Turn Around, Bright Eyes: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

The Planet of the Apes film franchise consists of, to date, eight films released between 1968 and 2014. Each week, venerable Apes mega-fan Max Robinson and inquisitive newcomer Dylan Roth journey to the center of the Planet of the Apes experience, one movie at a time. This is Turn Around, Bright Eyes.

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Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

Directed by Matt Reeves

SYNOPSIS: Ten years later. The simian flu has decimated the human population, leaving a small pocket of survivors attempting to rebuild in the ruins of San Francisco under the leadership of Malcolm (Jason Clarke) and Dreyfus (Gary Oldman). Deep in Muir Woods, Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his tribe of intelligent apes have begun to carve out an all-new pocket of civilization. Can the seemingly inevitable war between evolved ape and desperate mankind be prevented?

Dylan: We finally arrive at the end of our journey through the Apes film canon, having experienced soaring highs (the original PotA, Escape) and lows with bonecrushing barometric pressure (Beneath, the Burton remake), but Good God Damn, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the indisputable peak of the series to date. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is triumph on just about every level, and I’d put it up there with Ex Machina and Inception as one of the best science fiction films of our young century.

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Max: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was my favorite movie of 2014, no joke. This is a movie that lives and dies on you buying into talking CGI apes as fully formed characters in a live action setting. And it pulls that off! Like, straight up, nothing like this movie has really existed before. You mentioned with Rise they were really inventing a new kind of acting, I’d argue this is a defining moment for mocap performance in terms of legitimacy.

Dylan: Fifteen years ago, we were all wowed by Andy Serkis’s groundbreaking performance as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, but I think at the time we were marveling more at the technology than at what Serkis himself was doing. Just the idea that such a convincing CGI character could exist was exciting. But today we’re spoiled with the knowledge that there’s nothing that can’t be done on screen anymore. There’s rarely a “how’d they do that?” moment, and instead our excitement comes from learning, later, that a given element was not produced with computers. (See the fervor over The Force Awakens’ commitment to Getting It In The Lens.)

What makes Serkis and company’s work in Dawn so stunning is that, while the apes are gorgeously rendered, it’s what the human actors are doing beneath that digital skin that’s blowing us away. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes features some of the best acting, no modifiers, in recent cinematic history.

Max: Serkis and Toby Kebbell (replacing Christopher Gordon as Koba) ground what could be a very silly movie in genuine pathos with their scenes together. There’s never a moment in Dawn where you feel like you’re watching cartoon characters, in part because CGI has come so far, but really because you are so invested in this straight up Shakespearian conflict between them.

I swear to god, Koba gets my vote for the best villain in recent movie history and it’s because he’s such a nuanced character. You sympathize with Koba even when he’s gunning down innocent human beings or losing more and more of himself. The deterioration of Caesar and Koba’s friendship is just ridiculously powerful, on an emotional level. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the story of a new kind of life defining its own societal morals and the very real cost of that.

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Dylan: I don’t know who I would nominate against Koba for Best Movie Villain of the 2000s; he may even give Anton Chigurh a run for his money. Koba is a great character for all the reasons that Magneto is a great character—his hatred of humanity is born of unforgivable wrongs and you can’t blame him for an ounce of it. He’s had all the compassion for the humans bled from him, but he also feels real love for his fellow apes, particularly for Caesar, the Charles Xavier of the equation. When Caesar gives Malcolm the benefit of the doubt over Koba’s impassioned warnings, it cuts Koba so deeply.

Max: The Xavier/Magneto analogy is pretty spot on, especially since Caesar’s history with Will (James Franco’s character from the last movie) is this unspoken element that hangs over their interactions. When Koba throws out that “YOU LOVE HUMANS…MORE THAN APES…MORE THAN YOUR OWN SONS” at the moment their friendship implodes, you know Koba genuinely believes that on some level.

