On Review: 'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes'

Editor's Note: This monthly installment of movie reviews by Spirit employees Matt Triponey and Dan Long rates Dawn of The Planet of the Apes.

Plot: Ten years after the events of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, war
brews between the fledgling ape colony and the last survivors of the human race.

I should clarify that my semi-regular objections to franchise filmmaking don't stem solely from a desire for something a bit more novel, though that can certainly be a component. My problem is that our commitment to franchises has slowly become a commitment to the status quo; as a result, we're telling story after story after story where it feels like nothing matters.

But if more studios do what Planet of the Apes is doing, I'll stop
complaining entirely.

I'll be honest — I admired Rise of the Planet of the Apes more for its ambition than what it actually accomplished. It was definitely trying to be something more than your everyday safe reboot, but it's still fairly dry, like a staged reenactment of a piece of history that never actually happened.

Fortunately, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes gave me the best of both worlds: ambition and execution. It's such a substantial improvement over its predecessor that the two films barely even belong in the same sentence. In one jump, this franchise went from mediocre to, arguably, great.

And how? Well, by actually telling a story — a story with actual stakes and actual thematic implications on which it follows through, a character-driven science fiction fable that follows its storylines to their most natural conclusion, regardless of whether or not that takes it into dangerous territory.

And it does that really, really well.

I'm trying to remember the last time I saw a big-budget blockbuster, particularly one based on a pre-existing property, where I felt that absolutely no character, right down to the protagonist, was safe, where I found myself left with next to no idea exactly how the story would conclude.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes truly feels like a piece of a larger saga — one that knows where it's going and is budgeting its time well in getting there. It's an event movie that actually feels like an event.

And better still, it's restoring its franchise to its hard science fiction roots, using an outlandish premise to reflect our daily realities. This particular entry explores war, diplomacy, territorialism, governance and so on.

What's especially fascinating about it is its resistance to having an explicit good guy or bad guy. It doesn't take sides in the war between humans and apes; both have legitimate claims and a right to exist. There are good and bad "people" on each side of the fence, and even then, none of them are wholly one way or another. The character who comes closest to being an outright villain has such a complex series of justifications that he starts to transcend blockbuster filmmaking almost entirely; he's a startlingly complex individual.

Dawn develops its characters and situations well enough that when it reaches its climax, the weight of the event is more deeply felt than in other, similar movies. That is to say, what happens actually matters, both in the story sense and to the audience.

Sure — every now and then, it seems to skip a few steps developmentally, hurrying a character down his or her path a little more quickly than it should have. And it does borrow the main weakness of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, in that the human characters are still pretty dull — here, a problem that I attribute more to the skin-deep performances than to the writing.

Nevertheless, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is smart and engaging science fiction, and even if it doesn't end up being one of the best films of the year, it'll certainly be one of the best large-scale spectacles.

Rating out of 5: 4

DVD Recommendation of the Month: If you want to see Nicolas Cage in a good movie, Joe is likely to be your only opportunity for around another decade or so. He actually delivers a fairly measured and subtle performance by his usual standards, in a film that proves to be surprisingly complex and says some unique things about intergenerational anxieties. It's well worth seeing.

For more from Matt, check out his website: http://writersblockparade.wordpress.com.

— By Matt Triponey

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Whenever I first saw the trailers for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (DPA) I was not very excited to see the film, given the lackluster prequel — Rise of the Planet of the Apes (RPA).

After DPA’s release though, the stellar reviews started pouring in, and I was once again intrigued to see a Planet of the Apes film.

After watching all 131 boring minutes of DPA, I was dumbfounded as to why this film is receiving such praise. It is better than RPA? I guess, but that’s not saying much.

As mentioned, my biggest issue with the film was that it bored me. DPA spends so much time building tension, and it still doesn’t pay off.

My biggest issue with RPA was that it built toward the inevitable Apes vs. Humans showdown, and the film ends right at the part that you waited the entire time to see.

I can say that DPA still doesn’t deliver on this. There is a small battle between the Apes and Humans, but it is certainly not the scene you waited through two films to see.

DPA makes no effort to stand on its own feet and is clearly just a chapter to hold you over until the next unwatchable Planet of the Apes film releases.

The one battle scene was poorly contrived anyway. I accepted the outlandish premise of Apes riding horses and shooting machine guns, but what bothered me was that they didn’t utilized any of the advantages of apes in the battle.

There were few shots of the apes climbing up the buildings to use the advantage their species has, and the magnitude of group was not shown either. The apes greatly outnumbered the humans, but that did not factor into the battle scene at all. The battle scene simply boiled down to humans fighting hairier humans.

Many of the reviews out there say that DPA has some sort of emotional complexity to it, but it is simply not true. The structure boils down to one ape that likes humans because one was nice to him, and the other is not fond of humans because they keep apes in cages. It all comes down to a clichéd power struggle.

Another issue I had was the lack of scope in DPA. For a film that has Planet in the title, you would think it would encompass a much larger area, but no, it is confined to San Francisco and a nearby forest.

The film has a heavy focus on the apes this time around, which is fine because the human characters are completely underdeveloped, as they are given minimal back story.

Did I hate everything about DPA? Just about.

The few positives were the film had solid special effects, and the apes were very distinguishable and had their own personality. The relationship between Caesar and Malcolm is interesting, but all this can’t make up for a film that has so little going for it.

I am beyond perplexed as to why this movie is getting good reviews.

Maybe I’m crazy, or maybe nobody wants to admit that the Emperor, much like the apes in the film, isn’t wearing any clothes.

I give Dawn of the Planet of the Apes a 1.5 out of 5, and I promise to not waste my time on its sequel.

Rating: 1.5

For my final movie suggestion, I recommend that everyone watch my favorite western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, with my man Jimmy Stewart and the Duke.

I hope everyone will continue to follow my comedic antics on Dan Long Comedy on Facebook.

— By Dan Long