The Critic's Corner

July 21-27, 2014

‘Apes’ evolves nicely

By David Laprad

This summer at the movies has been good to fans of science fiction. We’ve had the empty spectacle of “Transformers: Age of Extinction.” We’ve had the intelligence and humor of “Edge of Tomorrow.” And now we have the thoughtful character work of “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.”

That’s not to say “Apes” is bereft of spectacle. Throughout the movie, I marveled at the untold hours the animators must have spent meticulously bringing the apes to life. From epic battle shots containing hundreds of primates to intimate close-ups, the clarity, detail, and emotional conveyance are impressive. With the exception of a few stiff shots of apes riding horseback, the creatures look as real as any living thing I’ve seen on a movie screen.

That’s also not to say “Apes” isn’t smart. On the contrary, a lot of thought clearly went into the screenplay, which uses discord between ape and man to explore the nature of human conflict.

But at its heart, “Apes” is about its characters and how they relate to each other. In this respect, it’s as engaging as any modern drama or film based on classic literature.

The movie opens with an extended sequence in the ape community. It’s been a decade since the events in the first movie, and a virus has wiped out most humans. All that remains of mankind are scattered pockets of people who are genetically resistant to the disease, including the community holed up in a dilapidated skyscraper in San Francisco.

In the woods beyond the city, we follow Caesar, the principle ape in the original film, as he leads the males of his tribe on a hunt. We meet his good friend, Koba, a severely scarred ape who suffered at the hands of human scientists, and his son, Blue Eyes. Koba is a firecracker waiting for its fuse to be lit, while Caesar’s son is a typical teen - stubborn and prideful. You might think these details are there simply to flesh out the characters, but the writers are laying the foundation for events that will occur later. Like green builders constructing an environmentally friendly house, they waste nothing.

Caesar remains the focus for several more minutes as he returns to his village to interact with the rest of his tribe and witness his “wife” giving birth to their son. By the end of this opening sequence, I saw the apes not as animals fueled only by hunger and instinct, but as intelligent and feeling living beings. This was a great way to open the movie because it catches viewers off guard, strips them of their expectations, and sets them up for something more interesting than standard sci-fi pulp.

Meanwhile, the human colony is running out of gas and wants to repair the dam outside the city for energy. Getting there will take them through ape territory, though, and an early encounter between ape and human shows this won’t be easy. The leader of the humans, Dreyfus, believes aggression is the answer, but fellow leader Malcolm convinces him to wait while he seeks a diplomatic solution.

“Apes” takes time to explore the natural dynamics of this well-laid foundation. A tenuous trust is slowly reached between the apes and the humans, the leaders try to balance call the need for war with their desire for peace (“If they have electricity, they will become more powerful than us,” Koba says to a brooding Caesar), villains scheme to ignite a war, and old friendships are broken while new ones are forged.

But under all of the well-reasoned plotting are the characters and their interactions. Perhaps my favorite exchange in the movie comes as Koba tries to manipulate Blue Eyes into following the path of war against his father’s wishes: “Your father no longer trusts me. It’s now up to you to protect him.” That’s the kind of writing sci-fi movies need more of.

If I have one complaint about “Apes,” it’s that it struggles to entertain. For all of its insight, and despite its use of cutting edge computer animation and animatronics, “Apes” is a somber affair. As I walked out, I was both in awe of what I’d seen and disappointed it wasn’t more fun. I suppose I could see “Transformers” again.

What a summer!

Three-and-a-half stars out of four. Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action and violence and brief strong language.