Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes Proves that Sequels and Reboots can Still Kick Ass

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a sequel to a reboot of a classic movie (that already had a failed remake once before) which was itself based on a book. Given that, the film doesn't exactly sound promising because, as everybody knows, films based on an existing franchise are inherently bad, or at the very least uninspired. Conventional wisdom tells us that movies today are all unoriginal, which is why we have so many reboots and sequels, and why the film industry is going downhill fast. Unsurprisingly, convention wisdom could not be more wrong, and nothing proves that more than Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which is arguably the best film of the year.

As always with this type of post, SPOILERS:

It’s understandable that there has been a lot of backlash against reboots/remakes and sequels. A lot of the time it’s a studio trying to make a quick buck by giving us a totally unnecessary sequel, like turning good movies like Hangover and Taken into a disappointing trilogies, or the Spider-man reboots, which I’ve made my hatred for known before. The thing is a few bad eggs don’t mean that every sequel or reboot is a hollow money grab. Unfortunately, because of these films, sequels and reboots tend to get a bad rap.

What many people fail to realize is that some of the best films of all time are reboots and sequels. Perhaps the best known “better sequel” is Empire Strikes Back, but history is littered with them including classics like; Dawn of the Dead, Terminator 2, and Bourne Supremacy. On the reboot side of things, look no further than Nolan’s Batman trilogy, which reinvigorated a franchise that had fallen almost into self-parody. Of course, this trend is nothing new, it goes all the way back to classic Hollywood. Some film buffs are aware that Ben-Hur, often hailed as one of the best films of all time, is a remake of a silent film, but few know that the classic film noir from 1941, The Maltese Falcon, is also a remake, and the list goes on. Restarting a franchise is nothing new for Hollywood.

As long as a film is crafted with care and precision, with an emotional core, regardless if it is an adaptation of a previous flick, it at least has a chance to be something great. This is the difference between Tim Burton’s 2001 Planet of the Apes remake and Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Dawn's predecessor. One is obviously a shallow attempt to cash in on the title, while ignoring much of the social commentary of the originals, and the other is a complex and indicate tale with; subtle callbacks to the original, a setup for a potential sequel, but still managing to tell its own self-contained story.

Dawn took many of the best elements of Rise and improved upon them. It is one of the most powerful and poignant anti-war movies released in recent years. It gives us complex characters; the film foregoes traditional good guys and bad guys, and presents both sides as having both honorable and questionable individuals. It’s a film where we root for peace instead of one side over another. Despite it being thought provoking and beautiful, it still manages to be one of the most badass action films around, proving you can have the best of both worlds.

Apes isn’t the only film to dispel the notion that good huge budget films are a thing of the past; 2014 was absolutely chalked full of awesome intelligent movies, including Guardians of the Galaxy, Interstellar, and The Lego Movie, just to name a few of the blockbusters. Sure there were a few crappy ones, like Transformers 4, but these days there are just more films released every year, which means both more good and bad movies are released every year. Of course, there is the illusion that the past had a smaller ratio of bad films simply because we remember the good films as time passes and forget the bad ones, since (generally speaking) only good films are memorable. Anyone who has seen an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 knows that the past is overflowing with terrible forgotten films. After all, who five years from now is going to remember Pompeii? It was a huge release early this year, but chances are that you’ve already forgotten about it. Films like Dawn of the Planet of the Apes on the other hand are here to stay.

In fact, an argument could be made (and I’m about to make it) that because of modern advances, films today have the opportunity to be better than they were in the past. Andy Serkins is once again getting some much deserved Oscar buzz for a motion capture performance as the ape Caesar, and it would not have been possible without today’s technology. Consider the original Planet of the Apes films, where actors wore rubber masks. Frankly it looked incredibly cheesy, and severely restricted the actors’ performances. Today we can turn an actor into an ape and preserve every subtle motion on his face, while allowing him to move freely and naturally in way that was never possible before.

There is a shot near the beginning of Dawn where Caesar jumps in the air, killing a bear with a spear. Something like this would never have been possible in the original Apes movies. This is not to say that simply having this technology in a film makes it inherently better, because when a film exists to prop up its effects (as I discuss in my review of Gravity) the film fails. However, when the effects are just one part of an entire formula, it can create a mesmerizing film.

All of these parts truly come together in Dawn. Serkins isn’t the only actor in the film to give an amazing performance, as both the motion captured apes, and the regular human characters are preformed beautifully. Everyone in the film manages to portray a character that has lost something, as their world is one rocked by tragedy. Some of the best moments in the film are the silent ones where a live action actor interacting with a motion capture one. One that particularly sticks out in my mind is the scene where teenage human Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and the orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval) reading a comic book together. These kind of characters, which see beyond being ape or human, and come together, are film’s real heroes.

In contrast, the characters who simply see the world in black and white are the ones that cause the conflict in the film. While the Caesar and one of the human leaders, Malcolm (Jason Clarke) are able to relate to each other, Caesar’s lieutenant Koba (Toby Kebbell) and the other human leader Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) are only interested in their own group’s interests. Koba, while selfish and traitorous has a tragic backstory, once a laboratory ape, covered from head to toe in the scars from those days where humans constantly sliced him open. Along with his need for power, Koba’s hatred for humans is his defining character trait. Dreyfus on the other hand is a much more noble character. He also has a tragic backstory, with his wife, children and friends, all long dead. Dryfus only wants to protect humanity, even going as far as to sacrifice his own life to do so. Like Koba, who sees humans as all evil torturers, Dryfus sees all apes simply as wild, uncontrollable, unreasonable animals. Their refusal to listen to reason leads us to a climax where it seems that peace will be a thing of the past. Although Malcolm remains optimistic about peace after the dust has seemingly settled, Creaser knows that they have reached a point of no return, and he blames himself for putting his faith in Koba simply because he was an ape.

None of this would have been possible if it weren't for the foundation of the films on which Dawn is based. Instead of a blank slate this film had an remarkably strong point to build on.The audince isn't simply thrown into jump a post-apocalyptic world, we had the first film to set up the events of said apocalypse, as well as introducing characters, including Caesar and Koba. Dawn owes more than just it's basic idea from the original films, cherrypicking all kinds of themes and even Caesar's name from the movies. It also blazed it's own path though, incorporating new ideas with the old, touching on poinent themes in bold new directions, exceeding all of it's source material and becoming the best Planet of the Apes of all time.

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