Is Dawn of the Planet of the Apes the best movie of the year so far? Yep! Is it the best sci-fi movie to be released since the epic 2009 movie Avatar? Yep! Is it the best sci-fi movie of all time, second only to Avatar? Yep! (ok, that’s enough of that.)
The level of realism of the apes in this movie hits you like a smack in the mouth. I personally suspect Matt Reeves has actually trained monkeys to speak at some point in time and given them acting lessons. I can hardly bring myself to believe these incredibly complex eerily real-looking creatures are mere pixels within a computer. Seriously, these monkeys appear to have actual souls. Their eyes convey a depth of emotion never before seen in CGI characters. I thought the first movie had superb effects, but this amazing sequel ramps up the CGI to a whole different level! This movie does not represent a mere increment in special effects so much as a full-blown quantum leap. One that should hopefully set the precedent for future film makers.
Read pretty much any review of this movie and you quickly realize this is not your typically dumb summer blockbuster movie. This Simian vs. Sapien movie has an intelligent and character driven plot, something that is quite rare with big budget movies since film studios are often prone to believe they need to make a relatively stupid film in order to appeal to a sufficiently wide demographic to get their money back.
Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy big dumb-ass movies. My most recent excursion to the cinema prior to watching Dawn of the Apes was when I went to see Transformers: Age of Extinction. I have no prejudice about such movies. They are dumb and you know in advance they are going to be dumb. You only go out your way to watch a Michael Bay movie if you want visual spectacle alone. You know he will deliver this one thing by the bucket-full. You simply won’t expect anything else. Or get it either. The only sign of competent acting in any Transformers movie is the actors/actresses abilities to keep a straight face whilst delivering some of their many zany lines. (The actor behind Frasier Crane features in this latest Transformers movie and most impressively keeps a totally straight face whilst delivering lines such as “the original Bumble Bee was inferior in every way, but alas, is now a force to be reckoned with.”)
This is not an inherently bad thing. You don’t see a movie such as Transformers to be intellectually stimulated anymore than you go to see a fireworks display to be mentally stimulated. No. You go for the visual spectacle alone. Michael Bay’s raison d’être for being on the planet is to make Transformers movies. End of. He was created by god for this one reason alone. And his sole purpose for making any Transformer sequel is to make it bigger and louder than its predecessor (so far so good!) You have about two minutes of dialogue at the start of a typical Transformers movie after which a big badass Decepticon robot suddenly soars onto the screen like a f@*k rocket and destroying pretty much the entire planet. (Spoiler!)
Having said all this it is still nice once in a while to have a big-budget effects movie which also possesses intelligence. And this is where Dawn of the Apes comes in. Dawn of the Apes delivers both spectacle and intelligent scripting by the bucket-full, the layered and complex plot subduing even the most egg-headed of critical reviewers (even those egg-heads from the Guardian newspaper!)
Ape films are ripe for metaphor, something that Matt Reeves has exploited to the full in this latest planet of the apes movie. There is certainly no shortage of speculation as to what social/political commentary is going on behind the scenes (gun control being a common claim). One thing is clear however. The nuanced nature of the two opposing camps makes it difficult to identify one or the other side as being good or evil. You don’t find yourself rooting for any side in particular. The only thing you end up rooting for is a chance for peace (quite a rarity with these kinds of movies as most audiences just want to see a good arse kicking). There are rational level-headed individuals on both sides trying to avoid violent conflict. But it is not to be! A series of unfortunate (and somewhat contrived) events coupled with disproportionate responses from some mentally unstable characters from both sides eventually results in all out war. This is not an easy aspect of the film to watch as it is clear from the outset that this unfortunate and tragic situation is entirely preventable.
Mutual fear is depicted as being the primary driving force behind the cascade of events leading to conflict. Both sides contain individuals who stereotype the other species, believing them to be inherently bad and dangerous, and never to be trusted. The reality is that neither side (on the whole) wants anything more than to just survive and co-exist with the other species. But a few bad apples of both sides mucks it all up. Whilst some individuals oppose the warring actions of their respective leaders and stand up to them, many others are only too willing to obey their leaders out of fear of the consequences to themselves, or simply because they buy into the consensus view of their society (remind you of anything!)
This is not an uplifting or feel-good movie in any sense. Whether intentional or not (and it is almost certainly intentional) there is overt social and political commentary going on within this movie (and about on the same level of subtlety as it was in the epic James Cameron movie Avatar). Parallels to real world events are clearly evident. I don’t wish to be specific here as I don’t want this review to turn into a political statement. But you will see for yourself when you watch the movie.
Generally the most visually stunning aspect of the movie is when we get the close up scenes of the apes faces. Their intricate CGI mugs manage to convey a range of emotions normally associated with human people. It is an extraordinary feat! The motion capture technology is utilized like never before in this astounding film. I never believed someone ought to get an Oscar for their ability to pull faces, but my view has changed on this. Andy Serkis, the real life actor behind the motion capture of Caesar, delivers his most powerful performance yet as the pixel pusher behind the facial expressions of Caesar. For me, one of the most memorable scenes in Rise of the Apes was when Caesar was abandoned in the monkey sanctuary by his disempowered owner Will Rodman (James Franco). There is a roughly five to ten second scene where the young Caesar presses his tormented face against the glass partition in a desperate attempt to appeal to his owner to release him, not understanding that his former owner has no control over the situation. It is at this point you begin to realize the true potential of the underlying motion capture technology. And seeing this second movie confirms the fact that this harrowing and emotive scene was a sign of things to come for films utilizing motion capture.
In an effort to promote a visceral feel to the film the director chose to shoot in real locations rather than in front of a blue screen. This has not previously been done using motion capture technology. Matt Reeves dragged the entire cast of the movie out to the Vancouver Island rain-forest, along with all the technological paraphernalia, and made them act in a real life location (how quaint!), undeterred by the adverse weather conditions and all the soggy cameras. He then shot off to Weta Digital (the New Zealand based effects company responsible for most of the CGI in Avatar) and commissioned them to produce effects the likes of which has never been seen before on the big screen. And boy did they deliver!
This film has deservedly received widespread critical acclaim from all quarters of the film-critic world for its amazing visual effects and existence of an actual plot. The end result is so impressive in fact that Matt Reeve’s film company signed him up to direct the sequel before he could say “cheque please”.
If you leave the cinema and find yourself not to have been emotionally impacted by this movie then you will probably need to check your pulse to see that you are still alive.
Don’t be like some people who prefer to watch this movie in 2D just to save a couple of pounds! There is no justification for such thriftiness! Pay the full whack and deservedly enjoy the visceral, absorbing and immersive experience that is Dawn of the planet of the Apes in full 3D!