New to Blu-Ray: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, As Above, So Below, and More

by Andrew Hudak

Picking up roughly ten years after “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” this second installment, entitled “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” finds ape Caesar (Andy Serkis) leading an army of simians in the northern California forest outside of San Francisco. Their encampment is on the way to a dam that the humans in the ruins of San Francisco need to generate power. A group of emissaries lead by human Malcolm (Jason Clarke) go to the apes to reach an agreement that will allow the humans to repair the dam and generate power to their community….

Writing the above paragraph reminded me of the opening crawl to “Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace” where it’s about trade disputes. At least that movie got to the action pretty quickly. “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” does not. The first hour is about the living situations of the humans and the apes, their fragile peace, fixing the dam, and Caesar’s second son being born.

Thank goodness for the war mongers. On the human side we have Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), who wants to kill all of the apes and take back the dam. On the ape side, we have Koba (Toby Kebbell), who doesn’t like humans and wants to kill or imprison them all for safety and security. Apparently no stranger to human war starting tactics, Koba engages in a false flag operation that initiates conflict between apes and humans. When the action starts, it only lets up at key moments and the pacing of “Dawn” gets much better.

The visual effects in “Dawn” are top notch. Once again, motion capture is used. This time there are a lot more apes, and they’re featured throughout the entire movie. F/X junkies are in for a treat. Action fans are in for less of a treat, in that once the action starts it’s fairly straightforward and not too imaginative except for some cool visual effects stunt work during a fight amongst apes toward the end. In all, this left me with the same empty feeling that the first film left me with, but not so much that it’s so bad to not see at all. I give it a tepid Rent It.

It’s amazing that more films aren’t made about archaeology. After the success of the “Indiana Jones” movies, there should have been a slew of them coming out, much like the zombie craze we’re currently experiencing. But no, there are precious few. And “As Above, So Below” is one of the precious few.

Precious it is indeed, in that in addition to telling a great story involving archaeology and history, it also provides some good scares and gives its characters some challenging riddles to solve. This means that the characters have functioning brains in their heads that they actually have to use, and the story is clever in addition to providing the visceral chills and thrills.

The film stars Perdita Weeks as Scarlett, a twenty-something archaeologist. Years earlier, her father, also an archaeologist, committed suicide. She picked up his legacy in searching for the fabled Philosopher’s Stone, which can heal any illness, and most famously, turn any metal into gold. Her search leads her to Paris, where she teams up with old flame George (Ben Feldman), who can translate the writings she discovers, and Benji (Edwin Hodge), who is filming her quest for the stone. In order to continue their research, they need to get into the catacombs underneath Paris and uncover the lost tomb of famed fourteenth century alchemist Nicholas Flamel. To do this, they recruit the assistance of Papillon (François Civil), a local catacombs explorer who can get them into the off-limits areas of the catacombs.

“As Above, So Below,” works well as a horror movie. The catacombs are dark and dusty. Looking at them on screen, you can practically smell the stale air. The corridors are cramped and crowded with a lot of blind corners. The atmosphere is rife with opportunity for anyone—or anything—to pop out from anywhere. Director John Erick Dowdle uses the space efficiently and has a keen sense of timing. He builds suspense and has scares happen at just the right moment.

But more than that, “As Above, So Below,” works on the level of the psychological thriller. It’s not just what it is seen, heard, and felt that will get to you. It is also what is in your mind that you make real that can play a part in causing fright. You psych yourself out, and in doing so, you are the cause of your own fear. The success of “As Above, So Below” is that it works on both levels and does them amazingly well.

One last thing I really liked. It’s a commonly known screenwriter technique that to create a compelling narrative the main character should have something they absolutely do not want to do and be forced to do it. About half of the movies out there employ this technique—“Edge of Tomorrow” with Tom Cruise springs to mind as a great example. In “As Above, So Below,” Scarlett has to do something that no one would want to do. I actually doubted she would do it and thought the script would find another solution for her predicament. But no—she does it. My jaw dropped and my eyes bulged with exhilaration as I watched it unfold. It was amazing to see, plus I have to give her credit—she has a very straightforward way of dealing with stone statues that suddenly spring to life. It has to be seen to be believed, and that’s exactly what I recommend. Buy It.

Also out this week: “The Hundred Foot Journey,” about an Indian family who opens a restaurant in Paris across the street from a Michelin-starred restaurant, starring Helen Mirren; “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” Frank Capra classic about an idealistic Senator (James Stewart) who takes on corruption in Capitol Hill; “The Simpsons,” season seventeen from the years 2005 to 2006 has arrived; “The Package,” about a Green Beret Sergeant who must track down an escaped prisoner (Tommy Lee Jones) and foil an assassination attempt; and “Jingle All the Way 2,” this time with Larry the Cable Guy as a desperate dad trying to get the season’s most sought after toy for his daughter (Kennedi Clements).

Andrew Hudak is a lifelong film lover. His column on Blu-Ray new releases appears every Tuesday. He lives in Connecticut.