Hammering Out... Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Hammering Out... Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Hammering Out... is a series of movie reviews featuring a lively he said/she said discussion between John and Julie.  This week: DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES.

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JOHN: Three years ago, I was hugely surprised by how much I enjoyed the Apes reboot, Rise of the Planet of the Apes.  Having been burned so bad by Tim Burton's 2001 remake (which sucks all the more in light of this new series), and wary of the idea of James Franco leading a film full of all-CGI apes, it's not hard to see why Rise took audiences by surprise.  Still, having rewatched it several times since, I've grown to appreciate the film on its own merits.  Especially the CGI work and Andy Serkis's performance as Caesar.  It's a strong origin story that set itself up nicely for future sequels.

Well, Dawn has arrived, and it's spectacular.  It more than delivers on the promise of a sequel, and tops Rise in every single way.  It has immediately joined the ranks of other superior sequels, like T2, Aliens, The Godfather Part II, and The Dark Knight.  Yes, folks, it's that freakin' good.

Why you ask?  Several reasons, all of them stemming from the obvious care and energy that the filmmakers spent bringing this story to screen.  Director Matt Reeves, taking over for Rupert Wyatt, knows his way around creature features, having previously directed Cloverfield and Let Me In, and, to a lesser extent, co-creating Felicity (ha!).  He knocks this out of the park.  The special effects are nothing short of stunning.  Absolutely stunning.  Fox spent about $170 million on the movie and every penny is up there on screen.  It looks like the thing cost $700 million.  The apes are photo-realistic to an almost unbelievable degree.  And, the actors give motion-capture performances that are just as impressive as the effects.  The story doesn't lack action, but it's rare for an action film to make audiences want to see peace, not war.  We root for peace, knowing full well that's not where the movie is headed.

Take note studios, THIS is how you make a sequel.  THIS is how you make a summer blockbuster.  I loved it.  How 'bout you?

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JULIE: Slow your roll, sir. This movie was good, but I'm not ready to invoke the titles of Godfather Part II or The Dark Knight.

Much of what you say is true. The special effects are amazing. Seamless. The ape actors are brilliant, as are the ape characters. The dynamics at play in the redwood forest are the stuff of great drama. Shuffling between the pressures politics and the frailty of family bonds, the story of the apes explores how easily cracks can form even in a society with a common goal -- survival. The father-son moments are fantastic. The "villain" of the story, the scarred ape Koba, is absolutely chilling, especially in his dealings with the humans.

And now we've gotten to the reason why I'm not willing to mention this film in the same breath as the movies you've mentioned above -- the humans. They are a bunch of stereotypical, bland people. You have the earnest (white, male) dude who wants to work with the apes while trying to save humanity and his (white, male) son. You have the (white, male) douche bag who won't even consider giving the apes a chance, who blames the apes for the disease that killed all the humans, when the disease itself had been manufactured in a lab and foisted on the apes to begin with. Then you have the (white, female -- hey look, a lady!) doctor (of course) who is played by Keri Russell, who, as a Felicity fan, I should automatically like, but I've just seen that character seven million times. And there's Gary Oldman, and a couple of guys (mostly white male, absolutely no women) who pop up in scenes every once in a while, and that's about it.

And I know you think that it's petty of me to harp on about how bored I was with the humans, but perhaps I became so annoyed by them simply because the conflict within the ape world was so compelling. The humans paled in comparison. Maybe that's okay. Maybe this wasn't meant to be the humans' movie; but if part of the movie's point was to get me to care about the fate of humanity, the film did not do its job in that regard. Kill the bastards, apes.

Also, this film is the perfect example of why I got so peeved about the Star Wars casting a few months ago. Why couldn't Gary Oldman's character, or Acevedo's, or Jason Clarke's, for that matter, have been a woman? Why couldn't there have been more female apes getting in the mix? It would've changed nothing about the plot (except maybe it would've help the humans seem even a tad more interesting). I'm going to keep fighting the fight on this one.

Tell me how I'm wrong.

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JOHN: Somebody's got to fight the fight, I guess.  We're a long way from talking about the movie's actual quality though, aren't we?  Now, we're just talking gender politics and how stupid Hollywood is.  Here's what I'll say about it and then I think we can move on.  Yes, there should have been more female characters.  Yes, there's no reason not to switch up genders.  No, it wouldn't have had any impact on the quality of the movie.  I look forward to your essays on how The Dark Knight sucks because it features characters like Bruce Wayne (white male) who battles a criminal named Joker (white male) and deals with a rival, Harvey Dent (white male) for the affections of the token female (Maggie Gyllenhaal, white), while his butler Alfred (white male) looks on.  Or how Godfather II features Michael Corleone (white dude), blah blah blah.

