Scott Wilkinson got to attend a screening of the next chapter in one of the longest-running movie franchises. How does it stack up?
When Dolby invited me to a screening of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes at the TCL Chinese Theatre almost two weeks before it opens to the public, I jumped at the chance. I've been an Apes fan ever since the original Planet of the Apes in 1968, which has become a classic of the sci-fi genre. The most recent installment, Rise of the Planet of the Apes from 2011, is a prequel that explains how apes gained intelligence similar to humans as an unexpected result of drug testing, and it is widely regarded as one of the best movies in the entire franchise.
Without revealing any real spoilers, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes picks up 10 years after the events in Rise, when the human population of Earth has been decimated by a so-called Simian Virus, which was really caused by the experimental drug that gave the apes their intelligence in the first place; this was foreshadowed at the end of Rise. A small community of human survivors in San Francisco encounters a village of apes living in the forest north of the city and led by Caesar (Andy Serkis), the first ape to gain heightened intelligence in the previous movie. Conflict ensues.
But it's not merely conflict as in "humans good, apes bad"; the story is much more nuanced than that. In fact, there are no clearly defined villains, except perhaps for the ape Koba (Toby Kebbell). The humans are dealing with their grief over the loss of so many loved ones—and their entire civilization—to the virus, while the apes are understandably angry at their mistreatment as experimental subjects a decade ago. Nevertheless, they try to reach a rapprochement, though it is quite fragile with feelings running very high on both sides.
A touching moment between Caesar and Malcolm (played by Jason Clarke).
The combination of live actors and CGI apes brought to life by motion-capture (mocap) technology is remarkable and completely seamless. Andy Serkis delivers a tour-de-force performance as Caesar that is full of pain and hope as he struggles to chart the best course of action for his community. I also enjoyed the use of sign language and guttural vocalizations (with subtitles) among the apes, who are also learning to speak English, albeit slowly.
Unlike most 3D movies these days, Dawn was shot in 3D from the beginning, not converted in post production, and I thought it was very effective. There are virtually no gimmicky shots—the 3D serves mainly to heighten the sense of realism, with most of the depth extending behind the screen plane. In fact, I stopped being aware that it was 3D as I was pulled into the story, though the depth was clearly evident in shots such as looking up into the trees as the apes are on the move.
The presentation I saw included a Dolby Atmos soundtrack, which is wonderful. The sound of apes in the trees all around and rainfall are entirely convincing. There's a scene in which some humans are hiding under a log, and the sound of the apes passing over them is amazing. My only complaint with the sound is that it was very bright, even harsh, which could well be the audio system in that particular theater. (It was one of the smaller multiplex auditoriums, not the main room at the Chinese.)
It was also quite loud. Unfortunately, my iPhone SPL app experienced a glitch and didn't record the levels, so I have no metrics, but I definitely needed my earplugs. On the other hand, the ape speech was difficult to understand (as you would expect from creatures with only rudimentary vocal capabilities), so I had to remove the earplugs during some of the quiet scenes.
After the screening, director Matt Reeves and actors Andy Serkis and Gary Oldman (who plays Dreyfus, the leader of the human community in San Francisco) answered questions from Mark Olsen of the Los Angeles Times. Reeves said that 20th Century Fox originally wanted to make a different movie, but he convinced the execs that they had created an incredible hero in Caesar and the sequel to Rise should be centered on him. Also, Reeves advocated for a movie that set the stage for a variety of outcomes, not just the one depicted in the original Planet of the Apes. That ambiguity is one of the hallmarks of Dawn, along with the parallel stories of human and ape families, empathy for all the characters regardless of their species, and how fear begets violence.
L-R: moderator Mark Olsen, director Matt Reeves, and actors Gary Oldman and Andy Serkis
I highly recommend Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, especially in 3D and Dolby Atmos, both of which are used to great effect in this movie. I only hope that the harshness of the sound is a characteristic of the audio system I heard and not the soundtrack itself. If you haven't seen Rise of the Planet of the Apes, I recommend doing so before seeing Dawn, but it's not absolutely necessary. Either way, this movie is a real treat for all thoughtful, intelligent sci-fi fans of any species.
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