Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Review: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

I watched Dawn of the Planet of the Apes a couple days ago with Harry and Lingess, and I can honestly say that it’s one of the best movies I’ve watched for a very long time. It’s difficult for me to parse my initial, visceral, rather overwhelmingly positive reaction into cohesive strands, but here goes (spoilers ahead. Fair warning.):

  DPTA is such an immersive movie. Once you accept the movie’s initial premise, there is no further need to actively suspend disbelief, unlike in some other movies: a guy with amazing spiderpowers, fine; but a one-armed scientist/gigantic lizard who somehow manages to set up a secret lab in the New York sewers without anyone noticing? Vehicles that transform into robots, fine; but an overprotective dad letting his daughter date a race-car stunt driver who slept with her behind his back, and who throws down his weapon at the first sign of danger? I mean, really?

  But I digress.


  The acting in DPTA is excellent. The douchebaggy characters were so effortlessly douchebaggy that I came to hate them naturally. Carver and the two arsenal guards aren’t cardboard cutouts to be laughed at and scorned – minor-villain caricatures like Watto in The Phantom Menace – but believable characters acting in monumentally prejudiced, narrow-minded and foolish ways. It isn’t easy to attain that level of douchebagginess whilst still keeping it real, but these guys pulled it off.

  It's evident that the actors connected deeply with the characters they played. Apart from the consistently impressive performance of Andy Serkis (whose acting range is formidable! Compare Gollum and Caesar), one scene particularly stands out in my mind. Soon after the electricity comes back on, the mayor Dreyfus notices that his iPad is functional. Scrolling through his photos, he comes across a picture of what are presumably his deceased sons. The raw emotion demonstrated by Gary Oldman here really blew me away. He literally cried on screen. Not the wimpy blinking out of a fake tear or two – although there are a couple instances of this elsewhere in the movie – or the likewise wimpy bury-your-face-in-your-hands-and-make-crying-noises technique; but full-on emotional breakdown. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a crying scene more authentic, moving or memorable than this one (otherwise I would’ve remembered it). And, considering that there’s at least one crying scene in almost every movie, that’s saying a lot.

Totally convincing. Stop pulling at my heartstrings, you. 
 (Photo credit: Nicholaus Haskins via Compfight cc)


Emotional Depth

  DPTA was a movie that got me thoroughly emotionally involved. I found myself hating different characters at different times: Malcolm & family, Caesar, Maurice and the other loyal apes were the only ones who escaped my invective for the entire movie (I remember actually swearing at one point). All the other characters were – to use Harry’s words – “a bit of a nobhead” to varying degrees at one point or another. 

  My emotions were torn as I struggled to find a character to blame for the escalating hostility – and eventual brutality – between the humans and the apes. Was it Carver, the jittery and trigger-happy human who fired the first shot, breached the trust of his simian hosts, and ultimately forced Caesar to make a decision between letting Malcolm stay and placating the rancorous Koba? Or was it Koba, the treacherous ape whose resentment of Caesar (whom he viewed as a philanthrope in the most literal sense), ambition and cunning drove him to seize power? Or was the conflict an inevitable product of each side’s mistrust of the other? There is no two-dimensional villain whose paper-thin motivation is a half-hearted excuse for his diabolical machinations; no one character so stereotypically evil that I couldn’t find a way of sympathising with him.*

  Yet my emotional reactions were not all negative. There were little moments of heroism that sent a thrill through my (frankly rather romantic) soul. Maurice defending the fallen Alex was one such moment. So was Ash’s refusal to slaughter the old human couple in defiance of Koba, made all the more powerful by Ash’s evident fear of the latter: the sheer terror with which he went to his death accentuates the remarkable bravery of that one moment all the more. And I found myself grudgingly admiring even Koba’s boldness and cunning when he slaughtered the two arsenal guards with their own gun. Say what you will about the bad guys, you can't deny that they've got some serious (dare I say ape-sized?) balls.


  The themes that DPTA raises are thought-provoking and pertinent ones. What stayed with me the most was the destructive nature of prejudice. Viewed from one angle, DPTA  basically chronicles how even the best efforts of well-meaning parties cannot bridge the chasm created by a few mistrustful, warmongering bigots. The human-ape conflict is a tragedy of misunderstanding. Neither side is willing to trust the other; there is ill-will and resentment all round; everyone is therefore susceptible to increasing levels of prejudice, fuelled by certain parties who want to manipulate tensions to further their own agendas. A rare scenario in today’s world? I think not.

  Trust, betrayal and forgiveness are also explored to some depth, especially in the interactions between Carver, Caesar and Koba. Perhaps it Caesar’s forgiveness of Carver’s betrayal – and Koba’s refusal to do likewise – that pushed the latter over the edge. Fear that the humans would repeat their barbarous “human work” (another moving little scene: made me empathise with Koba's rancour) led to anger at Caesar’s tolerance of them; anger at Caesar led naturally to hate – and Koba’s conversion to the dark side was complete. It is only poetic justice that his own betrayal of Caesar was not forgiven.


  I’m aware that many aspects of this review may be tainted by selective memory or the halo effect. Maybe upon a second viewing, many of the elements that have left such a positive imprint in my mind may turn out to be less impressive that I remembered. After all, this is but an attempt to analyse and explain my ultimately visceral reaction to DPTA. That being said, DPTA undeniably kept me riveted, had a big emotional impact, and gave me plenty of food for thought. And that, in my book, makes it all that a good movie should be. 

P.S. sorry about the lack of images. I'm still exploring legal, non-copyrighted sources that I can use on my blog.

*There are only two identifiable female characters in the movie, both supporting, and neither is evil.

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