is the first Planet of the Apes movie to successfully portray the apes as animal, albeit fastly evolving animals, not just humans in ape (or I guess, since technically we’re apes too this shows the limitations of these kinds of terms) form.
The most immediate way director Matt Reeves achieves this is by having the apes communicate through mostly grunts and hand signals and as a result he’s made a summer blockbuster that is at least 50% subtitled. Not having the apes speak (in the series famous for “he can talk!” silence proves just as effective), even though they do at significant moments, alienates the human audience enough from them that we do not quite understand them. The fact that their hand signals are far too brief to have 1 to 1 corollaries to the subtitled phrases attributed to them, adds another layer of elusiveness to the ape-world and the way they understand their world (I could go into Derrida here, but instead just will use him as cross-reference). One payoff of this, essentially an alienation technique, is a pivotal scene in which Koba, the tortured Ape from Rise who steals the show in its sequel, plays up his ape-ishness, recalling circus and 1930’s Hollywood apes, in order to take advantage of two humans. The result is that Reeves is able to portray his apes as complex, alien, and terrifying in a way that hasn’t been conveyed in the series thus far, but makes sense given that these apes will have, if this all leads to the first film, terrorized and enslaved humanity.
That’s the other issue in the Apes films: none of them have a happy ending (save for the final film of the original series). Somehow this has been a long, rather successful series, even though each film has to end badly for human/ape relations; I mean, the series survived a second film that had one of the most depressing endings of all-time and left, literally, nothing left. I think we should remember that these new films are, at least, the second (third if you count the Burton film [let’s not]) reboot of the franchise. Escape…, perhaps my favorite of the franchise, found a clever way to reboot the series before reboot was a word. And in many ways, Dawn recalls the central concern of Escape, in that it concerns an ape family trying to sustain a home for their son. The continuation of family and the protection of a home are the two most basic storytelling devices, and Dawn has some of the most basic and ancient plot elements (I mean, his name is Caesar). So while nothing story-wise is revolutionary, the confidence of the film is that it trusts character to sustain such basic elements. The result is a sci-fi blockbuster that doesn’t feel like a sci-fi blockbuster. For a movie with groundbreaking vfx, battle scenes aren’t the concern here; in fact what should have been the climax of the film is shown in rather elliptically 2/3 of the way through. Perhaps most importantly, Reeves does something blockbusters rarely do: the pacing in the film, except for the few elements that don’t work, allows the audience to spend time with the characters and in the ape world.
Reeves did something similar in Cloverfield, elevating what was basically a viral marketing gimic into one of the better found-footage films through the relationship of his characters (here Reeves finds the sweet spot between visually compelling, the opening and closing shots are awesome, and over-active). Once again, here he elevates an apocalyptic genre film by focusing on relationships, and adding familiar but successful elements of tragedy. I thought Rise was a pretty good movie, but I didn’t love it as much as some people; the treatment of the significance of the events to screen action felt off, some of the characters didn’t work or made dumb decisions. But Dawn is superior to that film in every way and improves each of those categories. People tend to recommend genre and sci-fi films as “sci-fi for people who don’t like sci-fi,” but that seems to denigrate genre and sci-fi films, and I’m a big proponent that genre films can be as significant as “normal” movies. I think what they mean is that it privileges universal concerns above specialized interests, so fan of talking apes or not, this is a movie that demonstrates the ability of movies to engage your imagination while at the same time engaging basic qualities of existence, human or animal.
- I mentioned the Ligeti earlier, but there’s another vocal musical track during the film’s major battle scene that I found a bit overly serious and cheesy. It seems one of the unintended consequences from The Lord the Rings trilogy is that every film now thinks it needs a super-serious vocal track to let us know something super-serious is going on.
- Turns out they chose the better ending.