Thursday, July 10, 2014

Man vs. ape: Can there be a winner?

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes makes for a smart, involving sequel.
The screenplay for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is smart enough to make you wonder whether the movie's intelligent apes didn't have a hand in writing it. This sequel maintains the overall arc of the revitalized series, pitting man (or at least some men) against ape (or at least some apes).

But if we take the apes as metaphors for the natural environment, the one which we tend to intrude upon and despoil, the movie becomes deeper, more resonant.

Director Matt Reeves not only peppers his screenplay with ideas, he tells a story that can be enjoyed on the most rudimentary of levels.

So where exactly are we in the evolutionary saga of the human and ape populations? We're in the near future just after a terrible Simian Virus has wiped out a substantial part of humanity.

A group of survivors -- perhaps numbering in the hundreds -- has assembled in a ruined quarter of a devastated San Francisco.

The apes, who have attained various levels of intelligence and some of whom have developed the ability to speak, live in the Muir Woods, where they've constructed an elaborate wooden village and are in the process of developing an ethos: Apes don't kill apes.

The apes do, however, kill deer: They hunt for food with spears and evidently are carnivorous. They also have family structures and a form of governance.

The apes are led by Caesar (Andy Serkis), a leader devoted the ape population. Caesar has strength, but also a reflective sense of sadness about where the world has been and where it seems to be headed.

The potential for additional trouble arises when the San Francisco humans launch an expedition into the Muir Woods. They hope to reactivate a power plant that's badly needed to maintain the city's supply of electricity and to keep matters from returning to total barbarity.

The mission includes a trio that has formed an impromptu family in the wake of the virus that has taken away husbands, wives and children. There's Malcolm (Jason Clarke), his girlfriend (Keri Russell) and Malcolm's son (Kodi Smit-McPhee).

The apes reluctantly agree to allow the mission to proceed, but Koba (Toby Kebbell) objects. It's understandable, maybe even justifiable: Koba -- a victim of cruel human experiments in the last movie -- has no reason to trust mankind.

Eventually, Koba sets himself up in opposition to Caesar, and we know that an eventual battle looms. The clash between Koba and Caesar allows Reeves & company to serve up some strong action while also examining the role of guns in building a civilization, as well as what happens when a society is fractured by two opposing narratives.

That conflict, of course, inevitably pits Koba and his marching minions against Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), a human who takes responsibility for wiping out the apes and protecting humanity.

Reeves (Cloverfield and Let Me In) handles the action, effects and story with great aplomb, developing a sense of mystery and awe from the outset -- with help from Michael Giacchino's powerful score.

The San Francisco-based battle sequences don't disappoint: They're even coherent.

To its credit, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which follows 2011's Rise of Planet of the Apes, doesn't entirely resolve the conflict between all its warring impulses. The movie does what few blockbusters would dare: It leaves us with a lingering, sorrowful feeling about the possibility of resolution.

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