Review: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

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Dawn of the Planet of the Apes posterEvery type of writing has its set of rules -- not as strict as a sonnet or even a haiku, but still necessary to keep content focused and readers engaged. A standard movie review is no exception. Over the years, I've amassed a strong list from writing reviews, editing other people's reviews and discussing review quality with other editors.

I think it's important to know all the rules for your particular arena of art or craft ... so you can break them when necessary. And the movie Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is causing me to break damn near all the rules. I'll show you what I mean.

Summarize your overall opinion of the movie within the first or second paragraph.

Broke that one, but let me make it simple for you now: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a disappointing, dull movie with amazing set pieces dimmed by 3D and a storyline that is sledgehammer-subtle.

A decade after the end of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the apes have formed their own quite impressive colony and fallen into a regular-guy (ape) pattern of existence. Caesar (Andy Serkis) still leads the community while raising his nearly grown son, and awaiting the arrival of his newly-born son.

But humans appear seemingly out of nowhere, brandishing (and using) guns, and destroying the colony's peace. Caesar is willing to work with them, especially the leader of the team, Malcolm (Jason Clarke), who has a teenage son of his own tagging along. But Scar, oops, I mean Koba (Toby Kebbell), mistrusts all humans and their weaponry. His human counterpart is Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), who sees the apes as merely animals and is ready to destroy them in the name of human survival. You can see the trouble brewing -- it won't take much to start a human-ape war.

In fact, the problem is that not only can you see the trouble brewing, you can see every plot point in the movie as it hurtles toward you, and you can predict most of the terribly cliched lines of dialogue.

Avoid the first person. [The argument for this is generally that sentences like "I believe the score overwhelmed the scene" loses strength as opposed to "The score overwhelmed the scene."]

The brilliant exception to this mediocrity is Serkis as Caesar. I believed Caesar was a real ape, I was entirely convinced, and I empathized with him. His strong performance shines out like a beacon. Unfortunately, he's counterbalanced by Toby Kebbell's Koba, a character that was unbelievably one-dimensional. Something about the effects/makeup even made him look cartoonish and unreal.

But then everyone is a stereotype, apart from Caesar. The characters have no depth and do nothing surprising in the slightest. Gary Oldman gets absolutely nothing to work with here -- it's Commissioner Gordon with less tolerance. And the female characters -- well, I'll get there.

Don't read other critics' reviews until you've finished your own.

I actually obey this rule faithfully, because I don't want to accidentally pick up someone else's bon mot. But on social media, it's impossible not to see critics' and friends' overall opinions of the movie. And what I keep hearing about is the wonderful moral complexity of this movie, which is part of what makes it great.

I feel like I'm missing something. I've seen a couple of the original Planet of the Apes movies (the first and third) and I'm well aware that the moral messages are very straightforward, front and center -- this is a trademark of the franchise. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes has little to offer morally that wasn't in the 1968 film. The messages here are Speciesism Is Bad -- which translates into any kind of nationalism or racism -- and Guns Are Very Very Bad. These themes, which are not exactly groundbreaking, are driven home repeatedly and without subtlety.

If you analyze the way female characters are written and treated in every review you write, this type of observation will lose its impact and your readers will roll their eyes when they get to the Feminist Paragraph. Write it if you must, but then take it out before you publish.

Apparently the Bigotry Is Bad theme doesn't extend to the womenfolk. Exactly two women have speaking(ish) roles: Dr. Ellie Sattler -- oops, I mean just Ellie, the Supportive Partner and Healer; and Caesar's wife, who is in the film solely as a plot device and has no personality whatsoever. She gives birth and hugs people, and that's about it. (Maurice is voiced by a woman, but you wouldn't know that without reading the credits.)

And in reading the credits I find that Caesar's wife is named Cornelia and that she's played by Judy Greer, which is an even bigger waste of acting talent than Gary Oldman.

The same goes for racism, especially racism-by-omission.

The human colony in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is located in San Francisco. A third of the population currently in/around that city is Asian. Guess how many Asian characters are seen in the film? Unless I missed a few in the crowd, exactly zero. It's a majority-white community from what I can tell, which in a movie that is supposed to be questioning the morality of nationalism/racism is inexcusable.

Avoid comparisons with other films -- the movie should be evaluated on its own, and readers get annoyed if they haven't seen the other movies mentioned.

It probably didn't help that I saw this movie less than a week after Snowpiercer, which also "wears its politics on its sleeve" but is somewhat more nuanced in its messages and characterization. I could not have predicted the ending to Snowpiercer. The ending to Dawn of the Planet of the Apes -- well, it's very obviously a setup for a third movie. It's problematic when movies are a slave to franchises, which is why I liked Captain America: The First Avenger until the last 5-10 minutes, which irritated me greatly.

A review is about your analysis of the movie, not the opinion of people around you in the press screening, or of other people who have seen the movie.

I assigned myself this review after the Austin promotional screening with cast/crew in attendance. I heard nothing but raves afterwards, and I figured it'd be an easy assignment. I convinced my husband to go with me -- we'd had such good luck enjoying Snowpiercer after the same people gushed about that movie. My husband walked out of this movie about two-thirds of the way through -- only the second time he's done so for a new release (the first was The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor in 2008). To be perfectly honest, if I were watching Dawn of the Planet of the Apes for pleasure and not as a review assignment, I might have joined him.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes has a terrific, complementary score from Michael Giacchino. I've already mentioned Serkis' memorable and believable performance. And I was impressed by the settings of the ape colony and the post-pandemic streets of San Francisco -- well, what I could see of them through rather murky 3D. (See this in 2D.) But these bright spots were wasted in the service of a lazy, warmed-over, mediocre script and story.

(If you are planning to see the movie, however, I strongly recommend watching Rise of the Planet of the Apes first if you haven't recently, so you're not confused. The movie appears to assume you remember all the ape characters, various phrases and symbols key to that movie, and of course the ending.)

Don't let a gimmicky structure or conceit overwhelm your review.

I'll let you be the judge of that.