After the very disappointing 2001 remake of Planet of the Apes by Tim Burton, the 60s and 70s hit franchise was rebooted in 2011 with the strong Rise of the Planets of the Apes. The movie ended with a cliffhanger demanding for a sequel and that is what we get in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.
About ten years have passed since a genetic mutation resulted in the intelligent evolution of apes. Other fooling around with genetics has resulted in a virus hitting the streets and wiping out the majority of the human race. We encounter chimpansee Caesar (Andy Serkis) still being the leader of a massive pack of evolved apes. They have established their homes in the woods near San Francisco, whereto they had fled at the end of Rise of the Planet of the Apes. To their knowledge humans are extinct. The apes have not seen humans for several years and they are fine with that; they just want to live in peace.
At the same time, a small band of humans are surviving in the San Francisco ruins. They however have one problem; they need to repair a power station in the dam that is situated in ape territory. A group of scientists led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke) venture into the territory where they meet the apes. Caesar wants them to leave and not bother them again. He wants to preserve the existing cohabitation. However, several in his camp, under the leadership of bonobo Koba and including Caesar’s son Blue Eyes, are much more hostile. They realise that humans are weak at the moment and that they could easily dominate them.
Meanwhile, the human leader Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) is also prepared to fight if necessary for the survival of the human race. The humans start taking the dust off the enormous arms supplies they have. Koba and his followers find out about this and this results in a growing suspicion of the humans. Caesar and Koba clash badly over this and Koba is out for revenge. Under his betrayal the apes attack the humans. It is clear that only Caesar will be able to save man.
Motion Capture Acting
The stakes were pretty high after the well-crafted Rise of the Planet of the Apes, but the sequel meets up to the expectations and even goes beyond that. First of all for the filmic aspects; the movie depends deeply on the CGI for the apes and that CGI is superb. This is supported by strong 3D. I am normally not such a fan of 3D but this has been one of the few movies wherein the 3D actually added to the experience of the movie (in a good way that is).
Next to that, the acting is great. Andy Serkis could not get an Oscar for his role as Gollem in Lord of the Rings, but I really hope that the Academy has revised its approach to motion capture acting. What Serkis accomplishes – supported by the great CGI – is overwhelming. His dialogues and especially his tone in them create the image of a well-balanced character, with a lot of realistic hesitation and yet hopeful desires. Further, in stead of the often caricature movements in the original Planet of the Apes movies, the primates’ movements flow naturally.
Haunted by the Past
But it is mostly the storyline and the emotional depth that make Dawn of the Planet of the Apes a great movie. The makers opted to shift the character focus on apes in stead of humans. We mostly see the stances of Caesar and Koba. The film tells how both of the apes are shaped by their passed. Caesar has had positive encounters with humans and is cautious but not hateful. Koba is literally scared by his experiences in a human test lab and his character is haunted by this past.
We laugh and cry with the humans, but we do the same with the apes. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes challenges viewers to engage with all sides. All characters, including the “bad” Koba and Dreyfus, are well balanced and because of its great directing and production, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes knows how to create an appealing background for all of the central characters. We get to understand where Koba’s hatred comes from and can to some degree be sympathetic. The tears Dreyfus sheds upon seeing a picture of his deceased children makes us wonder how he can still be strong enough to even lead the human survivors.
Next to that, we see the struggles of Caesar as a leader. Despite him wanting peaceful solutions, the actions of both apes and humans result in a battle. The movie however does not choose for easy Hollywood endings. At the climax of the battle, Caesar is forced to kill his lieutenant, but it is not a victorious moment; it is tragic because it shows the failure of peace. The separation of Caesar and Koba is preluding the division between apes and humans. At the end, the immediate threat has been dealt with; both Caesar, Malcolm and their close ones survive. The battle is finished, but a full war is inevitable. Caesar – more than Malcolm – realises there will be no easy exits. He is ready to take up his role and lead the apes in this immanent war, even though he tried everything to avoid it. The movie ends on this thoroughly tragic note and leaves the viewer weary. The prospect of war is always unsettling.
Finally, the movie is intelligent in terms of on so many levels and in so many details. For example, when it comes to language the makers opt to have a big portion of the movie as “foreign film.” In Hollywood subtitles are not very popular, but the makers of Dawn of Planet of the Apes chose for the sign language in which Caesar was raised by Will (James Franco) in Rise of the Planet of the Apes as the main method of communication for the apes. Looking at the pedagogy of language it is very normal to see Caesar use and further develop his mother tongue. As the first-evolved ape, it is natural that he instructs his followers in the language that will lead them to intelligence development. Language is the primary tool for the apes’ evolution and it is a great tribute to deaf communities worldwide to acknowledge the value of sign languages as a mother tongue.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes tells a clever and deep story of a potential human-ape relationship bothered by the ignorance and immaturity of some individuals in each race. We cannot but feel sorry about the tragedy of this disturbed relationship. All the ingredients for a peace that goes beyond the absence of war are there, but unfortunately a (big) part of the actors in the story are not willing to contribute to the recipe and deliberately or not ruin its outcomes.
This is a story we know too well. It is that of Palestinians and Israelites, but also of almost every human war, wherein peace is hindered by people’s history and their inability to see and realise that both parties are just the same: they love, they hate, they think, and they suffer. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes leaves us with the question whether it is really inevitable to go to war. The despair of the answer in the movie results in a turn to Jesus’ call to be peacemakers in this world.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – Matt Reeves (20th Century Fox, 2014)