What do we want from the movies?
That question is so outwardly simple, open-ended and subjective that it doesn’t get asked enough. Since it invites so many varied responses, it should follow that movies made on a mass scale — intended to be consumed by as many people as possible — should deliver layered, varied experiences. Of course, that ideal has little to do with cold logistics of Hollywood moneymaking.
Fortunately, certain moviegoers know exactly what they want, while others prefer to explore the vast ocean of possibilities available on theaters and digital platforms at any given moment.
But millions of others don’t even both to ponder their options. Unconsciously lured by million-dollar marketing campaigns, they gravitate towards large scale new releases by virtue of the tunnel vision at their disposal: "This is the stupid movie you need to see right now," they’re told; thus, the ever-expanding "Transformers" grosses.
But instead of exploiting yet another opportunity to bemoan a titanic achievement in blockbuster idiocy, the time has come to celebrate the system’s ability to do some good: This week’s big release, "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes," provides a first-rate example of big budget escapism done right. Along with satisfying the needs of blasé audiences eager for another fast-paced summer distraction replete with explosions and digital effects, it applies those standards with far more artful results. It speaks to the masses with some treats for the discerning types in the back.
More than simply the best of the "Apes" franchise since its first installment in 1968, Matt Reeves’ thrilling sequel to the brainy "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" uses the language of cinema in advanced ways that transcend its status as pop culture entertainment. Addressing multiple sensibilities at once, it provides a keen response to the assumption that if "Transformers" makes money, the only thing people want is more of the same. This “Apes” installment speaks to the sensibilities of many viewers at once, and its strengths point to far greater possibilities than the movie itself.
Is “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” a masterpiece? Hardly.
The movie derives much of its power from a thrilling pace maintained by director Matt Reeves (who managed to similarly refine familiar material with the enjoyable shakeup to found footage tropes in "Cloverfield," and the kid vampire drama "Let Me In," a slicker remake of the Swedish original). But Reeves direction essentially props up the extraordinary effects work that allows performance capture fixture Andy Serkis to put on a real performance as the simian lead Caesar, now the strong-willed leader of a band of evolved apes 10 years after human civilization’s fall.
But the skeleton of a plot, in which a struggling human outpost led by an icy Gary Oldman and expeditious Jason Clarke approach the apes in the hopes of gaining access to a hydroelectric generator near their den, offers far less inspiration. As soon as Clarke’s character gains Caesar’s reluctant trust and the humans begin their work under the apes’ cautious gaze, it’s clear that the relationship will eventually topple into a downward spiral. Rival ape Koba (Toby Kebbell) — whose name is a canny reference to a nickname for Joseph Stalin — denounces the notion of permitting "human work," recalling his travails in the lab. Of course, Koba comes up with a grim scheme to topple Caesar’s authority and strike back at the humans, who response with their own vicious warmongering. The whole thing devolves into a chaotic showdown between man and ape right on schedule. But this is not a movie in which the surprises stem from its outcome.
"Dawn" makes up for its lack of subtleties with a sensational atmosphere that operates on a far more sophisticated plane. Whereas the previous entry took the form of a laboratory thriller, this post-apocalyptic war epic is a first-rate example of a different tradition. Compared, for instance, to Darren Aronofsky’s jumbled "Noah," Reeves has constructed a fluid pop spectacle that’s nonetheless dominated by morbid inevitabilities. By setting the action a decade into the future, the director manages to construct a remarkable jungle setting defined by Caesar’s resolve, and his post-human community — replete with a cozy family life — registers genuine emotion.
In fact, Caesar’s such a multidimensional character that the humans get the short end of the stick. Clarke makes a concerted effort to look frightened and empathetic on cue, while Oldman’s raspy approach is mechanical to a fault.
But they aren’t the stars, anyway: Bookended by extraordinary closeups of Caesar’s face, "Dawn" gives Serkis a bonafide performance that’s like an organic special effect. Even James Cameron’s blue-faced "Avatar" creations didn’t contain such facial nuances. Without turning the apes into blatant racial symbols, their dark, furry features suggest a blurry otherness that foregrounds their separation from their human foes.
There’s a refreshing quality to the way "Dawn" downplays its familiar faces in favor of the technical wizardry used to invent new ones. Caesar’s valiant plight is complimented by a detailed world and speedy action loaded with advanced visual conceits, from an energizing hunt that opens the story to an expressionistic showdown that includes one memorable long take involving an ape perched atop a tank. "Dawn" is a visual splendor in which the images enhance the power of its timeless themes.
A Gateway Drug
Swept up in the impressive CGI and plot, one could easily discount the hints of radical storytelling that breach the narrative. The first 15 minutes of "Dawn" unfold with virtually no dialogue, foregrounding the apes’ general reliance on sign language and expression to communicate even as the occasional word sneaks in. It’s a near-experimental approach, one that unquestionably calls up memories of the prologue to "2001: A Space Odyssey," which forces you to focus on the extraordinary images in every frame.
While these sequences may have been costly to produce, they actually bear a marked similarity to "The Tribe," Ukrainian director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s Cannes-winning debut feature, which opens later this year. Told exclusively through sign language, Slaboshpytskiy’s extraordinary feature unfolds against the dreary backdrop of a private school filled with criminally-oriented teens. One of them, new arrival Sergey (Grigory Fesenko), is drawn to a dangerous gang, enjoys a sexually explicit affair with another student, and eventually develops a dangerous resentment for his peers. His plight is all about minutiae, trusting viewers to pay attention to each moment and various sectors of the frame to pick up on character details. The images tell the story, allowing the medium to shine as only it can.
There’s something primal about human communication reduced to its physical dimensions. So it follows that both movies present bleak visions of humanity’s inevitable decline into violent extremes. In "Dawn," the humans’ astonished reactions whenever they lock eyes with the apes convey more depth than any spoken words. Likewise, "The Tribe" foregrounds the communicative power of people looking directly at each other and paying attention to their movements. Even as they gesticulate wildly, they transcend linguistic boundaries. Whenever "Dawn" echoes this technique, it points to a far smarter possibility for the Hollywood blockbuster as a gateway drug.
Beyond the Planet of the Apes
This kind of adventurous entertainment is especially valuable at a time when sensibilities need to evolve — not unlike the rebellious apes at the center of this still-vibrant franchise — to match an ever-cluttered marketplace. If you see one movie this weekend, it should be "Boyhood," Richard Linklater’s 12-years-in-the-making coming-of-age tale, which has no precedent in film history. And there’s finer post-apocalyptic escapism in Bong Joon-ho’s "Snowpiercer," which is playing around the country and arriving on VOD platforms this Friday. Jafar Panahi’s "Closed Curtain" is gradually opening nationwide, and evokes a more personal form of the apocalypse by exploring the Iranian filmmaker’s life under house arrest, banned from making movies.
There are rich cinematic possibilities all around us. But for anyone reticent to look beyond the upper tier of mainstream possibilities, "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" is a terrific place to start.
"Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" opens nationwide on Friday.