Shifting over to the humans, Dawn wisely chooses to make the human characters reserved but important supporting characters. Jason Clarke’s Malcolm isn’t an enormously deep character but he acts as a great counterpart to Caesar. Similarly, Oldman’s Dreyfus is a fantastic “human Koba”: a decent person who is broken by the profound loss he has experienced.

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Dylan: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes skips past the darkest horrors of the viral apocalypse, but the surviving humans have been through an unimaginable hell and are only now starting to believe that life could be good again. It mirrors the way that, after a decade, Caesar’s apes finally feel settled down, no longer threatened by their human oppressors. That they’re both wrong is what makes the story so tragic—the apes will never truly be safe as long as there are still humans, and the humans, well, the movie’s called Dawn of the Planet of the APES, so they ain’t on the upswing.

Max: Okay so here’s how you know this is the greatest Planet of the Apes movie: It gives us an incredible sequence of Koba on horseback firing TWO GUNS and, at the same time, it leaves us on an ending that is just unbelievably brutal. And unlike Beneath‘s nihilist ending, this one is earned. Thanks to actions beyond their control, Caesar and Malcolm have to accept there will never be peace between their peoples. There’s that beautiful moment between them where they embrace as—friends? brothers?—before Malcolm has to leave, and it’s so heartwrenching. Tragedy’s a defining principle of the Apes films and this movie ends in a very bleak, very ambitious place.

Dylan: The climactic battle of Dawn is a visual feast on its own, but the reason it’s so satisfying is that it flows perfectly naturally from the story and characters. So many science fiction movies today are collections of setpieces, with the rest of the story just cartilage to propel the characters from one cool idea to the next. Dawn isn’t, structurally, an action movie. It’s a character drama that features some fucking masterful action.

Max: Absolutely. Along with everything else, this is easily the best shot Apes film. I love how the camera moves in this movie, from that sweeping shot over the hill during the ape hunting sequence to the way the camera SPINS on top of that tank during Koba’s siege on the human camp. The most “action movie” the film gets is in Caesar and Koba’s final confrontation, and even that’s just a super dense sequence visually: An ape fight on top of a skyscraper has a pretty specific historical precedent, the fact that it’s a human-built skyscraper that’ll never be finished adds another wrinkle.

Dylan: We could probably gush about this film forever, but sadly, we must now bring Turn Around, Bright Eyes to a close…at least until 2017. Max, the hour has come to choose: Which Ape Was Your Favorite Ape in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes?

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Max: Sugar It’s Koba. For all the reasons we’ve basically run through, he’s just a fucking amazing character. “Dr. Doom, but an ape” is the character find of the century.

Dylan: Much as I love to play Devil’s Apevocate, I can’t disagree with you on this one. Koba is King.

APE-ILOGUE

Max: Seven movies. Almost sixty years. Dozens of incredible apes. Dylan, buddy, we made it. How do you feel, here at the end of all things?

Dylan: Glad to be with you, Max Robinson. I can’t imagine having survived some of these films without your unabashed ape enthusiasm. Don’t get me wrong, the Planet of the Apes franchise still has a better win/loss record with me than the James Bond series, Middle Earth, hell, even the Star Trek films, but there were some goddamn challenging moments along the way.

Max: Planet of the Apes as a franchise fascinates me because it’s this thing that that’s been around for decades and it’s only RIGHT NOW that this story feels like it’s finally reaching its full potential. The Apes movies, even when they’re terrible, are this mirror we hold up to ourselves.  Not to get full on purple prose here but Planet of the Apes is, in a weird roundabout way, the story of us.  Am I crazy, Dylan? Am I completely mad?

Dylan: All great science fiction is the story of us, as read by someone else. It’s films like Dawn, and like the original Planet of the Apes, that make science fiction such an important part of our cultural landscape, and it’s about damn time this series got the love and attention it deserves. Hail, Caesar. 

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NEXT WEEK: AW C’MON GOTHAM RETURNS

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