Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

 
Apes together strong. Humans not so much.
 

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

Contrary to what Green Day once sang about, I don’t want to be in the minority. Well, not this kind of minority, anyway. The kind where you don’t think something’s as good as everyone else does. I had my first taste of it this year with How to Train Your Dragon 2 where I gave it an average 3 when some people were showering it with perfect scores and hyperbolic buzzword-y, poster-ready endorsements. Posting an honest opinion of disappointment in that climate feels like I’m excluding myself from the massive joy block party where everyone’s high fiving each other over a shared positive experience. Anyway, I bring all this up because DOTPOTA has put me in a similar situation and I don’t know who to punch to make me feel better about it.

“Apes do not want war!”

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes picks up ten years after Rise of the Planet of the Apes and focuses on what has become of man and apekind alike after a lab-bred virus wiped out most of humanity. We rejoin Caesar (mocapped and voiced by Andy Serkis), alpha ape and leader of an entire ape community in the forest. Caesar has a son, named Blue Eyes, and a new arrival on his mind when a group of humans stumble across several apes, setting wheels in motion that lead to huge tension between the two groups. Whilst the designated leaders for each side (The Big C and some bloke named Malcolm (Jason Clarke)), there are members of both species who want to nudge the precarious situation into all-out war between humans and apes. I will say this about Dawn, it’s not afraid to be a blockbuster with brains. There are some really solid ideas in play and motivations are strong and coherent. The motion capture and the effects work by WETA is awesome stuff. Whilst the apes still aren’t 100% convincing, there are moments where you forget that a huge portion of the cast aren’t really there. The ape cast are great. Andy Serkis is just the fucking don at this stuff and his performance as Caesar is fantastic. Toby Kebbell is brilliant as Koba, Caesar’s aggressive second-in-command. Koba is a truly sinister presence and all credit goes to the CGI people and Kebbell’s unhinged performance. Karin Konoval also returns as the fan favourite Maurice the orangutan, which is brilliant news for fans of the loveable flat-faced fella like me. All of the main apes have distinct features and interesting personalities.

Same can’t be said for the humans, unfortunately. Jason Clarke is annoyingly earnest as Malcolm, a “nice guy” with shit-all personality. Not to be mean, but Clarke has no screen presence. I’d honestly forgotten his name was Malcolm about half an hour after leaving the cinema. Not a good sign. It doesn’t help that his family are boring too. His wife is barely part of it and he has some vaguely sad backstory that’s meant to stand in the stead of giving her something to actually do. His teenage son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) rivals him in the no-personality stakes by having only having one defining thing- he draws stuff. That’s it in regards to character. He doodles in a sketchpad. (Cough) Gary Oldman elevates things just by being him, but it all added up to me being impatient to get back to the monkey business.

OK. Like with How to Train Your Dragon 2, I didn’t hate Dawn. However, I still walked away disappointed. Perhaps it’s just the hype generated by my love of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, but I don’t think so. The writing’s certainly not as sharp, for sure. It’s thematically rich and full of interesting philosophies, but I was ahead of the film every step of the way- a phenomenon not experienced whilst watching Rise. It’s not because I’ve wasted more time watching films than most people either. This is some really basic and generic stuff. I kept wanting to be surprised or for it to display at least a bit of narrative sleight of hand to distract me from the fact that I knew how everything was going to play out. There’s one character, Carver (Kirk Acevedo) who starts everything off by shooting at a young ape. Despite seeming to exist purely to fuck things up and having created conflict out of nothing, Malcolm decides to take him to a disputed hydroelectric dam because “he’s the only one who worked there” or some crap. That’s just clunky writing and contrived as anything. When they decide that he can tag along the second time, it’s obvious that he’s going to cause more trouble. Not because we know the character, but because we know his function to the story. Would it have made any difference if it was one of the other people who shot at the ape? Not at all and that’s what bugs me. I can see the seams rather than being too lost in proceedings. Rise was flawed too, but it spent more time making the characters seem like real people, rather than plot-convenient pawns to slide into place when needed.

