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Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

Ten years have passed since Caesar led an ape exodus out of San Francisco into the sanctuary of a redwood forest. The group of apes he united from an ape sanctuary and a medical testing facility are now living in peace within a forest. The society has been mostly isolated from human beings, since they've been far too busy dying off after ill-effects from the same virally-transmitted treatment which made the apes so smart in the first place.

The apes now all communicate through sign language, but Caesar occasionally emphasises points by saying key phrases out loud. Speaking out loud seems to take special effort, but clearly this ability is part of what marks Caesar out as the leader, albeit along with a reputation for wisdom.

However, his closest friend no longer appears to be Maurice, the circus orangutan (whose sign language ability was remarkably strong even before receiving the brain-enhancing treatment). Now Caesar appears to be very close friends with Koba, who we'll all remember from the previous movie as the ape covered in scars from medical testing.

A new character to appear here is Blue Eyes, Caesar's son, who finds himself receiving somewhat conflicting advice over the course of the movie from Caesar and Koba, particularly when the ape settlement is visited by a group of humans who are armed with guns...

The local human settlement consists in Jason Clarke (Zero Dark Thirty) whose character is locating a power source to help his fellow humans rebuild from the virus-instigated chaos they have survived. Keri Russell (Waitress) plays his girlfriend who is also a doctor accompanying him. Kodi Smit-McPhee (the voice of Norman in "Paranorman") plays Jason Clarke's cartoon-drawing son. While these actors are all very talented their characters do not have strong personalities and never really get a chance to properly make their mark during the story. In an even smaller role is the wonderful Gary Oldman, but he has been given this role precisely because they needed someone to give the character weight in spite of a relatively small amount of screen time. As with the previous film, the main stars are the apes.

This is unfortunate, since having already named four ape characters (Caesar, Maurice, Koba and Blue Eyes) only two of them really have a strong personality here. Blue Eyes never really forms much of a personality (though I guess they might have been going for a 'brooding teenager' vibe) and any sense of Maurice's personality is mostly borrowed from the previous film. Only Koba and Caesar really get to be strong characters. They are, admittedly, strong enough to produce some very powerful scenes; scenes where other characters are also involved. But the script seems to be completely balanced on their shoulders, so little attention being given to any other personalities. Naturally Andy Serkis' talents in the role of Caesar will already be well-known from the previous film, but Koba has a new actor taking on the role. Toby Kebbell was the conflicted 'Doc' from the Brit Marling movie "The East" last year and he gives a really strong performance here as Caesar's right-hand man shaping the destiny of the apes.

In the end, my main problem with this film is the lack of characterisation. But there are a few nagging issues related to my love of the franchise as a whole which go beyond this. Now don't get me wrong. I had a good time with this film. However "Rise of the Planet of the Apes", though not perfect, had given this franchise a new lease of life and a lot of new potential. And with most characters being rather lacking in that personality, it limited how much that potential could be met.

Perhaps the most annoying missed opportunity was Caesar's wife. She spends much of the movie being too unwell to contribute and, in spite of a brief moment of tenderness between her and Caesar (that's not a euphemism for sex you'll be pleased to know), she never really gets to make much of an impact. Perhaps even more worrying is that barely anyone in this enormous ape community appears to be female. Their numbers seem to have grown dramatically since the last film, so unless there has been a recent female ape massacre, this is pretty confusing.

The massacre must have been pretty recent since Maurice has a large group of young apes to whom he is teaching reading and writing. One of the signs that this is a clear remake of "Battle for the Planet of the Apes" is the prominent phrase "Ape Shall Not Kill Ape" being taught to the young apes. But fans of the Planet of the Apes movies will know that one of the major characters from the very beginning was the ape scientist Dr. Zira, a prominent female character. So while "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" is a clear step-up from 'Battle' (widely believed to be the worst of the movie series) failing to take advantage of the opportunity to set up a strong female ape character seems like a big mistake. Though not as big a mistake as failing to include more female ape extras in the ape community.

Another problem (which some may have been waiting for after my recent post on Wittgenstein's philosophy of language) is the odd way that the apes now speak. As I said before, speaking out loud clearly takes special effort, so it is understandable that apes would decide to leave certain words out in order to shorten their sentences. But even in the subtitles for the ape sign language, we see pronouns and connecting words missed out.

In my last post I referred to this as 'pigeon English' though I may have made a mistake there (more than just the spelling error). Pidgin English normally refers to language derived from English by non-English speakers. However, these apes are very much English speakers. It's the only language they know. Using the English of Caesar and Maurice (and possibly some apes from the testing centre like Koba) to get them started they would have been expanding that language through social interaction in the community. They would now have their own English dialect (which I believe is called a creole).

What they would not have, however, is fluent English only with pronouns and connecting words left out. That is a very contrived form of speech, like Yoda's English which is complete except with a few words or phrases somewhat mixed up, or Grimlock from Transformers, known for phrases like "Me Grimlock think that is smartest thing I ever done!" And let's face it, the reason for this oddly-broken form of speech from the apes is not because it's realistic, but rather to suggest that the apes are 'tribal' and 'primitive'. This feels like somewhat of a betrayal of the franchise which has always shown that the apes, in spite of their other-ness are just as civilised as we are - as well as just as cruel. This movie seems to be trying to put forward that message, so it's unfortunate that this message is somewhat compromised by the rather lazy decision to have the apes' language be made artificially primitive in this way. (Admittedly another tribal element is the tribal face-paint, but that's more clearly a sign of a different culture rather than an indication that the apes are 'less developed'.)

I'd argue that it would not only have been more in line with the message of the franchise to show the apes signing in fluent English, but it would also make more sense logistically. A lot of the sign language is not shown on camera and I'm not sure that they actually gave the apes the same sign language as is commonly used today. If the apes are signing in their own form of signing, then the subtitles are a translation. Why would a translation be in broken English? The intelligence of the apes seems to be undisputed. Caesar's intelligence developed quicker than human intelligence in "Rise Of The Planet of the Apes". So it is misleading to downgrade the quality of ape speech in the subtitles. They are fluent language speakers and should be translated as such.

For all my complaints, "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" includes strong emotional moments, some very clever physical acting and some spectacular action sequences. The plot is often very predictable and unfolds in a pretty basic way, but still there are some very nice touches along the way. The ape effects are better than ever, the acting is great and the central performances of Serkis and Kebbell utterly brilliant. This makes for a very satisfying entry in the series and I hope it forms part of a sci-fi franchise which still has its best entries ahead of it.

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