Every once in a while as a film critic, you find yourself in the uncomfortable position of watching a movie that you admire, but don’t really like. The overall effort and technological achievement of “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is something to be applauded while the movie itself leaves a lot to be desired.
“Dawn” is a sequel to “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” an origin story that also left me unimpressed; but a whole, whole lot of other people really liked it, which is how we ended up here.
“Dawn” is very similar to “Rise” in terms of tone but significantly ratchets up the action. Normally this would be a good thing, especially since these are just pure summer-movie spectacles at heart.
A little over halfway through “Dawn,” I realized what my problem was. Any summer movie, be it populated with aliens, dinosaurs or Batmen, requires a suspension of disbelief. This is especially the case when said movie takes itself seriously, and these “Apes” movies take themselves very, very seriously.
For some apparently very personal reason, when presented with a screaming chimpanzee riding full-tilt on horseback and simultaneously firing two machine guns, my suspension of disbelief comes to a screeching halt and is instead replaced with intense giggling. I want to go there with you America, I really do. I just can’t.
So once the central premise of a movie has been lost on you, then you begin to notice the seams. And once you start paying attention to the seams on any summer movie, well there’s really nothing left to do but see how many Junior Mints you can fit into your mouth at one time.
I mentioned earlier I admired “Dawn” and that is the truth. All of the apes are computer generated and their actions are built off of motion-capture performances by real actors, with the lead ape Caesar played by motion-capture pioneer and master Andy Serkis.
There are large stretches of the movie where you easily forget you are watching nothing but ones and zeroes up on the screen, which is a pretty impressive accomplishment. Perhaps if the machine-gun-toting ape hadn’t looked so real, maybe I wouldn’t have laughed; but that is an existential question for another time.
The wobbly plot centers on the last scraps of humanity— survivors of a global plague — running up against Caesar and his band of merry apes, who are living in Muir Woods outside of San Francisco.
The humans, led in the woods by Jason Clarke and back in the city by Gary Oldman, want to get power flowing to the city again and have pinned their hopes to a dam that resides right in the middle of the apes’ turf.
The first half of the movie drags as tensions and misunderstandings mount between humans and apes, and when the action does kick-off, it is unclear who or what we are supposed to be rooting for.
In “Rise,” it was easy to pull for Caesar as mankind was a ripe victim of its own hubris. Here, the apes and the people are all just desperately trying to stay alive. After the apocalypse, there’s plenty of real estate for everyone. Can’t we all just get along?
To the film’s credit, everyone involved seems fully invested in producing a quality product, from director Matt Reeves to the cast to the special effects department, and I’m sure anyone who enjoyed “Rise” will have no problem enjoying “Dawn,” as it is expertly more of the same.
As for me, I guess I’ll just have to wait around for a summer movie that’s a little more believable, like the one with the talking raccoon from outer space. Now that’s a premise I can get behind.
“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence, and brief strong language.