Tuesday, July 15, 2014
It's not easy being a science fiction allegory. The fundamental challenge is to take a completely preposterous premise and get it taken seriously. It's a thin line to walk, and there are a few ways to do it. One is to make it incredibly austere and heavy, like 2001 or Stalker. Another is to double down on everything preposterous, but be smart enough to make it satire. Paul Verhoeven was an expert at the latter: the scenes in RoboCop and Total Recall that are funny, campy, and over-the-top are the same scenes that are paranoid, subversive, and terrifying.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes tries both, tilting towards heavy but occasionally darting towards light. It's a post-9/11 (and post-Christopher Nolan) shot at turning the franchise gritty, playing out as an us-vs.-them metaphor for geopolitical tension, starring genetically modified super-apes, where war is both unnecessary and inevitable. Directed by Matt Reeves (Let Me In, Cloverfield), the world of the film is dark and dour. Everything is caked in dirt or fog, with much of the frame blacked out in many scenes. The decision to go without spoken dialogue for the first 10 minutes is downright ballsy. And mixed in are a few stabs at blockbuster humor, with ape slapstick and a few nudges from humans who aren't puny so much as goofy.
The contrast can be jarring, and for the first half, I wondered if post-Nolan Hollywood had met its match: after Batman, Superman, James Bond, etc., it had finally found a franchise too inherently ridiculous to be turned into anything gritty. But as it accumulates and climaxes, it reaches a rewarding kind of pop grandeur, in part because of Reeves' way with atmosphere, and mostly because the film takes its time to set the stage before exploding, which used to be standard but in 2014 feels more and more like a lost art. The path towards conflict is sketched out with a tremendous amount of schematic detail. And when the action does explode, with an ape riding a horse firing an assault rifle, it doesn't feel preposterous. It feels apocalyptic.
As a series, Planet of the Apes is a strange beast. The 1968 original is a standalone of-its-time masterpiece. But the franchise had pretty much lost its reputability by the mid-70s, and after Tim Burton's widely mocked reboot, there seemed to be no reason to bring it back except that remakes are the order of the day. And yet Dawn shows what can happen when a property lands in caring hands, with a level of visual creativity and thoughtful attention above and beyond most of what's playing now. Dawn should proceed directly to the rare list of sequels that truly expand on their predecessor—the franchise is more reputable now than it's been since 1968. The human characters are boring, I suppose, but their era is ending, and the film features some of the most emotionally complex CGI characters that Hollywood has done yet. Reeves finishes the film on an extreme close-up of a motion-capture ape where the tighter he pulls in, the more the eyes look human, and I'm still not sure if those eyes belong to Andy Serkis or an FX team. With apes on one end and computers on the other, we may need to prepare for the New Order. For now, there's a beautiful truce.
4 out of 5 stars.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is in theaters now. It's the sequel to Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which means that the Planet of the Apes rose before it dawned. Which is crazy.