The Ultimate Haunted House Story

A classic subgenre of horror is the haunted house, where people are caught in a building with an evil force of some kind that means them harm. A classic novel of this genre would be Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. It’s even more popular for horror movies, with a great example being Robert Wise’s adaptation of Jackson’s story, 1963’s The Haunting. (The remake in 1999 is an example of the worse of the genre.) Other good examples include two adaptations of Stephen King stories, The Shining and 1408, and 1973’s The Legend of Hell House, based on a Richard Matheson novel adapted by the author. In 1979, Ridley Scott blended the conventions of the haunted house with science fiction for the original Alien. Now there’s a new sci-fi/horror hybrid: Life.

In the near future, six astronauts on the International Space Station prepare to capture a probe returning from Mars with samples from the planet’s surface. The ISS astronauts are themselves an international group, with a Russian commanding officer, Ekaterina Golovkina (Olga Dihovichnaya). British containment specialist Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson) must ensure the station isn’t contaminated by the samples, while another Brit, botanist Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare), will examine what the soil contains. The weightlessness of space is especially good for Derry, who is a paraplegic. The crew is rounded out by Japanese systems specialist Sho Murikami (Hiroyuki Sanada), and two Yanks, pilot Rory Adams (Ryan Reynolds) and senior medical officer David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal).

Adams manages to trap the probe, and the samples are transferred to a lab on the station and placed in an isolation box. Derry introduces other factors to the samples including atmosphere and water, and is rewarded by the growth of a tiny organism. Children at a school in the United States are given the honor of naming the first example of life outside our world, and they call it “Calvin.” Derry’s fascinated by Calvin, whose individual cells are capable of multiple functions. At first Calvin looks like a delicate flower, but as it grows it shows it will do anything to survive.

Director Daniel Espinosa had worked with Ryan Reynolds before, on the hit thriller Safe House in 2012. Espinosa’s follow-up, Child 44 (based on Tom Rob Smith’s acclaimed novel), died at the box office in spite of the presence of Tom Hardy, Noomi Rapace, Gary Oldman, and several other distinguished actors. It only managed a 25% score on Rotten Tomatoes. He’s recovered his mojo with Life, certified fresh on RT. The action moves smoothly from twist to twist as the suspense is ratcheted up with each scene.

Screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick have often blended comedy with thrills, having done 2009’s Zombieland and then last year’s mega-hit Deadpool. With Life they play it straight, and they also play it realistic. In a way they’ve taken their cue from The Martian. The space station has limited resources for the astronauts that can’t simply be replaced by the writer playing God. It’s not like the westerns where a gunfighter might shoot off twenty rounds without reloading his six-shooter.

Another point of realism is with the interaction of the cast. While Gyllenhaal, Reynolds, and Ferguson (Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation) are established stars – and get their pictures on the poster – they blend into a unit with Dihovichnaya, Bakare, and Sanada.

Life definitely owes a debt to Alien, though the overall feel of the movies is different. One interesting connection is that Ridley Scott produced Espinosa’s Child 44. While they stand separate, Life does remind you of the power and effectiveness of Alien before it got diluted by Alien 3, Alien: Resurrection, and Prometheus. Perhaps Alien: Covenant later this year will recapture some of the original’s Life.

Prelude To Hope

In the original Star Wars – now Episode 4: A New Hope – there’s a tossed-off line when the rebels receive the Death Star plans from R2D2 to the effect that several people sacrificed themselves to get the information. Now, nearly 40 years after it was first mentioned, movie audiences get to see what happened in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. It was worth the wait.

The story focuses on Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), the daughter of Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen). Instead of the usual introductory crawl, Rogue One begins with a sequence when Jyn was a child. Galen had left behind his job designing weapon systems for the Empire to hide away on a barren planet with his wife and Jyn. But the Empire isn’t done with Galen. When Imperial Senator Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) arrives to force Galen back into the fold, Jyn manages to escape to a bolt hole where she’s later found by an ally of Galen, Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker).

Years later the now-adult Jyn continues to hide under an assumed name, even as she’s a prisoner of the Imperial Forces for committing petty crimes to survive. While being transferred, rebel fighters break Jyn out. She instead tries to break away from the rebels, only to be stopped by the reprogrammed Imperial droid K-2S0 (motion-capture performed and voiced by Alan Tudyk). The rebels need Jyn to get to Gerrera, who’s broken from the Rebel Alliance to carry out his own battles. Gerrera is in possession of a defecting transport pilot (Riz Ahmed) who’s escaped with a message from Galen. Jyn is dispatched with rebel fighter Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) to get the pilot and the message. Along the way they pick up blind monk Chirrut Imwe (Donny Yen) and his protector Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang). But that mission morphs into a hero’s journey when they encounter the weapon Galen’s designed – the Death Star.

