Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is My Favorite Movie of the Year YetPosted: July 12, 2014
Yknow that kind of movie? The kind that builds tension and dread and stakes so carefully that it leaves knots in your stomach? The kind that establishes characters so cleanly and quietly that even simple emotive moments can choke you up? The kind that leaves your knees wobbly from adrenaline afterwards, and your heart heavy from simple unavoidable tragedy? Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is that kind of movie, and unsurprisingly it’s my favorite movie so far this year.
Dawn is such a textbook example of both good drama and good science fiction that it’s amazing to consider that it’s a major studio tentpole, but then again this seems to be a good year all around for studio blockbusters. As with any great story, Dawn establishes solid characters and a tense dramatic situation and then lets things proceed to their natural (and tragic) conclusion. While the characters are pretty broadly drawn, they are more than effective due to the terrific performances of the cast and the sad familiarity of their personalities. From the upstanding leaders to the desperate warriors to the disillusioned sons, we know these people even just as shorthand, and makes the proceedings more than effective. Much has been made of the performances of Andy Serkis and Toby Kebbell, and rightly so: both Caesar and Koba are forces of nature here, nobility and fury personified. And special attention should also be given to the FX work, which coupled with the great acting brings these apes to stunning life.
The real tragedy of the story is accentuated by how closely the ape and human groups mirror each other. We see not only how needless the conflict is (given how much both societies have in common) but also how inevitable it is (due to the restlessness and mistrust on each side). The film does a great job of building the foreboding and dread from scene to scene, and a big part of this is holding the action for when it’s needed most. There are plenty of thrilling and intense moments spread throughout the film, but rarely do these qualify as “action scenes”. The result is that for most of the film, bursts of violence are all the more jarring and saddening, no matter who ends up being hurt by them. And once we get to the big action sequence, and the vicious mano-a-mano fight in the finale, even as excitingly staged as they are, there’s a bitterness to it, knowing that it all could’ve been avoided, and knowing what both societies have lost in this conflict. The whole story reflects the violent nature of man, and how that anger is passed along to others.
Even down to the tiniest detail, the movie impresses. Michael Giacchino’s engaging score mixes high-tempo tribal drums and the sort of brassy drones that recalls the music of the original ‘68 film. The visuals are gorgeous, dark and moody without being overbearing, which is yet another example of the movie not overplaying its hand. That restraint on display throughout is very admirable: just the fact that the apes still talk in sign language as much as English is something I wouldn’t expect a lot of filmmakers to commit to.
I’ve always liked Matt Reeves’ work as a filmmaker. Cloverfield is one of the few found footage movies that isn’t a waste of time, and Let Me In was the rare remake that actually lives up to its foreign predecessor. But here, he’s reached a whole new level, and his next Apes effort has just catapulted to the top of my Can’t-Wait-For List. But even on its own, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a tremendous piece of mainstream scifi filmmaking, a thrilling cinematic experience and a bitter examination of mankind’s (and apparently apekind’s) propensity for conflict. A movie that needs to be seen, and seen again, and the standard to which I will hold every subsequent Apes film… and every scifi tentpole in general.