A Year of Unlimited Review #1 – Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

I threatened it in my latest blog post here, and thus it has come to pass: a series of blogs I’m going to call “A Year of Unlimited”, which isn’t perhaps the catchiest way to put it, but encapsulates my attempts to blog about every film I see while I’m signed up to the Unlimited service (incidentally, I got a free month added on the end because it’s summer (!) but “13 Months of Unlimited” isn’t exactly catchy).

Just for context: the cinema (in the middle) and my flat (above Accessorise). CONVENIENCE
Just for context: the cinema (in the middle) and my flat (above Accessorise). CONVENIENCE

What luck I had with the first film of the lot – promoted heavily by Cineworld’s Twitter and email campaigns, Tuesday 15 July at 8pm saw a nationwide “Secret Screening”, which saw me, in the lead up to last Tuesday, trying to guess what it might be. The company regularly does these screenings exclusively for Unlimited customers for movies ahead of time, and tries to get users to guess what the film is with some (awful clues) – all three of which I’ve copied in below:

  • As the charioteer rides to the stars accusations are made between factions, can the emperor step up to avoid a battle? (with hindsight, charioteer = Ben-Hur = Charlton Heston = first Planet of the Apes film)
  • Oh my stars! In what universe can the son of Orion slay his commander in a truly vicious attack? Can he get everyone of us? (the last part made me think “FLASH! AHH AHH!”)
  • A star through the ages, producing fear with resurrection but also unknown pleasures for those who revelled all day long (seriously, what?!)

I’d guessed The Rock-starting Hercules or Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, which to be honest seemed more likely given the clues, but no – Apes it was. Once in the cinema (after waiting in a long queue for the free Coke Zero we’d all been promised), we were greeted with a few trailers before an on-screen message confirming what we were seeing from Andy Serkis (Gollum/King Kong/Caesar) himself, and it began…

I remember hearing about Rise of the Planet of the Apes when it came out in 2011, but I paid no attention to it til I started seeing brilliant reviews all over the place. It was only when I saw the film on Sky Movies a year later that I thought “probably should have seen this in the cinema” – it was a great film that came out of nowhere, and was genuinely different to the normal blockbuster fare. If you haven’t seen that film, I obviously recommend it, though it isn’t 100 percent necessary to have seen it before you see DotPotA (good acronym right?).

A short synopsis of this film – an Alzheimer’s drug tested on apes made one in particular intelligent (Caesar), whilst at the same time proving fatal to most of the human population. This film takes place 10 years after RotPotA (I love these), where the apes have created their own society, are capable of rudimentary speech and writing, and are just getting on with it. A bunch of humans accidentally stumble into their home, some with good intentions and others with “bad” (more of this later), and… well, shit happens.

I really did enjoy this film. It’s hard to make a sequel that works when it comes to most film franchises, and DotPotA had its work cut out being the (deep breath)… sequel to a prequel reboot of a series of older movies (writing this series of words = part of what’s gone wrong with modern blockbusters, incidentally). But a combination of the very best computer visual effects yet achieved and a storyline and motivations that actually make sense mean that the film succeeds on its own merits.

There were points – and this is without hyperbole – that I did forget I was watching computer-generated apes. The special effects by New Zealand company Weta (well-known for Lord of the Rings but also Avatar and a whole host of other movies) made me wonder how much longer we’ll have to wait before special effects are almost indistinguishable from the real thing. One monkey in particular – an orangutan called Maurice – I spent the film looking at when onscreen to see any form of “join” or mark of being a computer-realised monkey. And I couldn’t – I just could not find anything to poke a hole in the effect. Scenes with tens and then hundreds of monkeys only add to the sense that you are seeing something quite spectacular.

How can you not be interested to see a film with a poster like this?!
How can you not be interested to see a film with a poster like this?!

Of course, what most people will know about this film is that its main character – Caesar the chimpanzee – is “played” by Andy Serkis, who’s carved a one-man niche for these motion-captured roles in movies since The Two Towers came out 12 years ago. His performances as these characters have become the subject of much debate, largely thanks to his own unfortunate ability to trumpet his own involvement over the work of hundreds of others, but there’s always something about these performances that mean you can just about sense his expressions, mannerisms and tics below the pixel surface, though I’d argue Gollum was probably the closest and best, even a decade on.

It’s hard to review this sort of acting – both he and Tony Kebbell as Koba (a British actor in a whole host of other movies you may have seen, look him up) are the main “stars” of the motion-capture cast, and insomuch as I can confidently say so, their portrayals of monkeys are great. In fact, the apes are so good, and so interesting, and so fascinating to watch, that the human characters, in contrast, aren’t quite as great. Aussie actor Jason Clarke (doomed to join the “that guy from that thing” brigade) and Gary “BRING EVERYONE” Oldman suffer simply because they’re humans and not apes, though at least both have a plot they can work with that provides genuine conflicts for the viewer (more on that in a bit). Unfortunately, as with most blockbusters, there are very few female roles, and Keri Russell, playing Clarke’s character’s partner, doesn’t really do or say much – any of the human characters could have been a woman, but she’s the only one given even a smidgen of a role.

The plot, surprisingly for a blockbuster, was quite excellent. The different aspects of the story, and the reasons why characters do what they do, present the viewer with the perspective that you understand even the “evil/bad” characters’ reasons for doing what they do. This is refreshing to see in a big, Hollywood movie, and why so many films get made and get so popular with plots that you can, quite honestly, destroy with only a few minutes’  discussion, is beyond me when something this nuanced comes along.

Other aspects of the film, like the soundtrack and editing, didn’t really stand out too much for me – they helped create the atmosphere and built tension, but the music wasn’t memorable or groundbreaking, which I suppose helped the film itself actually shine through. The ending provides an obvious template for a sequel, but as mentioned above in regards to the plot, it presents all the options for a Hollywood ending and… well, shuns them. It’s brave in some ways to do this, and you’re always expecting, to paraphrase Homer Simpson, everything to be wrapped up in a nice little package, but this film is beguiling and different enough not to allow that to happen.

So yeah – I really did enjoy this film, and I’d recommend it to those who have or haven’t seen the first in the re-imagining of the series (not the original but the first remake of the… argh. Rise of the Planet of the Apes).

And for those who still aren’t swung? A monkey rides a horse through fire with two machine guns firing at humans. What other film can offer you that as well as amazing special effects and a good, interesting plot? Eh?

NEXT UP: (about 98 percent likely) Guardians of the Galaxy

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