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Film Review: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014; Directed by Matt Reeves)

Who would have reasonably believed it? The summer’s most intelligently crafted blockbuster is descended from a long line of stiff, heavy-handed sci-fi B-movies; Hollywood’s most emotionally and politically resonant statement of this silliest of movie seasons features a gaggle of simians (some of them riding horses!) as its protagonists. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes should be (and at its core truly remains) ridiculous. And yet it’s serious without being pedantic, suffused with soulful feeling instead of cornball manipulativeness, a powerful spectacle whose inevitably conflict grows organically from situations, characters relations, and ideologically differences. It’s, well, good (though not, it should be said, quite great).

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes represents a quantum evolutionary leap from its predecessor, Rise of the Planet of the Apes (though, as Andrew O’Hehir pointed out in his less-positive review, perhaps the titling should have been reversed, as the rising of the sun generally follows the dawn, no?). Rise had an insistently dumb script and not a single properly competent human performance (not even from its putative star, James Franco). These faults aligned it nicely enough with the original five films in the franchise from the late ’60s and early ’70s, which were classically cheesy B-movies at a time when such films were still economically possible in Hollywood. Rise only overcame its shoddy craftsmanship in the generally excellent sequences centered on motion-capture acting master Andy Serkis’ Caesar, the Moses of apekind’s exodus from zoo-and-lab bondage.

Director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, Let Me In), taking over from feature directing neophyte Rupert Wyatt, knows what he’s got in Caesar and his ape followers, and this is their movie (and, soon enough, their world). As Rise hinted inelegantly in its closing throes, a simian flu virus accidentally generated by Franco’s bleeding-heart liberal scientist to cure Alzheimer’s has rampaged across the world. Reeves memorably literalizes this trope of recent dystopian science-fiction epics, sweeping around the globe and telling the story of the epidemic’s spread and human society’s related collapse into destructive strife with red flight paths, video and audio snippets, and the twinkling lights of civilization slowly winking out.

The earth has gone dark, and so has the cinematographic palette; Michael Seresin shoots this post-apocalyptic landscape, half-reconquered by nature, in the deep greys, blacks, and blues of an indie horror-thriller. He’s aided immesurably by the setting, which is once again the rain-soaked, foggy San Francisco Bay Area (though the locations were actually shot in the rainforests of British Columbia). Caesar was last seen leading the apes he had freed into the Muir Woods on the north end of the Golden Gate, the promise of self-determination on his lips; he had picked up the gift of speech by the end of Rise, and he’s not the only ape with the ability in Dawn. Caesar appears to have made good on that promise as the narrative commences ten years after his escape: the apes have built a civilization of their own on the cliffs around a waterfall, with edifices of spiky tree trunks, a school for the young taught by sensitive orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval), and a set of rudimentary guiding principles, most important among them a prohibition against ape killing ape. Caesar has a mate and two sons, and rules as an admired philosopher-king.

It’s been some time since the apes have encountered man, but that changes with a harsh suddeness. An exploratory party of humans from a colony of genetically-immune survivors based in a huge, incomplete skyscraper in San Francisco has ventured into the woods in search of a hydroelectric dam that could, if repaired and reactivated, provide them with enough power to stave off desperate infighting and maybe to contact other survivor cells. The problem is that this dam is in ape territory and any hope of success depends on simian cooperation or at least tolerance. Cooperative tolerance is made much harder by the presence of one especially antagonistic jerk amongst the human group (Kirk Acevedo), who makes sure that the first human-ape contact for some time involves some ill-advised shooting and generally makes an unpleasant nuisance of himself. Acevedo’s Carver is a remnant of the petty belligerence and self-interest of the humans in Rise, spouting prejudiced bile about the apes and sneaking forbidden guns into their lands. “Right, I’m the asshole,” he spews sarcastically to make a point, but the obvious reply is, “Well, yes, that does seem to be your function, friend.”

