Review: 'Apes' sequel is potent, nightmarish

Posted at 07/09/14 12:46 PM

Poster of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

MANILA -- You've got to remember to breathe deep for this movie: you might be holding your breath for a while.

"Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" by director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, Let Me In) is the first summer movie that demands repeat viewings. That is no hype. This is masterful science fiction, potent and nightmarish. It tackles topics as heady as peace negotiations, the corruption of power, interspecies bloodlust and leadership through strength.

It also occupies that rarefied place in filmdom -- a sequel that is better than the original. At one point, the imagery on screen reminded me of World War II Nazi propaganda and George Orwell's "Animal Farm." Yes, the lead character is an ape named Caesar but the drama and the politics are all too human.

What "Dawn" does best is turning narrative convention on its head. Good science fiction is always surprising and the best way to experience this movie is coming in sans expectations. The film also astounds in creating a fully realized world, whether it's a redwood forest filled with apes or a San Francisco attacked by nature and left to rot as humanity dies out.

Set 10 years after "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," the sequel's preamble is a series of red lines showing the spread of the Simian Flu ALZ-113 virus that was created and released during the first film. Mankind has essentially been wiped out with only a few survivors left because of a natural immunity to the virus.

"Fear makes them follow." A scene from Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Photo by 20th Century Fox

While ALZ-113 raged, Caesar and his band of intelligent apes have carved out their own society in the forest outside San Francisco.

Director Reeves shows an inventive, immersive world of an ape society that has hunter-gatherers, schools and an authority structure centered on the emancipator ape Caesar. There is almost no dialogue in the early part of the movie; the apes communicate mostly through sign language.

The motion capture effects on Caesar (played by Andy Serkis) and the rest of the ape community are astounding, the only time I felt something was amiss was when the mo-cap apes had to ride horses. This ape paradise is like seeing Eden before the arrival of homo sapiens, the peace before the storm. By the time the first human arrives, wielding a gun no less, you know that violence is inevitable.

Jason Clarke (Malcolm) is the first human to befriend Caesar and the apes because he needs to turn on a dam that would generate power for San Francisco. He is helped by his second wife Ellie (Keri Russell), Alex (Kodi Smit-McPhee), Kempt (Enrique Murciano) and Carver (Kirk Acevedo) -- the aforementioned human with an itchy trigger finger.

The humans get two-dimensional treatment in this movie, with Gary Oldman's Dreyfus failing to rise above the conflicted leader role he is given. Clarke gets better treatment as peace ambassador and human friend of Caesar, who will need to make a choice between the two species.

Malcolm (Jason Clarke) kneels before Caesar. Photo by 20th Century Fox

On the flip side, there is something hypnotic about the ape king Caesar. Caesar, who experienced both kindness and brutality from the hands of humans, is a tragic character whose name is a harbinger for the events to come. "Dawn" charts Caesar's rise and fall as the brutal king of the apes and we are there for the ride.

Another interesting character is Koba, the ape who suffered at the hands of scientists before Caesar rescued him. Koba wants nothing more than revenge for the torture he received at the hands of the humans and it is his actions that destroy the fragile peace between man and ape.

There's a tension pervading the film every time an ape shows up. Capable of being both funny and tender, the apes are also capable of unbelievable acts of violence. One fight between Caesar and Koba, his second-in-command and a more than passable Absalom surrogate, skirts the edge of that PG-13 rating.

The character of Koba could give you nightmares. Photo by 20th Century Fox

Many of the violent scenes in this movie may be bloodless but still shock and one particular nightmarish scene brings back images of the Holocaust. It's upsetting but you can't look away.

"Dawn" succeeds as a film that inspires conversation long after the credits run. It fires the imagination for what's next in the franchise. "Dawn" stands tall as the smartest sci-fi film in a summer filled with mutants, transforming robots and a giant monster.

By the end of the movie, some people in the audience were clapping. The film totally deserves it. Even Will Shakespeare would be proud.

The movie opens Wednesday in Philippine cinemas.