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Film review: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

"TELL me," whispers one human to another in the film, "doesn't the ape make your stomach crawl?" That question, my friend, is directed at you.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Written by Shalini Langer | New Delhi | Published:July 11, 2014 6:06 pm
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes review Dawn of the Planet of the Apes review

Director: Mark Reeves
Cast: Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Toby Kebbell, Keri Russell, Kodi Smit-McPhee
Rating: ****

“TELL me,” whispers one human to another in the film, “doesn’t the ape make your stomach crawl?” That question, my friend, is directed at you. Does it not? When the camera pans deep into the folds of Caesar’s skin to his eyes, when the film shows the apes swarming and milling, when it depicts their violence and power, when it doesn’t shy away from showing what they are capable of — does it not? It’s nobody’s case in the Dawn of the Planet of the Apes that the apes are easy to like. What the film well elucidates is how difficult it is for them to like us as well. And that wars have been fought on little else.

The sequel to 2011’s well-received Rise of the Planet of the Apes is not just an astounding achievement in special effects — though there’s that too, from how the apes communicate to emote to swing from trees to wield weapons to ride horses and battle. It does one better in propelling the story towards its inevitable war and its inevitably bleak finale. In the mindless destruction they wreak on each other, the men and apes can’t be told apart — a fact that the film underlines unfailingly, at the threat of repeating itself.

It’s nearly 10 years after the events of Rise…. Caesar (Serkis) is living in the same woods near San Francisco where he had said bye to the human scientist who was a father figure to him. The apes have built themselves shelters, an organised structure, and even a school led by the orangutan Maurius. Caesar is the undisputed leader, with his mildly rebellious son Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston) and Koba (Kebbell) always by his side. We see the apes hunt a pack of deers with calculated ferociousness and take down a grizzly bear by sheer force.

The humans, meanwhile, have been almost decimated by the simian flu that had broken out in Rise…, arising from experiments conducted on chimpanzees by humans. Cities are now desolate ruins, and humans largely idling, gun-wielding enthusiasts ready to draw blood.

The apes haven’t seen a human in over “10 winters”. Then, one day, out hunting in the woods, they do. It doesn’t go well, with a scared member of the human group shooting at an ape. Caesar defuses the situation by stunning the humans by with just a scream — “Go!”. Incidentally the first word that got him the attention of humans in Rise… was not-a-dissimilar “No!”.

The humans carry back this news to the quarantined safe zone where people like them are holding out in San Francisco. This human colony has been set up by two men, Dreyfus (Oldman) and Malcolm (Clarke). Ex-soldier Dreyfus believes they should ready for a war with the apes; Malcolm avers the apes can be won over by negotiation. Malcolm has both an understanding CDC doctor and his lover (Russell) and son (Smit-McPhee) to back him. The humans need access to the forest where the apes live to reactivate a hydel plant so that their power supply doesn’t run out.

As Caesar allows the humans into his jungle, it’s a relationship fraught with tension and only suspended distrust, and slightest provocations are breaking points. In fact, so intent is the film on this that the story itself is contrived as a series of confrontations and resolutions, till of course the final clash.

Within that we get some genuinely warm scenes of both Caesar and Malcolm as fathers, lovers and leaders respectively. It’s easy to see where Reeves is going with this theme.

But then Koba, the one tortured the most by humans in trials, unfurls the full extent of his betrayal and anger — it’s not for nothing that Caesar is called Caesar — and Reeves shows he can take the film up a few notches from the Rupert Wyatt-helmed Rise…. There are few surprises in the apes descending on humans trapped inside their colony, yet Reeves paces the menace nicely, particularly in showing the bewilderment on both sides as Koba manages to turn man’s firepower against himself with little effort (Thurston is particularly arresting in his growing dismay at Koba’s depravity). Incidentally, while many apes are shown dying, you are not shown the human casualties.

There are some clear messages of Dawn… — with the book and the seven other big-screen versions it has spawned all reflective of their times. These being the overdependence on nuclear power to the neglect of hydel, the danger of a population being awash with guns, and the virtue of tolerance in the face of differences. There is one that needs no saying — Andy Serkis has sealed his place in this story. Here he may have company in Thurston and Kebbell in bringing the apes alive from behind costume and makeup, but if there is a Caesar in this war of the species, it’s his Caesar.

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