Friday, July 18, 2014

Aping a Good Thing

Years ago, I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of Rise of the Planet of the Apes. So the new follow-up, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, was pretty high on my to-see list. It crept even higher when the critics almost universally declared it better than the first film, lifting it to a 90+% score on Rotten Tomatoes.

I should not have let my expectations soar so high.

Picking up a decade after the events of Rise, Dawn follows the society that ape Caesar has formed in the woods near San Francisco. A war-minded rebel named Koba begins to plot against him when Caesar dares to help a group of human plague survivors in their efforts to restore power to the nearby city. Similarly militant people on the human side seem to ensure that a violent clash between the two cultures is inevitable.

Rise is not a bad movie, but it is a movie with a lot of "air" in it. First, there's the editing itself, which is noticeably lax in a number of places, with camera angles or scene endings lingering longer than feels necessary. I imagine that, having spent the money to realize the visual effects, the filmmakers were unwisely (but understandably) loathe to cut them. Second, there's story itself, which unfolds at a rather slow pace. A lot of time is spent setting up the society the apes have built for themselves. And it does make sense that the film does this -- it's trying to portray the apes as fully realized characters, as much as the human characters. But we get the point a lot faster than the film gives us credit for. And it doesn't help that the vast majority of the apes' communication is done by subtitled sign language, resulting in truly long stretches of silence on screen.

Actually, I amend what I said above. The film is probably trying to portray the apes more as characters than the humans. The humans are one-note movie cliches. There's Jason Clarke's hero with a soft side, Keri Russell's "see, we put one smart female character in our movie" doctor, Gary Oldman's irrationally belligerent leader, a young teen with parental issues, and other stock cannon fodder. It probably adds to the slow pace of the movie's first act when half the characters don't speak and the other half speak only in the tropes of movies you've seen before.

But the quality of the ape performances do save the movie from coming apart. Master-of-motion-capture Andy Serkis at last receives top billing in a movie, reprising his role of Caesar. He's joined by a group of actors doing incredibly nuanced work. Toby Kebbell (Koba), Nick Thurston (Blue Eyes), and Karin Konoval (Maurice) in particular are wonderfully expressive without often having dialogue to lean on. And the "puppets" (of a sort) these actors all inhabit are more convincing a group of CG creations than ever before. Only a very few scenes -- invariably scenes in which the characters interact with physical objects in the environment -- are anything less than totally believable. As a testament to the quality of this union of technology and performance, it's only the scenes in the final act that kick you out of the moment; you see the overimagined green screen sets and think "that doesn't look real," still basically forgetting that none of the characters you're seeing are real either.

For taking another great step forward in performance capture, and delivering a few exciting action scenes, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is ultimately worth recommending if you liked its predecessor. But I wouldn't necessarily recommend rushing out to the theater for it. I give it a B-.

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