Monday, September 7, 2015

Ape Watch: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

I had decided that for my Labor Day, I was going to watch a Planet of the Apes movie, probably the first one from 1968.  Instead, I wound up watching the recent Apes reboot reboot sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) as it started early on HBO.  A nice coincidence.

It's no secret I'm a big fan of the Planet of the Apes movies, starting with Heston.  I didn't like the Tim Burton attempt at a reboot in the slightest, but Rise of the Planet of the Apes got me back to the theater.  

The first time I saw this movie, it kind of got ruined by a drunk and/ or disorderly woman sitting behind me.  You hate to think something like that will color how you see a movie, but, boy howdy.

In the comfort of my own home, and with only Jamie and the dogs here to act drunk and disorderly, it was a lot less distracting to get through.

The movie begins after the Simian-Flu, the modern answer to the nuclear fears of the Cold War era Apes movies, has devastated humanity over the course of a decade or more.  In the forests North of the Golden Gate Bridge, the apes that escaped in the climax of Rise of the Planet of the Apes have settled and built a society.  They hunt, live in structures, communicate via sign language and seem to carry the intelligence of man.  A handy thing as "struggling with intellect versus the baser instincts of man" is the driving force of the picture.

After two years in which the apes have lived peacefully and seen no sign of a living human, they're doing all right.  Caesar's wife is giving birth to their second child, his son is growing up well even in the shadow of his father's renown, and there's peace among the apes.  A small group of humans, headed for a downed hydroelectric dam, stumbles across Caesar's people, and the familiar contempt and fear rises on both sides.  The humans are fighting for survival, the apes fighting for their first chance to prosper.

I'm a fan of sci-fi and fantasy in particular when it works as analog to our concrete world, and Planet of the Apes has embraced the role of Cassandra for almost fifty years, weaving stories about man's folly leading to his downfall and begging us to think before we follow our more fearful and destructive impulses that close the doors of opportunity.  The irony all along - of course - that the apes will become us, reflecting back at us our worse angels.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes understands the fears bred of xenophobia, of how grief and hopelessness can lead to bad decision making.  It also understands the desire to strike first, to try to ensure victory by not waiting to reciprocate the blow that will surely come - just strike first.  And the certainty of loss and chaos in that scenario as two cultures who have hold outs refuse to learn or try to understand the other as anything more than a monstrous threat.

It's funny, because for all the supposed liberal/ choking PC-ness that Hollywood gets accused of, it takes a movie like Planet of the Apes to take ideas like this on without getting twee, and meanwhile we have movies like No Escape produced with a central conceit of "familiar white Americans must get away from scary, faceless foreigners" and we even reward movies with high praise and awards for doing the same.  </end editorializing>

To its credit, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes isn't afraid to point the finger at both sides and make clear how fragile a thing it can be to bridge differences, especially when old wounds have not fully healed.   And, of course, all wrapped up in a movie with hairy apes riding horses and wielding spears.

The movie is a an FX marvel, placing live actors among sometimes hundreds of beautifully rendered, believable chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans.  Aside from the reviews I read at the time of the movie's release, it's stunning how little the FX have been discussed since.  Sure, we're used to false backgrounds, actors with CGI enhancements, etc... but the deftness with which each character was rendered and made believable - more unique in appearance from ape to ape than the cast of the original movies in their prosthetics - but clearly real, tangible beings.  I don't know if the FX were that seamless or we've become that jaded.

But credit where it's due to the actors beneath the digital make-up.

As I touched on earlier, and this is a livewire, but the movie is aware of the subtleties of human perception, of differences of intellect, of anger and fear overriding logic or reasoning.  And in a survival situation, a bit of paranoia that may have served you well along the way will suddenly become a hindrance to you when it comes time to figure out how to do more than survive.  Self-preservation builds duplicity, and comfort builds carelessness.  Both get touched upon from both cultures, and both unravel the best laid plans.

That the movie will always feel immediate, no matter what's in the paper (see the attempts to destroy the first negotiations with Iran in decades by folks who can't get their heads around anything less than annihilation and crippling of a nation - that's this week, anyway), and that makes for a compelling film.

I like escapism in my movie-watching, but I appreciate it all the more when a movie provides context and tries to swing for the fences.  Dawn of the Planet of the Apes does that.  And while I'm not sure they knocked it out to the parking lot, it at least earned them a homerun.

Also, it has Keri Russell, who is most fetching despite being saddled with ponchos, raincoats and being rained on in the woods.  That is the power of Keri Russell.

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