Carver and colony leader Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) represent a siege-mentality extremism vis-à-vis the apes and, unfortunately for the state of human-ape relations, they have an ideological counterpart on the simian side in Koba (Toby Kebbell). Freed from the same lab that Caesar was born into, Koba is scarred physically and psychologically from experimentation by humans and is ever ready to respond to them with aggression and violence, which has dire consequences for both factions when he rebels against Caesar’s authority. His moniker was an early nickname of Joseph Stalin’s, and casting Koba as the warlike authoritarian foil to Caesar’s order of moderation and cooperation with the human colony’s co-leader Malcolm (Jason Clarke) is not Dawn‘s most subtle or sophisticated element.

Some de-Kobaization may prove necessary in ape society.

For subtlety and sophistication, look no further than Serkis’ Caesar, who is once again the most thoughtful, nuanced, emotionally-rounded individual in the film (though the humans are better-written and acted this time around), and many of the apes around him follow his lead admirably. Serkis continues to set the bar for the art of “cyber-thespianism” that he practically invented so high that it seems like his peers will spend a good decade or more catching up to him. Caesar’s older son Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston) is a convincingly uncertain young adult, feeling love and respect for his father’s vision and wisdom but also the definite tug of Koba’s aggressive masculinized pride. Maurice the orangutan’s yearning for knowledge shines in his eyes, never diminished by his less-expressive non-chimpanzee face. Even Koba, with his scars and menacingly slack jaw, is no mere caricature of hate and violence. A tremendous, witty, shocking sequence sees him throw two human arsenal guards off guard by playing the silly monkey, hooting and clapping and drinking their whisky until he gets close enough to gain the upper hand. Like his namesake, Koba knows when to play the pitiless man of steel (ape of steel?) and when to charismatically disarm with a twinkle in his eye (much as Stalin did with Winston Churchill, wining and dining the pompous aristocrat to gain a vital ally at a crucial period in the struggle against Hitler).

The primacy of safety, harmony, and family in Caesar’s worldview proceeds from his caring socialization by James Franco’s character in Rise and is given emotional depth and resonance by Serkis and his fellow motion-capture ape actors. His moderate soft-power liberalism and family values aligns him with Malcolm and his own family unit (Keri Russell as a former CDC doctor and Kodi Smit-McPhee as his artistic son) just as it sets him at odds with Dreyfus (who, like many of the frightened human survivors, lost loved ones to the plague) and especially the radicalized Koba (I compared Caesar’s disillusionment with human domination of apes to Sayyid Qutb in my review of the earlier film, but Koba is clearly the better analogue to the father of modern Islamism). The real miracle of Dawn is the way in which not only the character dynamics and emotional beats but also the inevitable showpiece action sequences (Koba’s attack on the San Francisco colony, the closing fight between Caesar and Koba atop an unfinished skyscraper) are natural products of this central animating dialectic rather than video-game digressions from its knottier implications. Narratively and thematically, this is a tightly-constructed film that packs a considerable and visceral punch.

On the surface, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes presents an allegorical conflict between the tolerance and coexistence favoured by liberal democracy (though the ape society is quite unambiguously a benevolent dictatorship) with the valuation of force, strength, and fear of the Other relied upon in authoritarian nationalist regimes. It’s about how those mindsets develop, clash, and, in a pernicious way, begin to meld. Although Reeves’s film is dark in its implications as well as in its visual construction, there should be little doubt about how this struggle turns out in an American summer blockbuster.

But the deeper suggestion carried by the open-ended conclusion of Caesar and Koba’s conflict (and the promise of a descending human army in the all-but-certain sequel) is that even in its triumph, liberal humanism is helpless to prevent the propagation of the divisive tensions that it rejects and must, of necessity, embrace the very gospel of force and fear that it has long strove to eradicate in order to survive. Fighting against reckless hate leads rational moderation to adopt its enemy’s beliefs and practices, or at least to legitimize them in attempting to defeat them. The consequences of that hate linger, and the Caesars of the Planet of the Apes world as well as of our own are left to deal with them.

Categories: Film, Reviews
  1. July 28, 2014 at 7:41 pm

    Nice review Ross. It was action-packed and exciting, yet, also had an emotional story at the center that made it all worth watching.

  1. January 2, 2015 at 3:09 pm
  2. August 7, 2015 at 4:51 pm

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