Don’t Forget To Drink Your Ovaltine
I arrived to my ‘Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes’ screening with a head full of chimp questions and a bag full of smuggled snacks to find a giant line not just in the theater lobby (which is normal) but inside the hallway outside the auditorium. The inside line, it turned out, was not just for collecting cell phones (standard practice for advance screenings of bigger movies), but was a separate bottleneck behind a guy scanning everyone with a metal detector wand before they went inside. Ignoring my goody bag completely, the wand man scanned my crotch area, where the wand beeped over the pocket of my jeans. “Keys, right?” he asked, searching my eyes and feeling my pocket in a not un-intimate way. He waved me through. Once inside, I took a seat in the reserved press section just like normal (Oh, I got perks. Call me, ladies).
“Sir, do you have an orange ticket?”
I pulled out my press ticket, but it was green. Two separate press sections! Unprecedented! I slunk back two rows like the damned dirty web guy I was, even closer to the civilians in steerage, silently praying that the toads wouldn’t breathe on me.
“We’re going to have a full screening tonight, so you will NOT BE ALLOWED TO SAVE SEATS,” shouted a well-coiffed but frazzled looking publicist at the front of the auditorium. He reiterated this statement two or three different times with different syntax, and promised the movie would start in around 15 minutes. A few people complained about not being able save seats, and they were summarily removed from the theater. As they were led out, I stared deep into my bag of Flamin’ Hots to avoid eye contact. HAIL CAESAR, I SUBMIT!
10 minutes later, an officious looking man in a suit and tie took to the front of the auditorium. He explained that the studio had put him in charge of anti-piracy and tried to warm us up with some light humor (“I trust everyone here, except for FOUR of you, ha ha ha”). Then he got to the meat of his prepared statement: that he personally had the police on call waiting to literally take you to pound-you-in-the-ass-prison, so don’t even think about filming. And if you were clever enough to sneak your cell phone past security, weh-heh-hell, don’t think you’ve won just yet, smart guy, because he and his team are going to be watching you the entire time with “night vision scopes.” So anyway, just enjoy the movie, which is great by the way, and nobody has to get hurt.
Time for the film!
I include this context not because I expect you to be fascinated by my glamorous life of grinding Flamin’ Hot dust into the upholstery of a second-tier reserved section (works much better than napkins, you need that cloth friction to really scour the red dust away), but because the experience made it impossible not to think of Christopher Nolan’s assessment of the present and near future of the theater-going experience – “…Innovation would shift entirely to home-based entertainment, with the remaining theaters serving exclusively as gathering places for fan-based or branded-event titles.”
And this was nothing if not a gathering place for a branded event. It’s a sequel to the second remake of a franchise that already pumped out five films in the sixties and seventies, in which neither the director nor the cast from the last movie returns (save the guy in the green spandex suit pretending to be a chimp). What’s all this about if not the brand? Still, it’s very important. Money was spent! Bootleg this and we’ll f*cking kill you!
Finally, the film begins. Set 10 years after the apocalyptic events hinted at in the closing moments of the last ‘Planet of the Apes’ movie, a virus has simultaneously wreaked havoc on human society while creating a new clan of super intelligent apes led by Caesar (Andy Serkis, sort of). We catch up to the chimps in Muir Woods north of San Francisco, where they’re still speaking to each other in the sign language they learned from James Franco. …Or so the subtitles would have us believe. They either aren’t moving or we can’t see their hands in at least half the shots. Maybe hands signing costs the CGI people extra? I don’t know. In any case, the apes “sign” and sometimes talk in labored grunts, and there seems to be no rhyme or reason as to when they choose to do one over the other.
