Friday, 25 July 2014

Evolutionary road: "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes"

On the timeline of the Apes, matters are intriguingly poised. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the sequel to 2011's successful prequel Rise of the Planet of the Apes, nudges us a little closer towards the point where the Earth will be reclaimed by simians; presumably, if we keep showing up for these carefully gradated movies - Light Breakfast on the Planet of the Apes, Morning Constitutional of the Planet of the Apes, Elevenses of the Planet of the Apes - we'll eventually reach sundown, and the moment when a new Charlton Heston (Channing Tatum, anyone?) can raise his fists and curse the day those damn, dirty apes first got ideas above their evolutionary station.

As the new film opens, chimp flu has wiped out much of homo sapiens, establishing those monkeys who were unleashed from captivity in the first film's finale as the new kings of the jungle. A bold prologue - possibly indebted to Kubrick's 2001 - flips Rise's premise by dropping us into the midst of the simian community established on the verdant fringes of San Francisco by their leader Caesar: now we humans are the interlopers. The apes have developed their own complex vocabulary of looks, grunts and gestures, among other humanoid traits; they work together and play together, and have gone one better than Michael Gove in establishing an egalitarian, properly functioning education system, overseen by a friendly-faced creature with the somewhat unlikely name of Maurice. (Perhaps he's a gibbon. As in Maurice Gibb-on. Oh, stuff you, then.)

From the off, it's clear that hearts and minds are at stake, and Dawn has at its core one very workable idea: to set out and then explore a world that isn't yet the Planet of the Apes, and yet not quite the world we inhabit. As its CG visions of a newly shaggy, wilded-over San Fran make abundantly clear, everything here is in the balance, up for negotiation - and you get that as much from what's gone on behind the camera as what's going on before it. With the notable exception of Andy Serkis (technically unseen, yet doing more remarkably expressive mo-cap work as Caesar), not a single cast member returns from Rise, and the new faces aren't starry enough to guarantee their survival until the end credits.

Our human hero is Malcolm (Jason Clarke), an engineer who stumbles across the monkey outpost and resolves to build a peace between the species; his greatest opposition will come not from the apes, but from Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), a cranky firebrand determined to wipe out all trace of the hairy, disease-spreading knuckledraggers. The film is alert to the way the two communities mirror one another: the wise and stately Caesar has, in the downtime between films, become a father once again, giving him even greater reason to seek stability, while his underling Koba (Toby Kebbell), whose patchy fur speaks of grim spells in animal testing labs, displays a growing resentment with the peacemakers. If you like, Dreyfus and Koba are the Farages to Malcolm and Caesar's cuddly Cleggs; the suggestion is that every community has one of these cage-rattlers, and that our collective future may come down to how many choose to listen to such types.

Some issues are raised by this choice between patriarchies. Koba's appearance hints that Hollywood still hasn't evolved beyond the old saw that equates virtue with physical beauty: say what you like about Farage, he doesn't have a manky eye to offset the appearance of being a thoroughly reasonable, middle-of-the-road chap. (That's Nick Griffin's thing. Burn.) Neither has there been much development of the franchise's female characters. The 1968 Apes deployed Kim Hunter, an actress who'd gone toe-to-toe with Brando, in a dramatically substantial part as the chimpanzee psychologist and veterinarian Zira; here, Keri Russell takes the dismayingly thin role of Malcolm's tagalong girlfriend, presumably because it was a paycheque between seasons of The Americans, presumably because several bigger names passed.

There is, nevertheless, some mileage in watching loyalties shift between this quartet of alpha males: I saw Dawn in 2D, which may have been a contributing factor, but it struck me as far less interested in those set-pieces that bombard and overwhelm an audience than it was in its nervy, tentative, lower-level interactions between man and ape, through which some fragile allegiances can be tried and tested. That suits Matt Reeves, an at best second-rank action director (Cloverfield, Let Me In): there's a glimpse of big-ticket vision in one 360-degree panning shot as the rotating turret of a tank scans the extent of the chaos Koba has wrought on his way to City Hall, but for the most part, Dawn - as Rise did before it - plays like a neat, self-contained B-movie, the kind of endeavour that hits most of its narrative and emotional beats without insulting the viewer's intelligence. Rare to encounter a summer blockbuster of any scale - let alone a sequel to a prequel - that doesn't entirely feel like a done deal: may there be many more such banana skins on the road to the Statue of Liberty.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

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