Thursday, 17 July 2014

Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes

"The night is darkest just before the dawn," said Gotham City District Attorney Harvey Dent, but clearly he never sat down to watch Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes in 3D, for this Dawn is as dark as it gets. Not necessarily thematically, but certainly visually: the colour palette sways from muddy grey to muddy brown and back again, and through 3D specs it's like watching grey jellyfish swimming through a sea of oxtail soup. So that's lesson one: see it in 2D.

Lesson two: lower your expectations. As someone who firmly believes that Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes is (along with The Dark Knight Rises) one of the best summer blockbusters of at least the last five years, I was frothing at the cock to see what returning writers Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver had crafted this time, and how Cloverfield's Matt Reeves would present it. I came away having more or less enjoyed the film, but unable to think of a single thing about it that was actually enjoyable. Remember Caesar's glorious tree-swinging, years-passing montage from Rise? The incredible sequence in Brian Cox's chimp chokey wherein Caesar wordlessly tips the balance of power? The balls-out end credits which tossed off the near-annihilation of humanity as if it were a minor plot point? There's none of that here. Or if there is, I couldn't see it through the oxtail soup.

Ten years since Caesar walked out on James Franco, leaving him with naught but a bunch of severely clogged plugholes, the king of the swingers and his expanding band of furry followers are living it up in a gigantic treehouse that looks suspiciously like a large family of Ewoks recently vacated. He's husband to a sickly wife and father to a sulky son now, and spends his time teaching his fellow apes to walk upright and work on their enunciation skills. This scene-setting is admirable: the apes have very obviously evolved in the last decade, although many of them still rely on sign language, resulting in a few unintentionally amusing subtitles - Caesar's heartfelt comment to his wife, "You look sick, you OK?" only needed the addendum "hun" to fully justify a ripple of audience giggles.

Meanwhile, what's left of the human race - or at least the bit of it that lives in San Francisco - is struggling by without a substantial source of energy (although there seems to be plenty of fuel for vehicles). When they clock that they could generate hydro-electric power from a dam located deep in Apetown, an uneasy alliance is formed between Caesar and the tediously earnest Jason Clarke, which is threatened by untrusting, prejudiced parties on both sides. Peace between Homo sapiens and Pan troglodytes hangs by a thread, and as the latter begin to covet the former's firepower, war becomes increasingly likely.

All of this is good. There are neat parallels with the real world, with both the film's humans and its apes displaying recognisable traits we'd probably rather not see in ourselves. The invasion of an occupied land in order to gain access to energy brings to mind a certain realpolitik, guns equalling power is a depressing global truism and the arming of children is something every inner city should be concerned with, although few of them need to be too bothered about bonobos with berettas just yet.
When the fight for survival begins, though, everything turns a bit simplistic, if not entirely ham-fisted, and narrative logic gives way to so-so set-pieces as the great Great Apes take on the dull humans. Gary Oldman's character veers from wise peacekeeper to histrionic warmonger to all-out-loon with little encouragement, Clarke is likable but flat and unmemorable, and Keri Russell gets the Freida Pinto Award for Looking Pretty and Dispensing Medicine. While you could level the same accusations at its predecessor, Dawn hasn't got nearly as much in reserve as Rise did to make up for these gaping holes in characterisation. One is left wondering exactly what newly-added screenwriter Mark Bomback brought to the Jaffa / Silver dynamic from his track record of classics like Die Hard 4.0, the Total Recall remake and The Wolverine.

Fortunately apes together strong, and the monkey business goes at least some way to making up for the puny humans: Andy Serkis, Toby Kebbell and the wizards of Weta go all out to make Caesar and his unhinged second-in-command Koba worth watching in terms of both characterisation and eye-popping, photoreal CGI, with the result that this is the greatest argument for Performance Capture yet: Caesar makes the early Gollum look like a crudely-etched cartoon.

None of that, sadly, can stop Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes from being overlong, impenetrably gloomy and a missed opportunity to further what could have been a defining franchise for our times, and that's what disappoints the most. We still haven't seen anything beyond San Francisco, lessening the title's impact somewhat, and while I'm intrigued to see where the apes go from here (please let them be exactly like in the 1968 original), I'm no longer excited. Shame.

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