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Wednesday, July 9, 2014 02:17 pm

Visually Arresting “Dawn” Overstays its Welcome

One of the more successful franchise reboots, 2012’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes proved that there was a bit of life left in 40-plus year-old series.  20th Century-Fox knows you can’t keep a profitable ape down and has made no small plans where its simians are concerned, with a eighth film in the series set for release in 2016.  In the meantime, we have Matt Reeves’ Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, a thematically strong, visually dynamic entry that’s a necessary chapter in the simian saga that dazzles initially but ultimately becomes a bit long in the tooth.

Caesar (Andy Serkis) tries to get another primate to understand his intentions in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Courtesy 20th Century-Fox

Picking up ten years after Rise, the apes have built a rapidly evolving community outside San Francisco.  Led by Caesar (Andy Serkis), the various primates who follow him have an innate trust in his intelligence and leadership. However, their idyllic existence is disrupted when a small band of humans stumble across their village on their way to a hydroelectric damn they hope to repair in order to provide power to a desperate group of people living in the city by the bay.  Trust is hard to come by between the two groups, but Caesar brokers a tenuous truce that threatens to explode at a moment’s notice.  Of course, there wouldn’t be much of a movie if bloodshed didn’t occur and before you know it, a misunderstanding occurs, a bloody coup takes place that shifts power to the rebellious, bitter ape Koba (Toby Kebbell) and humans finds themselves on the run.

As with Rise, this entry contains amazing visual effects.  There’s seldom a moment when we don’t feel as though the human actors aren’t interacting with the apes.  The crouched, gangling movements of Serkis, Kobell and a variety of others lend a realism to these characters that’s remarkable.  However, the digital work from Shaun Friedberg and his crew is a stunning achievement, as the attention to detail in rendering the hair, eyes, limbs and expressions of these characters produces lifelike simians that are just as engaging as their human counterparts. 

There’s more than enough time to take in these visual delights, as Reeves’ film is too long by at least 20 minutes.  Once the fighting begins at the one-hour mark, a cycle begins that soon becomes repetitious and tedious.  Prolonged battles, needless narrative complications and action sequences that go far past their sell-by date make for a tedious third act that ultimately wallows in excess to the detriment of the entire film. 

A rare moment of understanding between human and ape in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.
Courtesy 20th Century-Fox

This is too bad as there’s a great deal of good work done in the film by the cast while some of the more meaningful moments in the movie end up being lost in the cacophony that results.  Jason Clarke as the understanding human Malcolm provides a calm center to the tumult that rages around him while Keri Russell as a benevolent doctor underplays to great effect as well.  Gary Oldman, handed the thankless role of Dreyfus, the reactionary leader of the humans, manages to find some shades of gray in the role while youngster Kodi Smit-McPhee as Malcolm’s confused teenage son makes his presence known and anchors the film’s best scene as his character attempts to teach a curious orangutan how to read. 

Fans of the series will likely be pleased with this entry and 20th Century-Fox is banking on it to the tune of $120 million. They’ll likely recoup their costs here and much more with foreign markets as these apes are beginning to resemble cats what with the many cinematic lives they’re displaying.  Here’s hoping the next time out they don’t take after Dawn which ended up reminding me of three-day old fish and guests.   

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