Film

The 'Dawn' of Something Amazing

As with much art, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes signposts situations we'd otherwise ignore or try to avoid, provides insights, and provokes questions. This film, like all great art, is alive, vital, and transcendent.


Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Director: Matt Reeves
Cast: Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, Toby Kebbell, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Kirk Acevedo, Jon Eyez, Enrique Murciano, Judy Greer, Nick Thurston, Karin Konoval
Rated: PG-13
Studio: Twentieth Century Fox
Year: 2014
US date: 2014-07-11 (General release)
UK date: 2014-07-17 (General release)
Website
Trailer

We live in troubling times. All around us our examples of our inability to adapt while using technology and its tainted perks as a means of further escape. We claim victories over social ills (racism, economic inequality) where no triumphs truly exist and celebrate those who ride such unrealities all the way to a position of power. In these dark and disturbing days, a film like Dawn of the Planet of the Apes speaks louder than any pundit's proclamations. As with much art, it reflects the era in which it was made. As with all art, it signposts situations we'd otherwise ignore or try to avoid, provides insights, and provokes questions. This film, like all great art, is alive, vital, and transcendent.

Now, before you accuse this piece of proclaiming Dawn the next Citizen Kane, the term "art" is being used in a non-literal sense. We aren't declaring masterpieces here, but rather aesthetic intent. When director Matt Reeves stepped in to guide this second installment in the creative reboot of the established sci-fi franchise, he faced a myriad of challenges. Tim Burton's version of the story, widely regarded as a fiasco, continues to beckon while Rupert Wyatt's initial volley into the revamp with Rise of the Planet of the Apes was seen as a solid win. So Reeves had to accomplish two main goals: keep the series afloat, and avoid turning these intelligent animals into another Marky Mark monkey crime.

That he succeeded is beside the point (a click over to Rotten Tomatoes and/or Metacritic can see 91% of the working press patting themselves on the back over this one). No, what Reeves managed is far more meaningful. Aside from the technical triumph, which we will address in a moment, this filmmaker managed to find the social commentary essence that seemed to be missing from most of the Apes efforts. Certainly the 1968 original stared the Civil Rights Movement directly in its conflicted face, while Beneath addressed a different kind of race - the nuclear arms race. Escape attempted to return to the theme of intolerance, but by the time both Conquest and Battle arrived, all ancillary context was slowly leeched out of the narrative (even with obvious bows to slavery and rebellion).

Burton's attempt at revitalizing the property continues to be met with hate, hoots, and hollers, though it really does do an amazing job of updating Planet's people in make-up conceit. The script, it has to be said, tries to bring some brains to the otherwise over the top spectacle of a standard Summer popcorn title, but it all gets lost in a desire to emphasize special effects and art design over ideas. Even previous planned remakes (including an LSD inspired reimagining with Oliver Stone behind the lens and Arnold Schwarzenegger in front of it) failed to find the humanity in the inhuman saga. Instead, almost all the creative focus went to making actors look like realistic apes, especially in light of today's cynical, show-me viewership.

That was a decade ago. Since then, CG has truly come of age, delivering photo-realistic representations of anything, made even more memorable by the use of motion capture rigs to provide extra performance polish. James Cameron and Avatar argued that you could create whole world with this new cinematic science, and he extracted two billion dollars out of the box office as a result. Since then, studios have strived to use as many computer generated elements as possible to, perchance, find a way towards some of those titanic returns. Few have had the imagination to leap beyond the stunt and discover age old movie magic like character and story. Rise of the Planet of the Apes remembered such artistic attributes and introduced them back into their version of Apes.

Dawn does them all one big broad step better. This may be one of the few films made in the current cultural clime where animated attributes trump true physical actors. Long ago, cinematic Chicken Littles loved to warn that, with the rise in technology, movies would no longer need actors. Both Avatar and Dawn highlight their fears rather perfectly. All throughout these films, there are moments where no living, breathing person is on display. Behind the scenes? Certainly. On camera? No. Instead, carefully rendered figures (aliens in one, apes in the other) dominate the action. They forward the narrative. More importantly, they provide the emotional heft. Imagine these films made with expert make-up effects and the stunt is readily apparent. Thanks to computers, the creation of seamless integration is no longer a possibility, it's the main purpose.

This is why Dawn is so important to the industry, but for filmgoers, it has an equally necessary motive. Like the original, the message now can be measured out in true blockbuster fashion. While serious science fiction always gets undermined by the more Star Wars like "dogfights in space" brand, Dawn argues that ideas can be part of the process as well. Even better, they can form the foundation for a more meaningful metaphor. When Gary Oldman's character spits his anti-ape bile, it's not because he's some rogue villain. Instead, he's just an ill-informed hate monger who blames the simians for the disease which stole his family and his way of life away from him. Even when confronted with the facts, this faux leader continues down a tragic path. By being blind, he doesn't see the endgame.

Similarly, our ape leader Caesar has his own issues, mostly with an angry member of his clan. Koba was tortured as part of medical experiments, and when man comes exploring in the woods, looking for a way to restart their civilization, he becomes obsessed. Even when Caesar states in a calm and rational manner that all he wants to do is let the "humans work," Koba responds with a devastating objection. Pointing to his damaged eye, his scarred face, the lacerations covering his body, he repeats his leader's carefully chosen words. "Human's work," he growls, showing the injuries. "Human's work." Thanks to a well-placed single apostrophe, an entire theme is laid out and legitimized.

Indeed, what Dawn does is set the groundwork for an exploration of today's telling disputes. From immigration to racism, animal testing to ethical treatment of same, we will soon seen a massive confront where beast comes back to its master making sure said overseer understands the damage that has been done. There will be blood. There will be death. And there will be a new order, one forged either out of an uneasy alliance between man and animal, or one where the latter becomes controller of the planet's destiny. Rumors have it that the next installment -- and all future installments -- will function in a manner so that, when Charlton Heston's astronaut George Taylor lands on that so-called "alien" world in the 3000s, he will indeed be able to scream his telling twist:

"Oh my God. I'm back. I'm home. All the time, it was... We finally really did it. You maniacs! You blew it up! Ah damn you! God damn you all to Hell!"

Considering what's come already, wherever this Rise and Dawn takes us will be quite special indeed.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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