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Monkey see, monkey don’t

Film Review: "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" 

Monkey see, monkey don’t

The latest chapter in the long "Planet of the Apes" saga takes up the action just a few years into the future promised in the ending of the previous film, "Rise of the Planet of the Apes."

Some news reports bring the situation up to date, describing the rapid spread of the "simian virus," actually manufactured by government scientists to treat Alzheimer's disease and tested on the primates, who then ran amok through Northern California. In the new movie, a huge ape colony -- where do they all come from anyway? -- dwells in its own community in the rain forests of the Pacific Northwest, under the benevolent dictatorship of Caesar, played again by Andy Serkis.

The movie devotes a good deal of time establishing the internal politics of the simian society, where Koba (Toby Kebbell), maimed and mutilated by scientific experiments, represents the chief opposition to Caesar. When a group of people from San Francisco hoping to repair a dam and restore power to the city intrude, the conflicting political views intensify, leading to a series of increasingly violent confrontations with human society.  Caesar attempts to maintain an attitude of tolerance and trust in the face of some human misdeeds, but Koba wants to wage war.

The repeated dialectic of power energizes most of the length of a very long movie. Koba and Caesar engage in several verbal and physical contests, eventually throwing each other all over the forest and finally, the wrecked cityscape of San Francisco. Those many combat sequences demonstrate the latest in cinematic acrobatics, computer generated imaging, and motion capture, just the sort of thing many people these days mistake for filmmaking.

The humans, who occupy less time and space in the movie than their primate cousins, also exhibit some disagreements over their reactions to the presence and ultimately, the threat of the animals. While some urge the use of their considerable armory, others, led by the major human character in the movie, Malcolm (Jason Clarke) and his girlfriend Ellie (Keri Russell) constantly try for some form of accommodation. The key word for both Malcolm and Caesar is trust, apparently a rare commodity in a conflict between humans and apes.

Underneath all the spectacular action and philosophical baloney about whether the humans or the animals are the true savages, lurks the overpowering sentimentality that conditions most movies devoted to animals (not my favorite subject). Caesar's mate Cornelia (Judy Greer) gives birth to a baby, which inspires several gushy moments of parental devotion guaranteed to either soften or sicken the hardest heart. To show that not all humans treat apes badly, Ellie, a doctor, cures Cornelia of an illness, thus earning Caesar's trust in a tense situation.

The huge battle scenes, obviously intended to entertain audiences expecting them, show thousands of apes armed with stolen weapons, riding horses -- ridiculous in itself -- and overcoming the opposition of the citizens of San Francisco. They outshoot the humans with their own weapons, surely difficult for simian fingers to manipulate, defend themselves against machine guns, rockets, bombs, and even a tank. "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" leaks nonsense from every opening.

In showing the moral superiority of the apes, the movie resembles some of the sentiments in "Instinct" of some years back, where Anthony Hopkins played a primatologist who discovered Edenic happiness sitting in the African grass with gorillas all day, which must require a high threshold of boredom. The movie's implied questioning of the humanity of human beings certainly deserves some serious examination, but all that dissolves in the extended battle scenes and the special effects. For all his intelligence, Caesar neglected to study Darwin, which accounts for his shock over the realization that apes can also mistreat other apes.

For someone who dislikes animal pictures in general, who believes the only good dog flick is "The Wolfman," and who finds apes, gorillas, chimpanzees, monkeys, and orangutans neither attractive nor charming nor interesting, "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" fails miserably. The very first "Planet of the Apes" remains the best, but if you really want to see a motion picture about humans and primates, revisit the original "King Kong" of 1933, a terrific movie and one of my ace favorites.

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