Why so serious? In the post-Dark Knight era, Hollywood blockbusters have grown increasingly gloomy and over-serious—not to mention pretentious. It's one of the most aggravating trends in contemporary cinema. It's not that a big-budget spectacle can't be serious, but that in too many cases, such seriousness is feigned and unearned. Meanwhile, unpretentious works in multiplexes become even more refreshing and enjoyable (the Fast and the Furious franchise comes to mind). Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the sequel to the latest Planet of the Apes reboot, may be an exception to the above rule, in that, while clearly part of this overarching trend of serio-popcorndom, it earns its stripes with a thoughtfulness in both style and content.
Ultimately, it's an uneven but admirable attempt at injecting both formal and thematic intelligence into a blockbuster. With Let Me In (2010), director Matt Reeves proved himself to be capable of working within genre without succumbing to it—primarily focusing on attention to detail, creating emotional engagement through composition, and prioritizing sensitively unfolding scenes between actors (qualities that are present but less prominent in Apes). It was more gripping, and more stylistically accomplished than the acclaimed Swedish film it was based on, Let the Right One In (2008). In Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, it feels as though the material and the director are at odds. The overstated allegory of the script, written by Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver, clashes with Reeves’ nuanced emotionalism. The writing and direction align in finer scenes, where the allegory lightens up, allowing for more ambiguous moments, but at its worst, it's painfully obvious. Caesar, the super-intelligent esc-ape-e from Rise of the Planet of the Apes, has created a society just outside of San Francisco. Humans are all but gone. One last community survives and is running out of (and desperately needs) energy. The apes' territory happens to contain a dam that could be used a source for said energy. At the behest of the more fearful Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), Malcolm (Jason Clarke) insists they can cooperate and leads an attempt to do so. Caesar agrees to allow them the use of the dam as long as they discard their guns. His soft spot for people is a major point of contention with some of the other apes, especially his right-hand man Koba, and the peaceful arrangement inevitably fails, as greed and xenophobia on both sides takes over.
The film is best when it settles down. Shot/reverse-shot sequences between the CGI apes are unusually powerful and moving. Because the apes communicate mostly through gesture, the sequences play out like silent film scenes, and ironically, come off as beautifully human. Quiet moments between Caesar and his family are imbued with genuine feeling. While many might expect spectacle, Reeves is interested in simple, classical interactions, and seems most invested in sequences between the necessary fireworks. While Reeves has proven to be able to helm action sequences, the more explosive sequences fall a little flat, especially a climactic tower battle between Casaer and Koba, an ape that tries to seize power. The scene, underlying tension aside, is cartoonish mess, held together only by underlying dramatic implications, suggesting ambiguous notes about Casear's seemingly idealist and peaceful philosophy.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes could appropriately be double-billed with Bong Joon-ho's Snowpiercer, another "Smart" mainstreamer with an annoyingly nail-on-the-head subtext. Dawn is the more successful, though, for letting ambiguities take over in the end. The third act complicates what came before. The film presents and rejects idealism. Its romanticized portrait of family is revealed to have a dark flipside, when we discover what even good people (or apes) are willing to do to protect their loved ones. Individuals are proven to be unable to stop wars / violence. And a genuine leader is inevitably made into a hypocrite for the sake of some false greater good, to maintain a status quo. Family is both meaning and undoing for Caesar, as in doing anything to protect them, he’s willing to compromise his morality.
As first presented, Caesar, is a measured leader, who above all else aims to protect his own family, and the family values of his community. However, the corruption of ideals is shown to be inevitable in the pursuit to protect one’s own. "Evolution" (apes to humans to apes) is arbitrary when a cycle of violence is inherent in the warring characteristics of living, loving, and fearing. Caesar is a fascinating protagonist but also one that could be more utilized. It's unfortunate that his screen time is split with the counterpoint-human-voice-of-reason Malcolm, who is nothing but a cardboard good guy that either should've been fleshed out or pushed aside. Caesar does not easily fill the role of hero or anti-hero, but rather is a leader with honorable intentions and unfortunate circumstances. Ending with a stunning image that rhymes with the opening shot, the film undoes its seemingly obvious observations, closing with a darkly bittersweet finale. Caesar reclaims his position of leader of the apes, and is united with his mate and children, peace exists temporarily. All we have is family, and trust, and these things are threatened, but also necessarily protected by a never-ending cycle of violence, that even the most genuine of leaders cannot stop.
Long Voyage Home is an ongoing series by Adam Cook