In visual style Rogue One varies from A New Hope, partially because the refinements in special effects have come so far in the past four decades. Director Gareth Edwards uses handheld cameras more than Lucas could, since computerized special effects can blend with the camera’s motion. Edwards began his career in SFX, then moved into directing, first with the low budget Monsters in 2010, then with the big budget remake of Godzilla in 2014. Rogue One’s budget was in the $200 million range, but Edwards puts it all up on the screen. The visuals are some of the best in the entire series.

But more than the images, Rogue One has an effective story that’s well-told by Edwards, and characters that you come to care about almost as deeply as Luke, Leia, and Han. The base story was developed by John Knoll (who has done special effects beginning with A New Hope and who was the visual effects supervisor on this film) along with Gary Whitta (who wrote The Book of Eli). The screenplay was then written by Chris Weitz (About a Boy, 2015’s Cinderella) along with Tony Gilroy (the Bourne series, Michael Clayton). Although the visual style’s different, the story blends seamlessly with A New Hope, so much so that the Machete order for viewing the first two trilogies should be augmented. That order is IV, V, II, III, VI and ignore Jar Jar Binks and Episode I completely, but now it has to start with Rogue One since it increases the impact of A New Hope.

Jones is perfect in the role of Jyn, blending the waif-like child searching for her father with the steel spine and dedication of a fighter. Part of the original Star Wars appeal was Carrie Fisher’s Leia, a princess who wouldn’t wait around for anyone to save her and could shoot a blaster with the best of them. For Leia, the change from princess to general in The Force Awakens was simply an acknowledgement of her power and Fisher’s embodiment of the role. The writing of Padme in Episodes I-III wasn’t as strong as Leia, but with Rey in A New Hope and now Jyn, the series has returned to the glory of fully realized, powerful women. The rest of the cast is pitch perfect as well. Luna gives strong support to Jones, while Yen and Jiang are indelible in their roles. For the movie to work, you also need a villain to match the heroes, and Mendelsohn provides a subtle but strong evil presence. You’ll also recognize several other characters that populate the story.

When Disney bought Lucasfilm, and with it the rights to Star Wars, there was concern about the Mouse-ification of the series. Were the new films going to be the equivalents of the Ewoks Adventures? The Force Awakens put that concern to bed, but Rogue One doused the bed with gas and burned it to a crisp. This is what Episodes I-III should have been.

With Carrie Fisher’s passing two days ago (as I write this), Rogue One has taken on an added poignancy. If you go to see it for the first time, remember to tuck a tissue in your pocket.

To Serve Mankind

The idea of first contact with an alien species has been a part of science fiction for as long as there has been science fiction. H.G. Wells raised the specter of invasion and conquest with “War of the Worlds” in 1898, and that strain has continued through books and movies since, especially with the sci-fi flicks of the 1950s and on up through Independence Day. On the other side, books and movies have had the aliens as an advance race come to help us, such as in the classic The Day The Earth Stood Still (not the awful remake) and through to Contact. The Twilight Zone had one of its best episodes when it blended the ideas in “To Serve Mankind.” If you somehow haven’t seen that episode, I won’t spoil it. This weekend marks the arrival of Arrival, a new entry in that genre, and one of the best ever.

The movie was directed by Denis Villenueve, who has fast become one of my favorite directors. He did two of the best thrillers in recent years, Prisoners and Sicario. Now he does for science fiction what he did for thrillers. Screenwriter Eric Heisserer is known mostly for horror movies such as Lights Out, Final Destination 5, and the 2010 reboot of A Nightmare on Elm Street. Here, working from the short story “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, he’s crafted a screenplay that thrills but also completely engages your intellect. Think of it as a more intelligent version of Contact.

Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is a college professor whose specialty is linguistics. After a short introduction, the story begins on the day monolithic black spaceships appear in twelve locations around the world. Each country with a ship deals with them independently, though at first they share some data. After a few days, Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) comes to her office. He’d worked with Banks to translate chatter from a Farsi terrorist cell, but now he wants her to figure out why the visitors have come to earth. She refuses to give him a quick answer and points out the pitfalls of language. Instead she says they must create a full lexicon for communication to avoid possibly catastrophic misunderstandings.

