Dawn of the Age of Spectacular Performance Capture

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Good science fiction stories offer one an opportunity to escape to fantastical worlds. Great science fiction goes a step further: it brings up philosophical issues, questions human nature and societal constructs. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes certainly falls into the latter category. It is a film deserving of the “blockbuster” status because it not only has a deeply compelling narrative, but immerses audiences in captivating performances, breathtaking scenery and masterful use of new cinematic technologies to bring a screenplay that’s rich with layered meanings to life.

I haven’t watched the original “Planet of the Apes” films, so my review won’t be comparative. Instead, I approached this film as a continuation of “Rise”, and as one of the tentpole action films of mid-2014. “Dawn” is so good that I actually watched it twice – in both 2D and 3D.

Director Matt Reeves does a sterling job of balancing intense, emotional scenes with Caesar and his brethren of apes, and explosive action sequences between apes and humans. This is the kind of pacing and delivery that so many sci-fi films of late are lacking – here’s hoping this film serves as a guide on how to make a good, well-rounded picture. Ape society, led by Caesar and now thriving 10 years after the events of “Rise”, comes across as a sort of parallel to (early) human society – one that is built on the foundations of fear-induced leadership to some extent. This becomes increasingly apparent as the film progresses and one of the two primary villains, Koba, wins over the apes. Parallels can again be drawn between Caesar and his son, Blue Eyes, and Malcolm and his son – this suggestion of similarity between both species brings heart to the story and adds an appreciated dimension to both Caesar and Malcolm, the two protagonists of their respective species.

The villains of “Dawn” are well crafted. We can empathise with both Dreyfus (the human villain played by the always brilliant Gary Oldman) and Koba (the rogue ape that turns on Caesar). This is a mark of good screenwriting:  both ape and human villains have justifiable reasons for their respective actions, and if one were in their place, one could indeed see themselves acting similarly. Both parties are operating inherently on fear, and on trying to preserve their respective species. This is where the philosophical implications arise: can two dominant, intelligent species co-exist? This is explored to an extent, but along with the entire plot, sets up the answer to be determined in the planned sequel to be directed by Reeves with a release in July 2016.

Now, intrinsic to the sci-fi genre is the use of high-end cinematic technology to create such immersive experiences. And in “Dawn”, the true star is the spectacular use of performance capture. Watch the video below to see how not only body motion, but intricate facial expressions were captured and superimposed onto the ape CG models.

Andy Serkis is a veritable legend when it comes to performance capture, cementing his role as the leader in this realm with his breakout role as Gollum in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. In “Dawn”, he brings Caesar to life, creating the most compelling digital character I’ve ever seen. Watching this film in 3D with Dolby Atmos sound is an experience unlike any other; the Atmos soundscape draws you in to the auditory world, and the 3D used in this film is some of the best in an otherwise contentious aspect of modern blockbuster cinema. It felt like I was right there next to Caesar and Malcolm, right there in dystopian San Francisco witnessing the battle for the fittest species.

Michael Giacchino adds to the film’s overall impression with a great musical score that is equal parts nostalgic – the high notes of energetic flutes mixed with thunderous brass and strings, and powerful timpani – and dynamic, creating a strong soundscape that accentuates the drama unfolding onscreen.

The future of this rebooted Apes franchise should, in my opinion, be the arc of Caesar – thus, there should be a new human cast in the next film, so that we see how Caesar’s interactions with various humans affects his judgement as the battle for the Planet of the Apes reaches its high point. Having said that, it would still be nice to have James Franco return, at least briefly, and meet Caesar. That would be another poignant ape/human interaction that would add immense tension to the impending battle.

Should you see this movie? Well, let me put it this way: apes on horseback, with machine guns, riding through flames. Your argument is invalid. Go and see this. Now.

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