Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

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Most of the movie series that are dragged out or revamped are terrible. It isn’t as though for every Rambo there is a Rocky, it’s more like for every Carrie there is a Carry On Columbus; they are all pretty rubbish.

The recent Planet of the Apes films have somehow bucked that trend though. It did have its failed revival with Tim Burton’s movie of course, so maybe it was able to exorcise those demons. Maybe that’s how it works, maybe the next Indiana Jones film will be great and then there is Star Wars, fingers crossed…

Rise of the Planet of the Apes was a really good film, charting the human errors that made the apes smarter and the humans deader. We had the punchline decades ago; apes take over the earth, but this first film gave us the shaggy dog story that lead up to it. 1971’s Escape from the Planet of the Apes and 1972’s Conquest for the Planet of the Apes did give us a back story but it was an alternate reality, based as it was on a Terminator style time loop with the smart chimpanzees of the future coming to the past and triggering events that lead to smart chimpanzees in the future. We just didn’t know what reality it was an alternative to until now.

Throughout Rise then we were able to raise our eye brows and say ‘ah, I see how that all happened now, clever’ but that’s done now and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes does not have that factor. Also, Rise concentrated chiefly on the humans, with John Lithgow’s moving struggle with dementia as the driver behind James Franco’s apocalyptic hubris. Having now had that set up, Dawn can only let the story play out toward a denouement we all know. This time it concentrates on the apes, who like Smurfs, Gungans, Na’vi and other special effects, I find a little harder to root for. Unfortunately, all of this makes Dawn of the Planet of the Apes a far less compelling film.

Please don’t think I am speciesist. In the past I have cared deeply about the hopes and dreams of animals from Aristocats to War Horse but here we are only given the chance to get to know three or four of the principal primates, the rest of them are just there to fill out the hairy crowd. To be fair, all but the main humans are equally undeveloped but I’m slightly more predisposed to identify with them.

The first film also echoed elements of Hitchcock’s The Birds with the idea of the natural world turning on a helpless, unprepared and complacently arrogant humanity. By the start of this movie, set ten years later, the apes are more like humans, talking, using tools, putting fancy stuff in their hair and wearing make-up (these are, of course, the four things that define us as a race) so I feel it’s lost something there too.

Of course this whole Animal Farm theme of there being increasing similarities between beast and man is a key idea in the whole story and one that is clearly going to develop further as the dominance of the apes develops. They haven’t quite got to the smocks and knee high leather boots stage yet but that’s where it’s going and the progression is interesting, if not always subtle.

At the start of the movie the apes are all happily living in the Ewok village and their is a clear structure to their idyllic society. When the rebels come to restart the shield generator though, the stapetus quo is thrown into turmoil. Distrust, ambition, deception and other human traits take hold and pretty soon something is wrong in paradise.

Before you know it there is a war going on and, to be honest, it isn’t always easy to take this seriously. Gorillas in tanks and chimps on horseback, firing off machine guns in each hand? It’s like a crazy PG Tips fever dream.

Reading this review back, it seems to me that I didn’t like this film very much which is curious as that’s not how I felt coming out. The fact remains though that I don’t really have anything really good to say about it. It isn’t a bad film, not at all. The story is engaging, the characters likeable, the special effects are incredible and it has Gary Oldman in it which instantly improves it by 25%. I just didn’t go bananas over it.

There’ll be another film in a couple of years to finish off the trilogy (Day of the Planet of Apes? War of the Planet of Apes? Eve of the Planet of the Apes? Return to Forbidden Planet of Apes? Eternal Sunshine of the Planet of Apes?), but to be honest, I couldn’t really give a monkeys.

The Ripley Factor:

There are only three women among the main cast, one of whom is playing a chimpanzee and another of which is playing a male orangutan. The other is Keri Russell and while it is good to see this talented actor (catch her in Waitress if you can) in a major Hollywood film, she doesn’t have much to do.

She isn’t there to define or motivate the men around her and she isn’t objectified but her inclusion does feel a little like tokenism. I thought Freida Pinto’s role in the first one was pointless but this is worse.

Is this one for the kids?

The movie is once again fairly typical of what we have come to expect from a 12A action blockbuster. People and apes get blown up, machine gunned and thrown from very high places but none of it is any worse than we had in Star Wars a long time ago.

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