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Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Say what you want about their production values, particularly the cheesy, rubbery make-up the actors were forced to wear in the older films, but the “Planet of the Apes” series, at least thematically, is one of the best and most intelligent science fiction series ever created. Though not all were created equal, each movie had something fascinating to explore, but the first stands above the rest. With battling themes of science vs. religion and a controversial stance that intellectual progression was being impeded by archaic religious thought (which remains controversial even to this day), “Planet of the Apes” cemented itself as a riveting, thought provoking science fiction film. The following films dealt with bigotry, slavery, war and more, which kept them interesting even as their overall quality declined.

The 2011 series comeback, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” attempted to explore similar ground, but lacked its predecessors’ profundity. The newest entry, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” similarly fails to make much of a thematic impression, but it’s a damn fine movie nonetheless, a summer spectacle full of mind-blowing action, wonderfully developed characters and a surprisingly emotional story you won’t soon forget. Even with its thematic deficiencies, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” can stand proud as the best film in the franchise since the 1968 original.

Ten years have passed since the last film and two since the last humans have been seen. The leader of the evolving apes, Caesar (Andy Serkis), has built a sanctuary for his fellow apes, a place they can all call home in the peaceful mountains outside San Francisco. However, just when they think humans might be gone for good, they stumble upon some on a mountain path. In their panic, the humans shoot one of the apes’ sons, creating tension between the two factions. Back in quarantined San Francisco, Malcolm (Jason Clarke) tells their own leader, Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), what they saw: talking apes in mass numbers. Dreyfus brushes this off as panicked hysteria, but soon finds his words to be true when the apes appear in front of them, demanding segregation. They’ll fight if they have to, but they would prefer peace, achieved by keeping the humans in the city and the apes in the mountains. This arrangement isn’t ideal for the humans, however, because they are running out of power and need to fix the dam in the mountains. Despite some skepticism, Caesar agrees to let them fix it, but each side is uncomfortable with the other and their paranoia leads them down a path neither want to travel.

“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” does a remarkable thing. Whereas most movies create two clear factions, one good and one bad, this one balances both masterfully, to the point where there is no distinct good or bad side. Each of those sides has good and bad characters, those that try to prevent war and others that try to perpetuate it, but it’s not always a case of this side being right and that side being wrong. All are simply trying to survive in a new and mysterious world, so you come to care about both humans and apes, wishing hard for a peaceful outcome, but knowing the outcome is predetermined.

At its core, this is a film about family, in both the literal sense and in the camaraderie the two species have with their own kind. Each are willing to do whatever it takes to keep their families safe, neither wanting to go to war, but both willing to if they must. What “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” lacks in thematic depth, it more than makes up for with these wonderfully well written characters—the best written in the entire series—which leads way to an incredibly moving story that proceeds the way it does not simply because the screenplay calls for it, but because the characters onscreen have developed realistic motivations based on the experiences they had before.

This gives the action that follows more meaning than your typical summer fare. Only briefly does the story take a backseat to that action before it catches back up and gives it some narrative context. The death and destruction that erupts is heartbreaking due to the film’s delicate handling of its characters, which continues through these breathtaking action sequences, including a steady cam single take on top of a tank that is enough to impress even non-film enthusiasts who don’t usually notice those types of visual touches.

If you’re a fan of the original films and are looking for some meaning in “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” you’ll find some, but it’s nothing as interesting as the franchise’s previous thematic endeavors. You’ll get those themes of segregation, submission, control through fear and more, but we’ve seen these ideas before in other, more thematically focused films. Instead, this movie focuses on its finely tuned, character driven story, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Even if you go in looking for something that ultimately isn’t there, you’ll leave happy after seeing what is.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes receives 4.5/5


The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Full disclosure: I’m not a Lord of the Rings fan. It’s not that I think they’re bad movies or anything—I completely acknowledge the skill put behind their creation—they’re just not my thing. Although a critic should be as neutral as possible going into a film, you can chalk my opinion of those up to personal taste. My reaction to The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is largely the same: I admire it more than I actually enjoy it, but one thing is clear. This is not on the same level of Lord of the Rings. Revisiting Middle Earth here is like going to Disney World when you’re an adult. It’s still enjoyable, but you’re probably better off reminiscing over your beloved memories than taking a return trip.

It’s sixty years prior to the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the titular hobbit, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), is a young man. He lives a comfortable life in his familiar home and doesn’t think much about the outside world, that is until Gandalf (Ian McKellen) makes an appearance, asking him if he wants to go on an adventure. Initially, he refuses, but as Dwarves begin piling in his house, he finds he has no choice and sets off to Lonely Mountain to help the Dwarves reclaim a stolen treasure from a dragon named Smaug.

If The Lord of the Rings is the popular kid in high school that was respected and loved by everyone around him, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is its wanna-be little brother. It aspires to reach the heights of its predecessors, doing its very best to mimic them, but never fully captures their true spirit. Comparatively, it’s a lot less epic and way goofier, though it hides under the guise of an epic. Every other minute, played out jokes, like smoke billowing out of someone’s ears, rear their ugly head. Characters actually go from telling cheap jokes to telling sad, dramatic stories all within the same sentences, occasionally even breaking in the middle of one of those stories to toss out another lazy gag. Even when they’re facing death, they’re joking around. I don’t want to say The Hobbit doesn’t know what it wants to be because it does. It just wants to be all things at once and never finds a solid footing because of it.

Those jokes even make their way into segues between scenes. Rather than finding a proper way to make that transition, the film uses random comedic interjections, very few of which are funny, though to be totally fair, it would be difficult to tie together what sometimes seem like unconnected sequences that are irrelevant to the greater story at hand, like when Bilbo and his gang of Dwarves find themselves in the middle of a battle between two stone giants. No context is put behind this moment. It exists only as a lazy way to add peril to what would otherwise have been a boring trek.

