The Planet of the Apes franchise has long been predicated on using the speculative science-fiction concept of a future world where evolved apes with intelligence either rule over or are in conflict over humans as an allegory for hot-button topics such as racial tensions, prejudice and societies’ destructive nature. In 2012 the franchise was rebooted with Rise of the Planet of the Apes, an optimistic parable about animal rights and coming-of-age. It was an origin story that chronicled the birth and early years of the genetically enhanced simian, Caesar (played by Andy Serkis via motion and voice capture) from his being raised by a kindly human scientist, to his eventual peaceful exodus for his similarly evolving brethren. Fast-forward a few decades and Caesar and his people have become an organized society under his leadership, while the human population seemingly faded from existence following the accidental spread of the very virus responsible for the ape evolution. “Ape shall not kill ape” is the primary law for this world until the apes realize that their society is not alone and that the world is a lot more complex. In Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, surprisingly opts for a more nuanced take than a simple “apes vs. human beings” binary conflict. The filmmakers make it a point to show that all factions within the realm of the picture have legitimate points and concerns but that all of that fades when they are consumed by greed and hate, feelings that all of the living are capable of succumbing to.
I’m writing this review as the ceaseless conflicts all over the world from the Middle-east, Eastern Europe, Asia and even Central & South America make the headlines yet again. It would be easy to look at the situations and declare “bad guys” – the Zionists with their expansionism! The terrorists with their suicide bombers and choices of soft civilian targets! – however the reality lies in the cost of life lost to all. In Dawn, the “villains” (antagonists is more appropriate word) make questionable choices seemingly in the service of what they believe to be ultimately right – the safety of their own people. Ultimately it a sort of selfishness, the idea that one’s own personal welfare precludes the welfare of others, that drives such characters down the hellish road of “good intentions.” Characters throughout the picture, human and ape alike are portrayed empathetically and given shades of complexity which play off of the two protagonist of the film who act as its moral center: the ape leader Caesar and the human co-leader Malcolm (played by Jason Clarke). While the two certainly butt heads during the story, ultimately they are in agreement towards the desire and necessity of their “tribes” hopefully working through differences and together.
Each character has strong, understandable rationales for how they behave. However, the film shows how quickly those rationales can give way to the irrational. Corruption and greed are often fueled from initially more virtuous desires and it is not a uniquely human trait in the film. There is much allegory and symbolism throughout the film even suggesting that the society’s habit to arm themselves in preparation for war is in part a self-fulfilling prophecy that brings such conflict. However since the film primarily focuses on Caesar and Malcolm, the film is more of a meditation on the burden of power. These two have the unenviable position of leading their people, and neither of whom is well-versed in the complexities of diplomacy between two or more independent societies. It seems in the midst of this post-apocalyptic world, where groups and individuals have been so single-minded in their pursuit of their own survival; they forgot what it meant to deal with others. As the ape society is the younger one, the film focuses more on their development as a society. The ape society’s growth is shown manifesting externally as they begin speaking human languages more often as the film progresses. While the human side of the story is a metaphor for the cost of survival, the ape side of the film is an allegory for the complex political challenges that occur when cultures come together.
What makes Dawn even more profound is that it doesn’t call attention to its real world parallels the way similar speculative sfi-fi pictures like Elysium or Snowpiercer do to certain extents. The film lets the characters and the action draw you in while stealthily delivering a social message. It’s not a matter of seeing the “real world” play out in the movie; it’s a matter of seeing what plays out in the movie play out in the real world.
Dawn is a marked improvement over its predecessor not only by focusing more on commentary and allegory but by also better emphasizing the titular apes as befitting the franchise. And with the focus more fully on the apes, the performance capture actors shoulder much of the movie. We already knew veteran performer Andy Serkis can do it, here portraying Caesar as a wise, no-nonsense leader torn by his desire for peace and the need to project strength in order to obtain and maintain it. Serkis and the other performers are remarkable. They are aided by WETA Studio animators and the technology has come so far that all of the ape actors are able to bring an unprecedented amount of subtlety and emotion to every move. All of the apes look and “feel” real, tangible in comparison to the hollow non-existent creatures of The Hobbit films. There’s a scene where orangutan teacher Maurice is sitting in the rain with a human teen reading a comic book and the way his fur is wet, matted and tangled is so real that it could easily be mistaken for being either an actual orangutan or an actor in a suit. In the future perhaps we will all look back at these visual effects FX and find them dated and amusing, but this along-side 2013s Gravity showcases the current peak of computer-generated imagery and effects. It should be noted that on both Gravity and these Apes films the computer-generated immersive realism is used to create and develop characters rather than mere spectacle.
The apes and the humans are forced into ethical decisions that lend authentic dramatic weight. They lead to existential and downbeat ruminations as befitting the notoriously cynical franchise. This is by no means some groundbreaking meditation on the nature of mankind (w/ human AND ape characters fitting into that category) but those elements help flavor the film into a much more immersive and engaging end-product. Films with characters that audiences care about, well-developed themes and ideas generally tend to be more effective that way. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is not going to appear on any “best of” lists nor will it be remembered fondly as a milestone like the 1968 original Planet of the Apes but it instead is notable as a an exercise in quality Hollywood blockbuster filmmaking. In addition to being a genuinely enjoyable time, this film is direct, focused and purposeful. To make a a poor pun: it isn’t monkeying around.