I've already commented on “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” which is leading the week's box-office. But I thought I'd post the review that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio, if for no other reason than to emphasize how surprised I was at how good it is. A transcript of the review follows:
Summer hasn’t always been a hot season for cinema. In fact, until the July 4th weekend of 1975 – when Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” made it unsafe to visit the beach – summer was considered a bad time to release movies.
These days, other than the Christmas holidays – when Oscar hopefuls vie for attention – summer is the province of blockbuster wannabes. Just ask Michael Bay, who has never seen a summer-movie season he won’t mug with a handycam – which actually emphasizes something: Summer movies don’t usually rank very high on a critic’s quality list.
But Matt Reeves has changed all that. And he’s done it by making a movie about – well, talking apes. And it’s hardly the first one. “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is a sequel to the franchise reboot of a series dating back to 1968. That’s when the original adaptation of Pierre Boulle’s novel hit the big screen. Four sequels came in quick succession, followed by Tim Burton’s 2001 “reimagining” and this reboot’s 2011 prequel, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.”
That places Reeves, the talented director both of the alien-invasion flick “Cloverfield” and the vampire variation “Let Me In,” eight films along the storyline progression Boulle envisioned. Despite that late start, though, Reeves has given us one of the best “Apes” films since that moment Charlton Heston roared the memorable line: “Take your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape!”
What director Franklin J. Schaffner's 1968 film boasted in originality was offset by cheesy special effects. Nearly a half century later the kinds of effects Reeves has access to not only allow him to digitally depict individual talking apes with incredible authenticity but also to create an entire Apes culture.
“Dawn” picks up a decade after “Rise,” when a human-created flu – which scientists brewed up using Apes as breathing petri dishes – has decimated the human population. A band of survivors lives in what is left of San Francisco and is running out of fuel, which has caused their leaders to eye a dam that sits in Apes-controlled territory. Caesar, the genetically evolved ape from “Rise” (played by digitally enhanced Andy Serkis) is the Apes leader – and it is he, with his mixed feelings about humans, who stands between them and members of his own troop who would exterminate anything non-ape.
Like any good summer blockbuster, things in “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” blow up real good. Cars, trucks, buildings, downtown San Francisco. But thanks to his screenwriters, especially Mark Bomback, director Reeves has plenty of opportunity to explore intimate moments – between humans, between apes and even inter-species. Sure some of those moments stretch credulity: My three-year-old iPad has trouble firing up in minutes, but a decade-old one in this film powers up in seconds. Right.
Still, no matter. The summer-movie season isn’t about literal truth. It’s about virtual believability. And “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is about as believable, and poignant, as a movie about talking apes could possibly be.