It’s frustrating because despite the bland-as-balls subplots, the main thrust of the story works incredibly well. The film is nicely morally ambiguous, with both sides having valid reasons for acting the way they do and avoids providing an easy goodies vs baddies scenario. The building conflict between apes and humans is by far the most interesting thing to me and there are some awesome tension-filled scenes where characters are trying to talk their way out of violence and find a diplomatic solution, which is a lesson that our actual, shitty non ape planet doesn’t seem to be interested in heeding of late. When guns are whipped out, everything gets ten times worse. It’s not all talking though. When the action does occur, it’s expertly done. The sight of a snarling ape dual wielding LMGs whilst riding on horseback is worth the price of admission alone. In fact, Koba steals the show for me. He’s a proper villain (spoilers, but Rise and Dawn make it abundantly clear that his defection was only a matter of time) and he’s in my favourite scene. You may have seen the bit I’m about to talk about in trailers and clips (thanks trailer people, I was almost surprised for a moment) but in one scene Koba is caught by a couple of armed guards and he goes all-out pet ape, posing, rolling around and recreating his favourite scenes from Dunstan Checks In. Whilst they’re caught up in the show, Koba grabs one of their guns and blows them both away. It was fucking brilliant and an easy contender for my now world-famous Scenes of the Year list.

“We’ve been through hell together! We spent four years, FOUR YEARS fighting that virus, and then another four fighting each other! It was chaos!… But you all know what we’re up against! And I want you to know, it’s not just about power! It’s about giving us the hope to rebuild, to reclaim the world we lost!”

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is good, but not great. It’s worth a watch, certainly. I just wasn’t as involved as I was with Rise and too many things kept diverting my attention from the solid choices and amazing effects. The whole thing feels slightly undercooked. I’m fine with the amount of praise it’s getting, especially considering the current blockbuster climate. However, when more than a few are saying it’s better than Rise, I feel completely alienated. I genuinely wish I could join your apetastic Fuck Yes DOTPOTA! party everyone, but I’m going to have to sit this one out. I hope we can catch up at the Guardians of the Galaxy Fuckin’ Rules bash.

Robocop (2014)

 

“Bitches, leave!”
 

Robocop (2014)

What is the point in remaking something like Robocop? Well. money, brand recognition and money. However, for a moment let’s pretend art is the driving force behind filmmaking. The first film is terrific. It’s a sharp satire filled with ultra-violence and sleaze. It works perfectly at what it set out to do. It’s not broken, so there’s no need to fix it. Steven Soderbergh said something about this in his “State of Cinema” speech: “They get simple things wrong sometimes, like remakes. I mean, why are you always remaking the famous movies? Why aren’t you looking back into your catalog and finding some sort of programmer that was made 50 years ago that has a really good idea in it, that if you put some fresh talent on it, it could be really great? Of course, in order to do that you need to have someone at the studio that actually knows those movies.”  Having said that, if done correctly, it could almost justify its own existence by keeping the satirical edge. A lot of the themes and targets in the original are just as, if not more, relevant today. The pervasion of the media, massive immoral corporations, consumer culture etc haven’t gone away and have been amplified beyond Robocop ’87’s wildest dreams. What I’m trying to express is that when it came to this film, I was torn, cold and shamed, lying naked on the floor. After seeing it, I’m still torn, but in a different way. Also fully clothed.

“This, my friends, is the future of American justice. How many like Thomas King will pay for their crimes now that RoboCop is here? Yes, let’s not shy away from what this means, people. Men weren’t up to the task. But Alex Murphy, a robot cop, was.”

2028. Detective Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) is grievously injured by a car bomb. Murphy unwittingly becomes the prime candidate for huge conglomerate Omnicorp’s new marketing push to humanise its line of robots and drones, masterminded by CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton). Sellars uses scientist and robotics expert Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman) to give Murphy a new robotic body and represent the future of law enforcement. As you may imagine, things don’t go exactly to plan. Robocop 2K14 takes an interesting inverse angle on the standard Robocop fare. In the ’87 one, it’s all about Murphy remembering he’s human. In this one, Murphy knows who he is from the off and the film instead focuses on the notion of free will, humanity and blah blah blah. It’s a smart idea and certainly the kind of fresh spin that modern by-the-numbers remakes severely lack. However, the satire is dropped almost entirely, which is a shame. Big business and the news are very much presences, but the film seems to be giving passive commentary, rather than taking it somewhere interesting. For instance, it’s revealed Omnicorp have been buying political influence. That’s it. That shit is happening right now. It doesn’t feel particularly necessary to even comment on stuff like that.

