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‘Dawn of Apes’ more than just an action flick

POSTED: July 10, 2014 1:00 a.m.

“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” swings into theaters this week, continuing one of the most surprisingly enduring franchises in movie history.

What began in 1968 as quirky science-fiction has now become, dare I say it, important.

Director Matt Reeves (“Let Me In,” “Cloverfield”) and his crew honor the legacy of their ancestors while building their own mythology and expanding the world of the series.

Since the last film, a virus has wiped out most of the human race. A small colony of survivors, led by a hawkish man named Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) and his dovish colleague Malcolm (Jason Clarke), must repair a dam to provide themselves with electricity.

Meanwhile, an ape society situated across the Golden Gate Bridge is forced to deal with more complicated issues.

Caesar (Andy Serkis) is now the leader of a self-sufficient village among the redwoods. He has a loving mate, an adolescent son and a newborn son. Kabo, Maurice and Rocket, Caesar’s fellow escapees from the previous film, are among his closest friends and advisers.

Their highly organized, peaceful society belies their primitive appearance.

Everything is thrown into disarray, though, when a small group of humans wanders into the forest near the village. Differing opinions on how to respond to the humans’ presence and their plan to restart the dam exposes deep rifts among Caesar’s leaders.

As with many of the “Planet of the Apes” movies, the scenario creates a deep irony. The humans have been reduced to survival, while the apes play out a drama straight from one of Shakespeare’s plays.

One of Caesar’s advisers manipulates Caesar’s son, the heir to the throne, and other members of the village to undermine Caesar’s leadership. That traitor then secretly instigates a battle between the apes and humans.

The movie offers a lot of thrilling action, but the most fascinating conflict is the battle over Caesar’s throne.

The filmmakers hold onto many of the defining elements of the original movie series.

We are meant to sympathize more with the apes than humans. While most of the human characters personify some of our more destructive instincts, Malcolm, his love interest Ellie (Keri Russell), and his son, Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee), offer a model of understanding.

You will only notice these intricacies of characterization, though, if you can manage to force yourself to look beyond the dazzling motion capture and computer-generated animation work. And that will not be easy. This is a breathtaking piece of digital filmmaking.

I had to remind myself numerous times Caesar, his son and all the other apes are just computer code and not real, living beings. The animation of facial expressions and textures alone marks an evolutionary leap forward in computer imaging.

This is also a massive production with hundreds of real extras and animated apes battling across the cityscape of San Francisco. Reeves and his crew get to work on a scale that producers of the earlier “Planet of the Apes” movies only dreamt about.

Along with “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is among the best blockbusters of 2014 so far. Both films offer the eye candy we want during summer yet maintain a level of storytelling quality that doesn’t make us feel guilty as we leave the theater.

The original “Planet of the Apes,” with its passionate critique of fundamentalism, remains as relevant in 2014 as it was when first released. “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” doesn’t offer any similar, individual moments of philosophical epiphany.

However, the film as a whole urges us to reconsider our perceptions of characters unlike ourselves and show them compassion and be motivated by love rather than fear. In other words, to find our own humanity.

Jeff Marker is head of the Communication, Media & Journalism Department at the University of North Georgia. His reviews appear weekly in Get Out and on gainesvilletimes.com/getout.


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