Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Produced by Chernin Entertainment
Directed by Matt Reeves
Screenplay by Mark Bomback and Rick Jaffa
Distributed by Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Produced by Opus Pictures
Directed by Bong Joon-ho
Screenplay by Bong Joon-ho and Kelly Masterson
Distributed by The Weinstein Company

As titles go, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes would seem ominous enough, implying as it does that we’ll have to endure a noon, an evening, and a night of wicked monkeyshines to come.  Director Matt Reeves seems not to have been satisfied, however.  Just so there will be no doubts, he’s opened and closed his film with the same shot: an extreme close-up of a pair of seriously glowering ape eyes.  Let me tell you, those eyes mean business—show business, that is.  It’s clear that 20th Century Fox means to ape the success it had with its original Planet franchise in the 1960’s and 70’s, which yielded five major motion pictures and a television series, each a paler, sillier shadow of the original.  If all goes as planned with the new films—2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Dawn—Fox will be bringing out simian iterations well into the mid-21st century, when it will be time for Planet of the Donkeys, a touching allegory of the Democratic Party’s mulish effort to render all Americans susceptible to Chelsea Clinton Mezvinsky’s presidential charm.

The first Planet film was a loose adaptation of Pierre Boulle’s satiric science-fiction novel La Planète des singes (1963), translated in a homelier fashion as Monkey Planet in England.  Having enjoyed Boulle’s angry antiwar novel The Bridge Over the River Kwai, I took the trouble of reading his ape book.  I found it a disappointingly clumsy narrative that takes place on a distant planet where evolution has somehow put apes in the driver’s seat and barbarous humans in the back of the bus.  Boulle used this premise to create an allegory meant to reveal how bestial our species could be and where our mindless aggression was likely to lead.  The American film that followed in 1968 introduced time travel to harness the antiwar allegory more smoothly to the plot.  With Charlton Heston, Maurice Evans, Kim Hunter, and Roddy McDowall playing the lead characters, the narrative became a beguiling adventure story with the shocking conclusion that featured Heston riding off into the sunset on what he had supposed was a distant planet.  This traditional fade-out is rudely scuttled when he comes upon the war-shattered visage of the Statue of Liberty, France’s gift to her cousins in revolution.  Through some aberration in the space-time continuum, Heston’s ship hadn’t left Earth’s gravitation field after all, but had been propelled to the 40th century.  You just can’t beat those space-time continua for plot development.

So now we have Dawn, an exceedingly well-done but fundamentally silly entertainment.  Thanks to CGI and motion-capture special effects, its apes are far more convincing than those of the earlier films.  The humans are another matter.  While Jason Clark and Kerri Russell as an engineer and nurse, respectively, are moderately engaging, all the rest function as unsympathetic foils to display the apes to advantage.  As the leader of the human community, Gary Oldman reveals himself to be hatefully obtuse.  He keeps insisting the apes should be eliminated.  “They’re animals!” he sneers at several plot turns.  How benighted!

Meanwhile, the ape leader, Caesar (Andy Serkis, doing his motion-capture thing once more), is making good use of the medically enhanced brain he acquired in 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes.  He keeps most of the other apes and orangutans in line by appealing to their natural decency.  Of course, some apes distrust his judgment when it comes to his fondness for humans.  And with good reason.  The humans, as per Hollywood tradition, have much to answer for—chiefly, using apes for laboratory experimentation.  As you would expect, the apes are infinitely more humane than the humans.  Why, they even shed tears.  You can’t get more human than that.  Unless, of course, you’re a crocodile.

The plot doesn’t make much sense, but when did that ever dampen the spirits of science-fiction fans?  The story boils down to the issue of trust between primate tribes.  We’re ten years on since the last film, and a goodly portion of the human race has been wiped out by a simian virus, rousing suspicion in the survivors.  Having run out of power resources, a human community isolated in San Francisco decides they must reactivate a defunct hydroelectric plant in the hills above the city.  The plant—of course!—is in ape territory, rousing suspicion among the monkeys.  So the trouble begins.

The narrative moves along winningly enough until the last 30 minutes.  By then, I’d had enough, but the filmmakers wouldn’t quit.  They seem to have felt duty-bound to provide the kind of slam-bang finale audiences have been trained to expect.  So the film has the apes attack the humans in downtown San Francisco.  Rattling AK-47’s and fiery explosions invade the streets; apes and people are thrown from high-rise buildings.  Relief comes intermittently whenever the action pauses momentarily for tearful speeches on how futile violence is.  It all seemed troublingly familiar to me.  Were the CGI apes reenacting the Rodney King riots of 1991?  And what was that glowering ape superimposed on the closing credits really telling us?