The cast are a mixed bag. Joel Kinnaman is damn near robotic before he gets put into the shiny suit. He’s pretty monotonous and is always the worst actor in a scene. To be fair to him, there is stiff competition and the part isn’t particularly well written or defined. There was one bit early on with the brilliant Michael K. Williams and it just highlighted the gulf between the two. Michael Keaton is fun as a smarmy, morally bankrupt Steve Jobs-esque CEO, Jay Baruchel pops up as a slimy exec and Jackie Earle Haley is enjoyable as Mattox. Abbie Cornish is given the thankless task of being “the wife character” and spends 90% of the film crying. I hate to say it, but I think Samuel L. Jackson is miscast here. He plays Pat Novak,  a kind of Bill O’Reilly/Fox News style anchor and something about it doesn’t work. Perhaps it’s because the character seems downright plausible. His impassioned “mah guns an’ libertees” rhetoric could easily slot in with some of Glenn Beck’s psychotic rants. Again, commentary rather than satire. Anyway, Gary Oldman saves it. Whereas I didn’t give a shit about most of the characters, I cared about Dr. Norton. His scenes with various patients including Murphy are legitimately decent. One of the best scenes in the film is when Dr. Norton is encouraging somebody to use their new robotic hands to play the guitar. Norton is so genuinely moved by the whole thing and it’s hard not to warm to him. The CGI used to show the hands playing the guitar was also top notch stuff. The film has quite a few little bits here and there like this where it feels like a surreal art film for a moment and it’s great.

This Robocop is frustrating because there are elements and ideas played with that are really good. The first 10 minutes of the film is decently done, doing some solid world building, but it just kind of falls apart after that. It’s kind of meta at times too, with Sellars changing Robocop from silver to tactical black purely for marketing reasons. There are interesting ideas when it comes to Murphy becoming Robocop, being in control until a combat situation arises where an automatic combat system will take over, but do it in such a way that Murphy believes it to be his idea and that he’s in control. That’s a nice, thick vein of gooey sci-fi drama, but it has a few goes at it and then is just done with it, dropping it in favour of more frustratingly threadless plotlines.

Making this film a PG-13 was just as bad as people feared it would be, but for unforeseen reasons. The film seems schizophrenic. I really got the sense that there were a lot of late rewrites to make sure it got the golden rating. For one, Robocop has a taser gun for most of the runtime. It’s odd because some of the people Murphy stuns are then talked about by characters like they’re dead. It smacks of a desperate script job. There’s one scene where Murphy stands on a crook’s hand, grinding it into broken glass which, as it appears in the film, seems really out of character. This is only hypothesis but I reckon there was a lot darker version of Murphy/Robocop originally written and the glass/hand scene is a holdover from that. I reckon Robocop was going to be an R-rated beast until they saw Dredd, featuring the similar character of Judge Dredd, bombing a hole through the bottom of the box office. Suddenly, the only way they can continue working is to maximise the demographic and cut out huge hunks of the script so as to not piss off the MPAA.  It would explain why the film seems to be working a dark revenge angle but never really commits and feels toothless, not just in terms of violence, but in terms of themes as well. It’s really telling in the action which is by far the least interesting part of the movie. It’s just CGI blah, mostly featuring Murphy killing robots, not squishy, blood-filled people. Remember the iconic ED-209 from the original? The one that completely obliterates a businessman and falls down stairs? Yeah, one scene has four of them, devoid of any endearing stop-motion jankiness. That should tell you all you need to know. There is one OK action scene which takes a leaf from Equilibrium and features a gunfight solely lit by muzzle flashes. It’s decent, but then the film has to show us Robocop’s thermal vision as well. There are so many frenetic cuts here that I recoiled and had to look at something else for a few moments. Either one would have been cool, but both together create an effect similar to running a razor blade directly up and down your optic nerves.

“In his everyday life, man rules over the machine. Alex makes his own decisions. Now, when he engages in battle, the visor comes down and the software takes over. Then the machine does everything. Alex is a passenger, just along for the ride.”

So, Robocop 2014. It’s OK. I didn’t hate it as much as I expected to, but unfortunately it just falls into the “frustratingly almost great” pile of films, which is becoming worryingly common.  It’s smarter than I was expecting, but the script rarely follows through. You could do a lot worse, but if you’re looking for some robot cop action, stick to the original, it’s still wicked sharp and features a melting man being turned into slush by a car driven by Red Forman from That ’70s Show.