Dawn of the Planet of the ApesMatt Reeves (USA 2014)Gary Oldham. Keri Russell, Andy Serkis
White man speak with forked tongue
Delightful it is to see our simian cousins swing through the trees from branch to branch and in distressed pseudo-Gothic buildings, from beam to beam.There are moments of visual allure in the film but they barely compensate for an overall feeling of staleness of its ideas and its filmic reliance on the vacuity of the affect images that are overused in an attempt to implicate/absorb the audience in the state of mind of Caesar the Heap Big Chief Ape.
Reeves’ Ape Dawn project actually seems to have stalled at the conceptualisation stage, a creative inability to establish the ‘Ape world’ beyond the stereotypes associated with the Noble Savage. Visually the Apes look move and rock and roll like monkeys, but conceptually they behave and respond as reborn Native Americans, Red Injuns in old money, caste out of old discredited Hollywood simplifications.
There is nothing deeply alien or other in these Ape creatures.When they break out of their own communication code/language and speak English, they do so in the gruff manneristic way of the Apache in Stagecoach.‘Ape not kill Ape!’The way in which the Apes live together as one tribe, is Indian not animalso that when we see the Ape’s camp with its many fires, it looks like the scene from the Comache camp in the Searchers. And the ‘Dawn’ Apes unlike actual animals have a socio-political organisation based about the one leader, the Big Chief, which may be true for some Native American tribes but is not true for simian organisation.
These creatures aren’t monkeys: Dawn is backdoor reinvention of the Western, a sort of redressed homage to the gold age of the genre.
Even visually the Apes resemble the Injuns of old:theirrib sections picked out in white, like Sioux war breast plates.The way the Apes ride their horses without stirrups looks like the image on the front cover of my copy of Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee. In the emotional tone of their responses, the Apes are American Native replicants. There is nothing intrinsically amiss in all this except for its predictability and the loss of a response spectrum that is animal not Disney anthropomorphic.
To drive the narrative of ‘Dawn…’ the scripting department was unable to come up with anything more that a transposed Western Indian story which seemed so familiar I felt I’d seen it many times before. The story of the good leader, discredited in his relations with outsiders, overthrownand (nearly)slain by the upstart wannabe who then leads his people against the white man before being in turn defeated by the return of the true leader.It’s a variation on the Fort Apache script. The Apes even have a full frontal charge into the coral against the guns of the good town people.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes points to the creative hollow that underlies movies built on SFX.There is so much effort and cost expended in verisimilitude, in getting the wow factor going, that there is less investment in working out how to exploit the possibilities of this material in a scripting dynamic.Perhaps the huge expense involved (there were 1000’s of sfx workers credited) means the producers usually decide to play safe and opt for a straight concept backed by narrative characterised by simple devices and roles everyone can relate to.Fair enough, but it also seems something of a wasted opportunity to extend the extraordinary feat of the SFX into another conceptual dimension.
As the film progresses it seems to become increasingly important to Matt Reeves that we ‘get’ the chimps as ‘affect’ creatures.Consequently this means that the audience are subjected to long big close-ups of the Apes’ faces, close-ups characterised by immobility of the features.In fact these shots are mostly of Caesar as he is the central player.These long durational shots are supposed to make an affect image of his face so that the audience absorbed by Caesar’s immobility intraject their own states of mind onto his face so supplying an inducted internality to his character.Whilst this mode of shot can be highly affective, I don’t think it works very well in Dawn of the Apes.There is something in the Ape mask that resists human affective intrajection.But even if it might have worked once as a shot, the multiplication of the series of shots of Caesars face in Big Close Up exhausts the affect circuitry leaving only banality.
And banality is the mood music of Dawn, and of course the plot is nicely set up for a sequel of more of the same.