So Caesar’s in the woods leading the chimps like a military platoon, and they’re swinging through the redwoods in a coordinated wave (a cool image, though we already saw it in the last one). What’s the purpose of all this impressive coordination? The chimps are trying to herd some deer, apparently. Why are they trying to herd the deer? Are they going to eat the deer? Ride the deer? Pick lice out of the deer’s fur? Make spears out of the deer horns? It’s unclear. The scene seems to exist solely to show that Caesar’s apes are organized, only we have no idea why, and they actually do a pretty piss poor job of herding because a couple of them get gored by deer. A couple border collies would’ve done wonders here. Maybe chimps don’t like dogs? I don’t know. So Caesar’s grown son gets surprised by a grizzly bear who comes out from under a log and takes a swipe at him, and the other apes have to fight off the bear. At this point I wondered if the film was going to be two hours of CG apes doing battle with other CG fauna, like a man-made episode of ‘Planet Earth.’ In retrospect, I think the bear was included solely so that Caesar’s son would have bear scars to differentiate him from the other apes.
At long last we get to the meat of the story: a lost tribe of human survivors living in San Francisco is forced to make contact with Caesar’s peaceful proto-civilization of chimps. They’ve been living separately in peace, but the humans are running out of fuel for their generators, and they need access to
the unobtanium a hydroelectric dam that’s sitting right underneath the Home Tree in the middle of ape territory. Folks on both sides want to wipe out the other “while they’re weak” (the apes have numbers but the humans have firepower and clothes). Nonetheless, the humans send Jake Sully Nantan Lupan Kevin Costner Jason Clarke over to see if they can come to an understanding and avoid a war.
What follows is 90 minutes of the good apes and the good humans cheesily learning to understand one another (think Arnold Schwarzenegger hand feeding a deer) until the bad apes and the bad humans show up to ruin everything. The worst part is that whereas the last ‘Apes’ movie was constantly amping up the goofiness just to the point of parody, this installment seems to legitimately believe that it’s delivering a poignant lesson about the human condition (and the primate condition). Except the entire thing is the philosophical equivalent of a “MEAN PEOPLE SUCK” bumper sticker delivered in monosyllabic Hulk talk (“Ape not kill other ape!”) by the stockest of stock characters. The bad chimp is even covered in facial scars, just like the head Nazi in ‘Red Tails.’
There’s a melancholic sense of “can’t we all just get along??” hanging over the whole thing, and, I dunno, call me crazy, but obvious, semi-meaningless hippie platitudes aren’t exactly what I’m looking for in a movie about chimps on horseback shooting each other with machine guns. The characters aren’t nearly as interesting as they are self-serious, unless you count an almost-funny-by-accident section that attempts to draw a parallel between Caesar’s and Jason Clarke’s attempts to relate to their teenage sons. Primates these days, am I right?? Go back inside and fix your fur, no daughter of mine is going to leave the treehouse looking like a God damned Bonobo.
Though I did enjoy the part where Chimp Hitler basically burns down the Chimp Reichstag so he can blame it on the Chimp Communists, seize power, and invade Chimposlovakia (where the humans live).
Even the one vague principle Caesar supposedly stood for he betrays at a climactic moment – to audience cheers, disturbingly. But because it’s vaguely anti-gun and anti-war, and because the battles are all uncathartic and ultimately meaningless, the film will surely be praised for “offering no easy answers.” Which is true, but you only get credit for not offering easy answers if you actually ask a hard question. “Tribalism bad! Getting along hard!” yes it is, monkey, here’s your banana.
It’s similarly vague on a technical level. Aside from speaking when they could sign and vice versa, the apes herd deer (?), a bad ape manages to commit a crime in the middle of a giant crowd of apes that somehow none of them see, and, in what I assume was supposed to be a big set piece, a human blows up… a thing… that does… uh… something (?). It isn’t well told enough to keep you invested in a story that doesn’t have a lot to say in the first place.
Then it all ends on a faux-meaningful close-up without even a cursory nod towards closure. Is that all movies are now, a new installment of that thing you remember from before? Are we supposed to cheer this non-statement with a non-ending? To be super stoked when the decoder ring comes up “drink your ovaltine?” Crass commercialism has given us plenty of great movies, but ‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ feels like some strange new form of Gonzo commercialism where we’re no longer treated as moviegoers but as participants in a product strategy. Did you guys see the new serialized branding event? It was great, a monkey rode a horse!
Frankly, I miss the artifice.
Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. You can find more of his work on FilmDrunk, the Uproxx network, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.