July 15, 2014

Podcast Episode 22: Bow Down Before Your Ape Overlords At The DAWN OFTHE PLANET OF THE APES

Sometimes you sit in the theater, the lights go down, and within moments you're acutely aware that you're seeing something special.  That the next two hours are going to hit you on many different levels and that you're witnessing the birth of a new classic.  There's a visceral connection.  It's electric.

Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes is just such a movie.

As an eternal fan of smart and cerebral science fiction, I'm almost astounded that I'm fortunate enough to be able to see Dawn just one week after having my world rocked by Snowpiercer - even amidst an avalanche of calculated bullshit like Transformers and Ninja Turtles, there's still truly earth-shattering cinema happening all around us, stuff that doesn't sacrifice intellect on the altar of commercial appeal.  With Dawn we may not have wall-to-wall action beats, but the action we get is truly thrilling and it all works in service of compelling and fully developed characters who each act according to their own tragic yet totally emotionally valid worldview.  The final showdown between apes feels incredibly raw and personal, while an ape siege on the human city is shot with both energy and precision.  You won't be left wanting for action and yet this is a movie in which the first 20 minutes pass in near silence while apes communicate in subtitled sign language.  And while the apes are certainly the heroes, there are plenty of characters to love and hate within each species.  Even the villains, human and ape alike, aren't really villains so much as they're emotionally scarred or misinformed individuals trying to do what they feel is just and necessary to ensure their respective society's survival on a hostile, disease-ravaged planet that sits perched on the brink of total collapse.

Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes was surprise hit, succeeding largely because of the incredible performance of Andy Serkis as Caesar in collaboration with the groundbreaking digital artistry of the folks at WETA.  Both sides of that equation have taken a huge leap forward here.  Serkis continues to amaze as the strong, yet thoughtful and soft-spoken leader of an near utopian ape civilization.  His physicality is fantastic, whether he's scrapping with rival Koba, swinging from tree to tree or hunting a herd of deer.  But it's the quiet moments, when he first holds his newborn baby, tries to connect to his adolescent son or rediscovers an old video tape of James Franco's Will Rodman where Serkis's performance truly astounds.  And while it goes without saying, it simply MUST be said that WETA's work here is simply jaw-dropping.  People will marvel about how "photo-real" the apes all look and they're right to do so; at some point you will forget that you're not actually looking at real creatures or practical effects.  But it's the deep and soulful translation of the actor's emotions that really bring the characters to life and WETA should be commended for using digital effects to appropriately enhance and reinforce the on set performances instead of simply burying them under impressive CG monkey hair.

If nothing else, I am most grateful that this blog has helped to instill in me a lifelong love of the Apes franchise (sans Burton).  I started this site with the original Planet Of The Apes and re-watching all five of the original films plus Rise in preparation for this newest entry reminded me of just why these movies are so special.  On the surface you've got all manner of simian fun and adventure, be it rubber-suited or computer generated, and you can enjoy the films on a purely surface level.  But even in the less successful entries (I'm looking at you, Conquest and Battle) there are still Big Ideas at play and enough social commentary to fuel a dozen thesis papers.  Dawn continues this proud tradition, commenting on everything from gun control and animal cruelty to xenophobia and false flags.  At a time when even Star Trek, the eternal flame of intellectual science fiction, has largely submitted to deafening explosions, needless chase scenes and inexplicable MacGuffins, it's comforting to know that the fire of smart sci-fi will contine to burn bright so long as there are long and awesomely/awkwardly titled Apes movies out there.

Bart, Jamie and I welcome newcomer Jess Hilbun and returning favorite Jeff Schwartz to discuss all this and more in Episode 22 of the podcast.  The girls advance the theory that Caesar is secretly modeled after Harry Potter (he has a scar!) while the guys revel in the dark camp of the original five films.  We also debate the awards worthiness of performance capture (I think Andy Serkis is fully deserving of an Oscar and hope it's just a matter of time) and we ponder whether the kids of today can still appreciate an animated classic like Dumbo.  Also, our dog poops while we're recording.

The summer blockbuster season has officially peaked, and I'm ready for Guardians Of The Galaxy to carry me into the fall.

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