Weber leaves, but returns later and agrees to let Banks work her way. On the helicopter to the American site in Montana, she meets Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a physicist who’s in charge of the team making contact. The military has placed a wide perimeter around the ship which floats just above the ground. Nearby they’ve created a camp for investigating the aliens that’s more like a temporary military base. There’s a strong element that believes the ships in the sky are not there on a peace mission. As one character say, if they came in peace, “why did they bring twelve ships?”

Villenueve doesn’t rush the story. He gives it plenty of time to grow and breathe and sink into your mind until you’re completely involved. The portrayal of linguistics is fascinating and deep, as is the whole science of the film. Villenueve worked with scientists Stephen and Christopher Wolfram to ensure all the technical aspects of the story are correctly depicted.

Amy Adams is the lynchpin of the film. It’s through her eyes that we see what’s happening, and she gives one of her best performances ever. Both Renner and Whitaker are first-rate in their embodiments of their roles, as are several character actors such as Tzi Ma as Chinese General Shang and Michael Stuhlbarg as CIA Agent Halpern.

Normally it’s dangerous to use the word “classic” when referring to a movie that has only been released this weekend. But Arrival is not a normal movie. I saw it with my adult son, and after the credits finished I asked him for his reaction. His first two words: “Holy crap!” While you’ll each have your own words for expressing reactions, it’s safe to say they’ll be along those lines. See this movie.

Putting The Science Back In Science Fiction

The story of how the novel “The Martian” became a bestseller is almost as fantastic as its plot. Author Andy Weir wrote the book over the course of two years, meticulously researching the scientific aspects of the story to make it as accurate as possible. When he finished the manuscript in 2011, he was rebuffed by literary agents – not an uncommon story for a debut author – so he published the book in serial form on his website for free. People asked him for a Kindle version, which he prepared and priced at 99 cents, the cheapest price possible. It soon sold more copies than were downloaded for free and climbed to the top of the Amazon bestseller charts. That got the attention of publishers, and Weir signed a six-figure deal with Crown Publishing. 20th Century Fox optioned the film rights and assigned Drew Goddard to write and direct the film.

Goddard’s first writing credits were on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” during its final season, including working on one of the series best episodes ever, Conversations with Dead People. Goddard then worked on “Angel,” “Lost,” and “Alias” on the small screen, and wrote the films Cloverfield, World War Z, and Cabin In The Woods. He also directed the last movie, with Joss Whedon co-writing and producing. Goddard likely would have done a good job directing The Martian, but then another director expressed a desire to do the film: Ridley Scott. Having made Alien and Blade Runner, Scott is legendary in sci-fi circles. Goddard gave up the director’s chair, but he crafted a sharp, witty script that also communicates the science of the story in a thrilling way. Scott for his part has created a third gem of a sci-fi film.

The plot is Robinson Crusoe meets Apollo 13. Astronaut Mark Watney is part of the third manned mission to Mars. A huge storm forces the crew to abort the mission early, but as they make their way to their Mission Ascent Vehicle (MAV), a piece of debris hits Watney and destroys his telemetry monitor. To the crew he appears to be dead, and with the storm threatening to destroy the MAV, they have to take off. They return to their mother ship, the Hermes, and begin the multi-year journey back to Earth. The next day, the storm past, Watney wakes up and realizes he’s been marooned. Another mission is planned that will land on Mars in four years, but his food will be exhausted long before that and he’ll have to travel 3200 kilometers to meet the new mission in a rover whose battery lasts for about 30 km before it must be recharged. So, as Watney says, “I’m going to have to science the s**t out of this.”

Matt Damon has to hold about half of the screen time on his own, which he proceeds to do beautifully. Damon has the Everyman quality similar to Jimmy Stewart and Tom Hanks; the audience easily identifies with him. While The Martian has been compared to the other recent great sole survivor tale, Hanks’ Cast Away, the two films are completely different in thrust and tone. In Cast Away a man had to revert to his primitive nature to survive; it was essentially a tale of loss, The Martian deals with using the intellect to solve a life-and-death situation – mind over nature – and does it with a wonderfully wry sense of humor. For long segments, Cast Away was a silent film, while The Martian has Watney explain what he’s doing for the station’s video log.