If you’ve ridden the New York City subways at rush hour, you will have some idea of what to expect in the rear cars of the train that serves as the single setting in Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s post­apocalyptic allegory Snowpiercer.  The film’s premise is simply stated: A small remnant of our species—fewer than a thousand souls, it would seem—has been packed into this high-velocity train since 2014.  Unlike New York City’s A train, however, this conveyance never stops, not even at Washington Square.  What’s more, hoi polloi on the passenger list have been relegated to the rear, while their betters luxuriate in the front cars.  For reasons unexplained, the poor had originally been left to cannibalize themselves for their daily sustenance.  It’s now 2031, and the ruling class has relented.  They’ve allotted their fellow humans nutrition bars made of a gelatinous black substance derived from—well, let’s leave that for a surprise.  So the wealthy feast on deluxe sushi, sip champagne, and listen to Chopin, while their children, as you would expect, cavort in a pastel-colored kindergarten and recite mantras designed to inculcate a reflexive abhorrence of the lower class.  You can see why the folk in the front are not likely to miss getting off at Times Square.

How has this happened?  It seems that, in 2014, the world’s leading scientists took Al Gore at his preposterous word and decided to prevent global warming once and for all.  They released a cooling chemical to lower atmospheric temperatures.  The plan succeeded a mite too well.  The entire earth went into a deadly deep freeze.  The few who survived caught the Snowpiercer to parts unknown.  Who made this train?  Who selected its passengers?  Why did the conductors take on the poor at all?  All these and more questions are left unanswered.

As allegories go, Snowpiercer couldn’t be sillier—which wouldn’t be a problem if it weren’t so ineptly executed.  Logic and characterization lack even minimal attention to detail and consistency.  It’s a just-so story with scarcely any of the charm necessary to win our suspension of disbelief.  To take just one example, we’re told that the soldiers tasked with keeping the lower orders in their place have run out of bullets.  This is not entirely surprising, since they have not been able to stop at an armory for the last 17 years.  But later, armed guards pull out huge automatics and fire away at some restive proletarians.  Huh?  Also there’s an unseemly juggling of minor characters, many of whom appear unannounced, perform a few seconds of splendidly heroic action, and then disappear, never to be seen again.

Some allusively intriguing moments offset these lapses.  My favorite is an image taken from Alexander Pope’s “An Essay on Man.”  At least I think Bong had Pope in mind.  It could be that he unreflectively took the allusion from the film’s source, a French graphic novel of the same title, which I haven’t read.  Bong doesn’t quote Pope but rather visualizes his conceit in a scene designed to mock class structure.

The profoundly conservative Pope wan­ted his readers to understand that civilized existence requires a precisely calibrated hierarchy in human affairs.  (I’m sorry to report that Pope was thoroughly un-American.)  Should this hierarchy be ignored, all manner of catastrophe would certainly disrupt our fragile civil order.  At one point, Pope asks, “What if the foot, ordained the dust to tread . . . aspired to be the head?”  What, indeed!  Chaos and old night would reign once more.  This is the imperious lesson imparted by Mason, the train’s social director played by Tilda Swinton (for once living up to her thespian reputation).  Miss Swinton has been got up to look like everyone’s nightmare version of a mindless bureaucrat.  Goggle-eyed and toothy, she confronts the restive proles who have left their proper places in the rear of the train, led reluctantly by Curtis (Chris Evans).  She plucks from the crowd a man who has had the temerity to question the government’s right to take his boy away from him to use for slave labor.  She then puts a brown wingtip shoe on the man’s head.  There, she declares to the mob with a snuffling chuckle, is the absurdity you’re seeking.  She then calmly exhorts them: “Know your place.  Accept your place.  Be a shoe.”  The formerly menacing crowd stares at this bureaucratic stooge.  They are momentarily dumbfounded by Pope’s antidemocratic conceit brought wonderfully to life.

Is this ground enough to praise this science-fiction allegory?  I’m afraid not.  Much as I was pleased to witness Pope’s conceit show up in a colossal action film, it’s not enough to overcome the narrative’s many imaginative failures.  Of course, I could be wrong.  Most critics have bestowed garlands on Snowpiercer—91 percent at Rotten Tomatoes.  Either I missed something, or there’s abroad in our land a general will to foster good relations with the Asian film industry.  (I can appreciate this, especially with regard to the Koreans, who are, I’m told on good authority, the Irish of the Orient.  That’s endearing.  In case you’re interested, the same authority says the Chinese are the Jews, and the Japanese, of course, the Germans.)  Then there’s Bong’s satiric rebuke to Al Gore to consider.  That certainly scores points.