Frankly, that’s been the problem for the entire series as a whole. Its visual and creative ingenuity sometimes feel like they exist in the picture just to show off rather than to progress the already bloated stories (The Hobbit runs nearly three hours long). Luckily for this movie, the visuals are so mind blowing that such narrative inconsistencies are easier to forgive. At least in terms of art direction, cinematography and CGI, The Hobbit is utter eye candy, some of the prettiest you’ve probably ever seen, to the point where the computer animated characters would be indistinguishable from the actors onscreen if not for the fact that we know they don’t exist.

The big issue on movie fans’ minds, however, has to do with the much talked about 48 frames per second the film is being shown in. Some have claimed to get migraines watching it, others nausea. Although I suppose such reactions are dependent on the person watching it, it wasn’t a big deal for me or the others at my screening. It takes some time to get used to, roughly 30-45 minutes, but it shouldn’t detract much, if at all, from your enjoyment of the film. Only when the film gets really hectic does it become a bother; our eyes and brains aren’t used to the frame rate, so it’s occasionally difficult to keep up with the action onscreen. When it’s calm, though, it’s one of the clearest, crispest, most realistic things I’ve ever seen, to the point where it felt like I was peering through a spotless window into an alternate reality.

Critical reactions of the film have varied, mainly due to the wildly different viewpoints on the frame rate, and I suspect fan reaction will be the same. Those hoping for epic battles and sweeping adventure akin to its bigger and more successful brethren will be disappointed. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is no Lord of the Rings, but with any luck, its shortcomings will be rectified in the upcoming sequels. If nothing else, it does an admirable job of setting up the story and fluidly reintroducing familiar characters we’ve all come to know and love and it ends on a cliffhanger that promises better things to come. This may not be what many will hope and expect, but that certainly doesn’t make it a bad movie; just an underwhelming one that is nevertheless worth seeing.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey receives 3/5


Rise of the Planet of the Apes

The original Planet of the Apes is one of the best science fiction movies ever made because it took a B-movie idea and turned it into something more. It battled themes of science vs. religion and took a bold stance, that intellectual progression was being impeded by archaic religious thought. It’s a controversial idea, but it’s nevertheless an interesting one and it can be argued that such a thing is still happening even today. The movies that followed dealt with intolerance, slavery, and the perpetuation of war, criticizing those who worship the bomb (a theme made perhaps a bit too literal in the second film), among others. All of this derived from a single creative concept: what if apes were the dominant species? The newest film in the series, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, tries to tackle heavy issues, but lacks the profundity of its predecessors. What it amounts to is simply another summer movie spectacle, but at least it’s a good one.

The film begins prior to the events of the first film (and disregards the rest). Will (James Franco) is a scientist working on an experiment drug known as ALZ-112. It’s a rebuilding drug that he hopes will be able to cure certain mental ailments, such as Alzheimer’s, which his father, Charles (John Lithgow), is suffering from. To test the drug, he and his co-workers experiment on apes, which ends up yielding positive results. With only one small dose, the apes are able to intelligently reason. It appears they are getting smarter. One day, however, something goes wrong and Chimp #9 goes berserk in front of the company’s board of directors, effectively shutting down the experiments. What they don’t realize is that the ape was only protecting her newborn son, afraid he would receive the same painful treatment. She dies, but her son, eventually named Caesar (Andy Serkis in a motion capture performance), is taken home by Will, who realizes that the drug was passed down hereditarily. As the years go by, Caesar becomes smarter and smarter, eventually leading to a revelation and beginning the rise of the apes.

Though sometimes billed as a prequel, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is more a reboot of the series, or even a reimagining of the fourth film in the series, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, which tackled similar territory, but it’s different enough that it can skillfully stand alone. It could almost entirely exist outside of the rest of the series had it not been for a couple of nods to the original film, one humorous and welcome and one so blatantly out of place it pulls you out of the movie (though it really shouldn’t come as a surprise). It takes a couple of things from Conquest, namely the ape being walked around on a leash and treated like a pet, but otherwise, it’s totally different, and that’s a good thing because Conquest is one of the worst in the series.

What the movie does so beautifully is make us understand why Caesar comes to act the way he does. He isn’t treated well and, though it suffers from exaggerated cruelty from a few human characters, the film does a good job of making us sympathize with the apes and root against our own species. Some of Caesar’s action, which become more and more humanlike as the movie goes on, will come off as cheesy to some, if the constant snickering in my screening is any indication, but I found his decisions to be hard hitting and narratively necessary. Rise does a great job of establishing the effects of the drug that has been coursing through his body since birth, so of course he’s going to learn human behavior. It takes the phrase “monkey see, monkey do” to a whole new level.

The few times it gets a bit too silly for its own good are in its use of subtitles when the apes sign to each other, which are dumbed down to sound prehistoric (“Human no like smart ape”), and when Caesar essentially becomes a rebellious teenager, like in one scene where he defiantly pushes his plate of food away after being told to eat it. But on the whole, Rise of the Planet of the Apes should be taken as a serious, dramatic movie that can be interpreted in one of two ways: as a message about playing God or as one against animal testing. The problem is it thinks it’s profound, when it really isn’t. The former message is cliché and overheard while the latter is preachy and laughable. I wouldn’t say this is a particularly deep movie; it’s just well made and interesting. It’s a disappointment to be sure, but it had lofty expectations to live up to. The fact that it’s still pretty good is something for which to be grateful.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes receives 3.5/5