There are two other main settings for the film: the Hermes on its return flight to Earth and Mission Control in Houston. For these, Scott has assembled one of the best casts in recent memory. There’s Jeff Daniels as the head of NASA, Chiwetel Ejiofor as the mission director, Kristen Wiig as a PR person, and Sean Bean as the director responsible for the crew. That part of the story, though, is almost stolen by Donald Glover (“Community”) as a brilliant though maladroit astrophysicist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. On the Hermes, you have a crew captained by Jessica Chastain who gets to go into space this time rather than remaining earthbound as she did in Interstellar. Filling out the crew is Michael Pena, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan (Captain America: The Winter Soldier) and Aksel Hennie. It’s an embarrassment of rich talent.  

These days you expect the technical visuals and the spacecraft to be first-rate, and Scott doesn’t disappoint. What’s most stunning, though, are the landscapes of Mars. Scott shows vast vistas that underline Watney’s complete isolation.

The Martian has an extended running time of 141 minutes, and covers years with the story. However, you won’t look at your watch until the lights go up at the end. This is a movie that proves science can compete with any fantasy for an edge-of-your-seat thrilling tale. Hopefully it will inspire those who will one day help us actually make the trip

The Future That Never Was

When Disneyland originally opened, attractions like the Nautilus submarines and the Swiss Family Robinson treehouse were based on the studio’s movie hits. Later on, the studio tried to make movies based on the Disneyland attractions. It worked out financially with Pirates of the Caribbean, and was a bust with 2003’s The Haunted Mansion with Eddie Murphy. Now comes Tomorrowland, a slightly strange hybrid that not only is an area of the park but is also part of Uncle Walt’s original vision. The Tomorrowland attractions at the park were supposed to give visitors a vision of the future, but that required constant updating, so in the 1990s Disney changed Tomorrowland to be the vision of Sci-fi writers from the 1920s and ‘30s, sort of looking back to look forward to a future that never was.

In a way that’s carried over into the movie. It postulates a sort of Illuminati conspiracy by the greatest minds of the world, beginning in the 19th Century, to create an alternate world where science is given free reign – the best world imaginable. At the 1964 World’s Fair in New York, a young dreamer named Frank Walker (Thomas Robinson) receives an invitation from a girl named Athena (Raffey Cassidy) to enter that world in the form of a pin. The portal is hidden inside the “It’s A Small World” ride, which was created for the fair before being moved to Disneyland. You knew there had to be a nefarious reason to inflict that ride on the public. But in the end the future isn’t so bright for Walker.

Fast-forward to perhaps a few minutes beyond the present day. Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) is a teenaged science geek who’s response to all the problems of the world is, “Can’t we make it better?” She lives in Cape Canaveral where her father Eddie (Tim McGraw) was once a NASA scientist but is now involved with dismantling the launch systems. Casey has carried out a sabotage campaign to stop the destruction, but it ends up landing her in jail. When she’s bailed out, she finds a pin mixed in with her belongings that, when she touches it, gives her a vision of Tomorrowland.

As she searches for answers about the pin, she discovers that a team of killer robots has been tasked with stopping her. She’s saved in one encounter by the arrival of the still young Athena. Athena tells Casey that there’s only one man who can help her: Frank Walker (George Clooney), now an old recluse on a farm in upstate New York after he was exiled from Tomorrowland.

The movie was directed by Brad Bird, who made The Incredibles for Pixar and then reanimated Tom Cruise with the excellent Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. But before that he made The Iron Giant, one of the last and best movies in the classic animation format. (Watch the scene of Casey in the memorabilia store and you’ll see a shelf over the sales lady’s shoulder dedicated to that movie.) The script was written by Bird along with Damon Lindehof who wrote and executive produced “Lost” and also did the two movies of the J.J. Abrams reboot of Star Trek.

The movie wants to deliver a message as well as an entertaining story, and because of that it’s uneven, with several holes in the plot. The robot hit squad isn’t as threatening as it should be, and some of the metaphysics get too meta and forget about the physics. But in contrast to most movies these days, it at least does have a message, and it’s one that should be heard.

Robertson is effective in the main role, with Clooney and Raffey Cassidy providing good support. Hugh Laurie plays the leader of Tomorrowland, and it’s fun to hear his real British accent rather than the American one he used for so many years on “House.”

