It’s in the nature of film criticism to be subjective, but there are always some movies for which that seems more true than others. There are plenty of times where a movie fails at very specific places, and although these shortcomings don’t preclude someone from liking the movie anyways, they’re easy to point to and say, “This is why I feel this way.” Then there are movies like Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, movies for which it becomes nearly impossible to lay your finger on exactly why the movie didn’t work for you. It’s something more than mere dismissal – there are certainly elements of the movie which were lacking – but just as inescapably, there is an essential personal reaction which says, “No, overall I didn’t enjoy this.” Which isn’t to say that the same film won’t click for others. I doubt popular opinion will swing too far in one direction or the other from center, but I’m also betting this will be one of the more opinion-dividing mainstream films of the year.
The best analog I can think of to explain my feelings about this movie actually comes in the form of another big movie from earlier this year: Captain America: The Winter Soldier. If you read my review (which you can find here, if you’re interested), you may recall that I said The Winter Soldier suffered some pretty big faults when it came to telling its story as a movie, but that I was also pretty quick to forgive these shortcomings and grade the film positively. My rationale was (hopefully) a bit more nuanced, but it boiled down to something like, “I like superheroes, I had fun, yay Captain America.” Find roughly the inverse of those sentiments, and that’s where I’m sitting right now with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.
Dawn is exactly the sort of shiny summer movie you expect to see this time of year. The plot takes no risks, but it’s entirely competent and lacking any of the holes I’ve almost come to expect from movies like these. The pre-title intro very neatly lays out how the same virus that made Caesar and the apes from Rise of the Planet of the Apes “smart” began attacking humans, leading to the species’ mass extinction. Roughly one in 500 people were naturally immune, and they’ve soldiered on in the sort of makeshift postapocalyptic communities we’ll find familiar (meaning the film has to devote zero time to the politics of the community at large).
That’s important, because the majority of the runtime is devoted not to the human characters, but to the simian ones. Caesar from Rise returns (played via motion capture by Andy Serkis) and is now the chieftain of an ape clan living in the forest just outside of San Francisco. They soon encounter a group of humans led by Malcom (Jason Clarke of Zero Dark Thirty fame) and Dreyfus (Gary Oldman, essentially filling the same role he did in The Book of Eli) who are running out of fuel for their electric generators and hope to connect the hydroelectric generator from an old dam to their power grid. The problem is that to get there, they must go through Caesar’s territory, and the two groups do not trust each other, especially after one of the humans shoots an ape. The story from there treads very familiar territory – there are those on both sides who work for peace, and those who hunger for war, but the community politics are seen mostly on the ape side, not the human one.
As I look for ways to explain, to myself as much as to anyone else, why I failed to connect with this movie and not others (like The Winter Soldier), this is one reason that I find myself pointing to. The idea of a “Planet of the Apes” film, or any sci-fi story for that matter, is that there is space to get outside the confines of reality and introduce a new story, or at least a new angle on an old one. This was a little too straightforward Montagues and Capulets, Trojans and Greeks, Corleones and the five families. Israelis and Palestinians. Sure, there are undertones of racial friction which are occasionally referenced, but that’s exactly the problem. The apes are a stand-in for choose-your-ethnic-group-to-fear-and-hate, but the movie doesn’t do much to leverage its thematic position. This and other thematic droplets are present to give the illusion of depth, but they add nothing new to the conversation.
For me, the thematic stuff is a bit of a bummer, but it’s the lack of originality that robbed the plot of most of its joy. Watching the evil characters drive what was initially a compelling set of interactions, pitting mutual mistrust against necessary risk, into the more boring open war (which provides for the requisite battle set pieces) pained me because it’s not fun to watch the evil characters get away with murder and deception, but doubly so because A) they simultaneously killed a movie that seemed to be going more interesting places, B) it end up being a little forced, and C) we knew it was coming anyways.
And maybe that’s really what did the film in for me: no surprises. There were minor issues in the dialogue and pacing, sure, but they’re not enough to derail a movie. But even though the characters all had believable motivations, they were all just a bit mundane.
I guess the one technical bit that does bear mention, just because I’m sure people are curious, is the use of CGI and motion capture. The apes look good and move great, but it is really difficult to tell what was added by motion capture and what is just the capability of a good animator nowadays. There will be plenty who rave about the detail of the CGI, I’m sure, but once more, it’s not remarkable to have good computer generated characters anymore. With so many apes (not to mention all the computer-aided backgrounds), I was reminded of when I re-watched Avatar recently. Sure, it looks pretty good. But you can also tell that nearly the entire frame is a cartoon, and we’re still only matching the detail fidelity of the ape costumes from the original Planet of the Apes.
The Verdict: 2 out of 5
I’m sure to be called harsh in this grade, but the fact is that reviewing a film is sometimes a more subjective process than we’d like it to be. Hopefully for some of the reasons I’ve been able to enumerate above, and in all likelihood for several others, this movie simply did not click with me. It will with others, I’m almost certain. There’s just too much indifference for me to give it a higher grade. The plot is fine, but have our standards sunk to the point that we sing the praises of the merely competent? The acting was fine, but no performance is memorable. This movie is a line on a resume, another installment in a franchise, a film that escapes most of my ire, but neither does anything to set itself apart.