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.