Despite the unevenness and the plot holes, I’d recommend seeing this movie. It grapples with large questions, and while it isn’t a complete success, it’s better than many movies made these day that retread what’s been done before. It manages to pluck at your heart strings and stimulate your mind, rather than just being another roller-coaster ride, and that goes a long way toward a passing grade.

Odyssey

It’s pretty much a given that Christopher Nolan’s new film Interstellar will be compared with Stanley Kubick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey from 46 years ago. It’s about the only film that comes close to Interstellar’s vision and scale. Nolan himself gives the earlier film a nod when he has a robot on the spaceship use its humor setting to make a wisecrack about how the astronaut can get back in through the pod door after being ejected into space. But the movie actually harkens back to Homer’s Odyssey, where Odysseus must make his long trip home to save his family and his kingdom.

Nolan sets Interstellar in an all-too-possible future. Overpopulation has caused countries to focus almost solely on growing food. They tell themselves they’re a caretaker generation, to get through the crisis, and then things will be better. At the same time the climate has turned toxic. Blight has destroyed wheat as a crop, and sorghum is dying off. Corn remains resilient, but drought threatens it. Dust storms even worse than the 1930s are now common enough that communities have installed warning sirens for when the clouds approach. To keep the people focused on farming, the government has re-written history and science textbooks to negate accomplishments – they now say that the Apollo landings were faked – while NASA is officially disbanded. They can’t afford to dream big dreams anymore.

Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) was a test-pilot engineer at the end for NASA, but now he too is a farmer, living with his father-in-law Donald (John Lithgow) and his two children, Tom (Timothy Chalamet) and Murph (MacKenzie Foy). Tom looks forward to being a farmer, but Murph is already showing she may eclipse her father’s brilliance at science. But it seems Murph is going through a phase because she claims there are ghosts in her room push books off her shelves. Rather than being scared, she analyzes the dropped books to find a pattern, believing the ghosts are trying to communicate with her.

Then in the aftermath of a dust storm, Cooper and Murph find an anomaly that sends them on a journey. They discover the remnants of NASA hidden in an old NORAD bunker. It’s now under the direction of Professor Brand (Michael Caine) and his daughter (Anne Hathaway), who just goes by Brand. The professor gives Cooper a doomsday scenario for the planet that will happen within Murph’s generation. The only chance humanity has is to leave the Earth behind, and Cooper is the best pilot for the mission to find humanity a new home.

In 2001, the science is fairly bland and not really spelled out – just a cool light show at the end. Interstellar, on the other hand, is an illustrated primer on quantum physics, relativity, and holes of the worm or black variety. For instance, in the course of the mission Cooper hardly ages for a couple of reasons while back on earth Murph grows older than her father was when he left (the adult Murph is played by Jessica Chastain).

Also different than 2001, the humans in Interstellar are just that – human, with all our foibles and pettiness, even as we dream great dreams. It is one of the more emotionally resonant science fiction films. There are lies and weakness and cowardice – the stuff that drama is made of – rather than the antiseptic world of the earlier film. It’s not just science fiction; it’s science friction, as all the elements collide.

The special effects look top-notch, though it’s interesting that Nolan kept much of the movie old school. He used actual film rather than digital cameras, and for the robot TARS (voiced by Bill Irwin) many of its scenes are done with puppetry. Nolan collaborated with his brother Jonathan on the script, as he has in the past for Momento, The Prestige, The Dark Knight, and The Dark Knight Rises. They were assisted by Kip Thorne (who has Executive Producer credit on the film) who is a famed astrophysicist who teaches at Cal Tech and is currently the Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics. Thorne collaborated with the special effects crew on visualizing a worm hole.

The score by Hans Zimmer is effective, especially since Nolan told him he’d have to strip down the orchestration. He also didn’t provide Zimmer with the script, just a page of notes. However, Zimmer’s score underlines the emotional element of the scenes and increases the impact of the film.

The focus of the movie is Cooper and Murph, and the father-daughter relationship between McConaughey and Foy, then Chastain, has an emotional resonance and validity. Caine has done excellent work with Nolan through, and with their fifth film together that excellence continues. The rest of the cast – Hathaway, Lithgow, William Devane, Wes Bentley, David Gyasi, Casey Affleck, Topher Grace, and another major actor in a surprise appearance – inhabit their roles beautifully.