This movie rules.  The humans pale in comparison because the apes are so freaking fascinating.  Anyone would pale in comparison.  The movie's focus is on the apes.  Heck, the movie begins with 15 dialogue-free minutes of the apes hunting, teaching, raising their kids, etc.  It's awesome.  Make no mistake - this is an apes movie.   So, we've got some stock characters, but the script does just enough with their backstories to give them some depth and nuance.  And, as is always the key - they've cast excellent actors in the roles, like Clarke, Oldman, and Russell.  They're all great, and they do enough to fill in the gaps.  Could you make a whole movie focused solely on these characters and have it be interesting?  Probably not.  But, that's not what we have here.  Nearly every scene they're in also has apes.  And, the movie is concerned with the humans' interactions with the apes, not the humans' inner turmoil.  So, I give it a pass. The humans are just good enough.  Not great, but they didn't need to be.  They are supporting characters.

I am in utter awe of Serkis (Caesar), Toby Kebbell (Koba), and Nick Thurston (Caesar's son, Blue Eyes).  The Academy should create a whole new category at the Oscars for motion capture performances.  Maybe also nominate the lead animator.  Sort of a joint Oscar.  You could fill out every nominee from this movie alone.  You say I'm overstating Dawn's merit by comparing it to Godfather and The Dark Knight.  Maybe it's too soon to tell.  I need to see the movie a few more times, which I'm fairly confident will happen.  I want to go see it again right now.  But, there's no denying that it makes a hell of an initial impression.  It's dark, it deals with weighty themes, and it knows how to build suspense and not rely on action to entertain an audience.  You just don't see movies like this, let alone sequels, all that often.  I really do think this is something special.

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JULIE: OK, let's just keep all the characters male forever and ever amen because that's the way it's always been done. Sometimes I can't believe how myopic you are on this topic (I'm a poet). We've talked about this before at home, and I get that you're a movie fan and you just want movies to be good. But why can't they be good AND feature more female characters? Why does Hollywood continue to insist on marginalizing 51% of the population, even when female-centric movies tend to be quite profitable? And please don't write something off as "just gender politics" when you're sitting there as someone who has always been amply represented on screen.

But enough about that. I'm bringing it all back to Felicity now, since I've been rewatching that show. There's an episode in the second season where Felicity gets in trouble and she has to see a new counselor (played by Amy Aquino). This character bursts onto the screen in just a few short moments. She's a smoker. She likes classical music. She's a little scattered. She tells it like it is. It's not much. She doesn't have a dead daughter or or a dead wife or various other dead people in her life, which is basically what amounted to characterization for the humans in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. But the writers gave her personality, something none of the (human) characters in this movie had.

I'll say it. The humans in this movie were no better than those zeros on The Walking Dead. They were all Carol. Actually, no. Carol's kind of interesting now. They were Andrea.

But as much as I've bashed the humans in this review, I actually did enjoy the movie as a whole. I just wanted it to push things over the edge and be amazing. Visuals aside, it didn't quite get there for me. On the Felicity character scale ranging from Ruby, Noel's stupid pregnant girlfriend, to the incomparable Meghan Rotundi, I give this movie a solid Richard Coad.

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JOHN: Here's the thing.  It IS amazing.  People should not get sidetracked by our discussion of the humans.  The apes are so good here, so enthralling, and so beautifully realized that they more than make up for any shortcomings in the supporting cast.  Serkis is listed as the lead actor in the film for a reason.  As for me being myopic, again - I don't care how many females are on screen.  I don't care how many males are on screen.  I'm caught up with the spectacle.  The drama.  The thrills.  When a movie works, like this one does, I just don't care about anything else.  I'll take an excellent movie like Dawn, which definitely could have used more female characters, twenty millions times over a lesser movie with more female roles, like, say, Tammy or The Help.  So sue me.

And, look - there you are - offering up your rating before we even talked about Michael Giacchino's fabulous score.  That dude is the best composer working today.  Bar none.  Hands down.  Don't fight it.  He is.  I loved the production design, especially the apes' home in the woods.  The desolation of San Francisco is a sight to behold.  Or, how 'bout that one-take shot of Koba in the tank as the camera circles the battle around him?  So good.  Or, the conversation between Blue Eyes and Caesar towards the end of the film?  Utterly captivating.

The movie keeps you on the edge of your seat as human-ape misunderstandings spiral out of control.  The ending leaves you wanting more.  I can't wait for Part 3.  This is the movie of the summer.  The one we've been waiting for.  Long live Caesar!  Long live the Apes!  ***** stars.  Count 'em.  5.

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JULIE: Last word. First of all, if this is a movie that is meant to be cutting edge and brilliant in all manner of technical ways, I don't think it's too much to ask that its characters also be cutting edge and brilliant as well. And, I'm not saying that movies with more female roles are inherently better. I'm just asking that Hollywood think outside the box and make a concerted effort to cast women in roles where normally (by default) they would cast men. Down with the existing 4:1 ratio (or, in the case of this movie, more like 10,000:1)!

JOHN: Okay, fine.  Point made.  And, I look forward to you making that point again when next week's movies come out.  But, let's not lose sight of the fact that this movie features apes riding horses.  Personally, I'd like to push for Hollywood to make a more concerted effort to put apes atop horses in more movies!

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