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DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES and the Importance of Character

DOTPOTA-6

I have seen Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, a movie that has been resonating strongly with audiences this summer, twice in theaters. More often than not, I will see a movie only once during its theatrical run, for no other reason than the fact that most movies only require one viewing for me to soak everything in. I saw both Expendables movies one time each, not because they are necessarily bad, but because they are movies where everything that the filmmakers are trying to say is pushed to the surface; to put it bluntly, there is not much to them beyond what you see. Sometimes there are exceptions; 2007’s Shoot ‘Em Up is similarly shallow, and yet I saw that twice in theaters and own it on DVD because that movie is immensely entertaining and thus has fantastic replay value (whereas the aforementioned Stallone action series is only moderately fun, in my eyes). Besides rare exceptions like that Clive Owen masterpiece of pulp, the only times I will see a movie more than once theatrically is if I think there is more to be found and dissected under the surface. I saw The Dark Knight three times in cinemas to fully appreciate its themes of morality and corruption; I saw Scott Pilgrim vs. The World twice during its run because of director Edgar Wright’s meticulous attention to detail; just this spring I saw X-Men: Days of Future Past four times because of how taken aback I was by its rich themes of depression, substance abuse, and loneliness. What makes my multiple viewings of Matt Reeves’ sequel to 2011’s Planet of the Apes reboot significant is my reason for doing so.

I saw Dawn of the Planet of the Apes twice in theaters because I don’t see what everyone else sees in it.

To be fair, I enjoyed it. Both this and its predecessor, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, are fine blockbusters with exciting cinematography, a sense of love and admiration for the original film series, and some of the best motion capture performances I’ve ever seen. But I’d be lying if I said the utter enthusiasm and praise logged at this series doesn’t surprise me, simply because, as a whole, neither of these movies particularly stuck with me. Rise was a decently fun watch to which I never gave a second thought after I left the theater; I was planning to skip Dawn altogether due to lack of interest, until the enthusiastic reviews and audience reactions began to pour in. While I didn’t get a bad movie in any sense of the word, I got more or less the same experience I had with the first movie; moderate fun for 120 minutes without any heavy investment. The difference this time around was that, because of the universal praise it got, I felt as if I missed something on my first viewing. A week later, I went back to my local cinema to see it again, this time with two goals in mind: to see what literally every other moviegoer saw in this one, and to figure out just what exactly was the source of my emotional disconnect with these movies. After this second viewing, I more or less figured out the answer to the first problem, and completely solved the second.

My problem with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is that I don’t care about any character besides Caesar. Before I delve into the supporting cast, I will say that I think the element that is the source for this movie’s adoration is, without a doubt, Andy Serkis’ simian protagonist. Caesar is not only an example of how spectacularly performance capture can be used to give humanity to computer generated creatures, but more importantly is an incredibly likable and fleshed out protagonist who reaches that perfect balance of being noble and entertaining. The problem I’ve consistently had with characters like, for example, most interpretations of Superman, is that there’s an enormous emotional detachment for me; Superman is an incredibly noble character with many traits that I would find admirable in any human being, but there is so little charisma or depth beyond his dignity (with a few notable exceptions) that I don’t find him entertaining to watch. Caesar is the perfect response to that character flaw, wherein he shares many of Superman’s nobility and honor, while also having a clearly defined personality and humanity to him. Caesar is, by all accounts, an exceptionable blockbuster protagonist.

What takes away from the film is that literally everyone around him is almost painfully uninteresting. Koba is about as bland as an antagonist can be, with nothing more to him than the anger that lies on his surface; this would be fine if he was a minor character, but as the overall villain, it substantially takes away from what should be an enormous aspect of the film. Imagine Heath Ledger’s Joker without the poignant sense of anarchy and irresistible charm, or Hans Landa without the sharp menace softly boiling underneath his charismatic demeanor; if your movie has an uninteresting villain, then the film as a whole suffers considerably. The human element, which is a substantial aspect of Dawn, is given an even more halfhearted treatment. While Koba at least has some recognizable personality traits on his surface, what does Jason Clarke’s character have? Or Kerri Russell? Or Kodi Smit-McPhee? These three characters are the human leads, and yet none of them have any distinct personality. The biggest stretch I can make is that Clarke is…trusting? McPhee is…quiet? This is a two hour movie wherein these characters are given a majority of the screen time, and yet we know next to nothing about them. The only human character with any semblance of actual humanity is Gary Oldman, who makes the most of his criminally limited screen time with a few truly touching moments of emotion and one hell of a speech. If Oldman was the human lead as opposed to Clarke, this movie would have roped me in far more, but as it stands we have one phenomenal ape protagonist surrounded by one dimensional characters whom I couldn’t care less about.

What I feel the screenwriters don’t understand is just how integral the characters are to the central conflict of a story. The heart of the movie is the friction and eventual battle between the apes and the humans, but if one side is comprised entirely of characters that I have absolutely no investment in, and the other side only has one fully fleshed out character, then how am I, as a viewer, supposed to have any interest in any of this? When the characters have rising tension between them, the audience should feel that tension by caring about the characters; if we are given nothing to care about, then why should we feel what the humans and apes onscreen are feeling? There should be great emotional stakes felt by the audience during the finale, as hordes of apes and humans are slaughtering each other; instead, during this sequence I felt an aching sense of boredom. The battle was beautifully shot, but because I did not care about most of the apes or any of the humans, the entire third act of the movie was nothing more than a series of images to me. Compare it to this summer’s Guardians of the Galaxy; while the characters are not strictly speaking original, they are given endearing personalities and backstories rich with tragedy and pathos. Because the audience is made to have a connection to them, by default we also have made a connection to the central conflict. Without character, there can be no conflict, and since Dawn is a movie that is entirely about conflict, its lack of interesting characters creates a colossal flaw that is literally impossible to overlook. A two hour movie cannot be sustained on the back of one protagonist; there is a reason why the supporting cast is called a supporting cast.

I did not hate Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, nor did I even dislike it. I was moderately entertained by it, and was able to sit through the two hour run time because of Matt Reeves’ energetic direction, Michael Giacchino’s immensely enjoyable score, and Andy Serkis’ layered performance as Caesar. Because these three elements were executed so expertly, I can see why the movie has resonated with audiences the way it has. But I found it to be lacking in what is arguably the most essential element of a story; character.

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