This is a major movie dealing with complex issues (it’s also 9 minutes longer than the original cut of 2001) but it is also a movie with heart and soul. 2001: A Space Odyssey played in some theaters for almost three years, supported by repeat visitors, some of whom enjoyed watching the special effects with the help of some chemical augmentation. Movie distribution has changed radically since those days, but this is a movie that deserves to be seen more than once, and then reflected upon.

It may only be science fiction for a few years.

Darkness at Dawn

If ever there was a movie series that has reaped the benefit of modern technology, it’s Planet of the Apes. While the makeup in the original 1968 move was quite impressive for its day, you never forgot that you were watching actors in heavy latex prosthetics. The movie’s theme and its killer twist overcame the prosthetics – and allowed the film to become a five-movie series. There were some makeup improvements in the Tim Burton reboot, but the rest of the film was such a mess you hardly noticed them, and it looked like the series was dead. But then came 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, using motion capture technology and the genius of Andy Serkis’ embodiment of Caesar. For the first time, the intelligence-enhanced apes were believable, and fascinating. The success of Rise led to the newest film, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

The end of Rise foreshadowed a nasty plague caused by the Gen-Sys anti-Alzheimer’s drug ALZ 113, the treatment that gave Caesar (Serkis) and the other apes their intelligence. In a simple but effective sequence, the plague – called the Simian Flu because of its tie to ape testing – is tracked to its final devastation of mankind. Ten years have passed since Caesar led his apes north of San Francisco to Muir Woods where they set up their own society. During a hunt for food, Caesar and another of the original tribe, Koba (Toby Kebbell) must save Caesar’s son Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston) from a rampaging bear. They return to the settlement where Caesar’s wife Cornelia (Judy Greer) presents him with a new child. Cornelia, though, shows signs of illness.

Later while walking through the woods, Blue Eyes and a friend come face to face with a human. The man’s both armed and paranoid about apes, and he shoots Blue Eyes’ friend out of fear. The man is part of a small group under the leadership of Malcolm (Jason Clarke) that wants to find and restore a hydro power plant to give electricity to an outpost of humans still living in San Francisco. Caesar at first refuses the request, forcefully telling the leader of the outpost, Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) to forget the plan. But Malcolm, along with his son Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and his partner Ellie (Keri Russell), return to the forest and are able to change Caesar’s mind. While they make progress toward peaceful co-existence, both Dreyfus and Koba prepare for war.

Jason Clarke has a wonderful ability to communicate both physical strength as well as sensitive intelligence. His role as Dan, the CIA agent in charge of enhanced interrogations in Zero Dark Thirty, played up how quietly imposing he can be, while in Dawn he is the hope for understanding, following in the footsteps of James Franco’s role in Rise. Oldman is effective as always as the less-than-trusting Dreyfus, while Russell and Smit-McPhee provide good support for the story.

Toby Kebbell’s Koba rises almost to the level of Shakespeare’s Iago or Richard III. He’s fearsome, and the physical manifestation is truly frightening, yet he’ll pull on a mask and act the fool when he must. The moment when he drops the mask, though, is starkly powerful. A strong antagonist is needed to make a story memorable, and Kebbell provides that strength.

Caesar remains the central character, a leader trying to balance power and mercy. While the embodiment is incredible, what sets it apart is when the camera focuses on Serkis’ eyes and you read his thoughts. While he’ll never be nominated for a Best Actor Oscar – the prejudice against technology is too strong – in both Rise and Dawn Serkis does Oscar-caliber work. Serkis continues to be busy, with Avengers: Age of Ultron coming next year to be followed by a new Tintin movie as well as Star Wars 7.

Director Matt Reeves had worked in television (including several episodes of “Felicity” with Keri Russell) before moving to the big screen with Cloverfield and Let Me In. While those movies were a solid start, with Dawn he reaches blockbuster success. He’s assisted by production designer James Chinlund (The Avengers) who creates a post-human world where nature has taken charge again. Also, one particular kudo to the movie for not destroying the Golden Gate Bridge as a cheap post-apocalyptic visual. It’s become so common (Godzilla destroyed it two months ago) that leaving the bridge intact stands out.

With Rise and now Dawn, screenwriters Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, assisted by Mark Bomback (Live Free or Die Hard, Unstoppable) on the new film, have not just rebooted the series but have completely reimagined it, adding depth and emotional heart that was absent in the original movies. Dawn made more in its initial weekend than Rise, and it has topped the weekend box office for two weeks straight. According to IMDb, another movie is in the works with Reeves directing as well as collaborating on the script with Bomback. I’m looking forward to seeing it.