Wait, where did this movie come from? Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is so not the sequel to Rise of the Planet of the Apes I expected or was prepared for.
Nothing in the well-made but prosaic 2011 reboot hinted at the power of this film, a worthy successor to the best of the original films, with their cautionary parables about man’s inhumanity to man set in a topsy-turvy Twilight Zone world of intelligent apes and animal-like humans.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes was a popcorn pre-apocalypse that devoted most of its brain power to mundane questions of sci-fi plausibility, a bit to character drama and virtually none to subtext or theme. Laboring under the plot mechanics of moving toward a world dominated by intelligent apes rather than humans — an intelligence-boosting drug intended to cure dementia, a deadly virus decimating human populations — it was all about the how, and not really about the why, or what it would reveal about us, or why it would matter.
It wasn’t even, like the pandemic thriller Contagion, about the practical side of what should or shouldn’t be done in such a crisis. On the contrary, there was a troubling note of complacent blockbuster uplift as the rise of the apes dovetailed with the decline of man — a nihilistic enthusiasm for the prospect of a post-human future. In my 2011 review, I suggested the term “posthuman porn” for this kind of nihilistic fantasizing.
It is certainly possible to watch both Rise and Dawn (don’t try to make sequential sense of the inaugural title language) in this same spirit of nihilistic fantasy, if you’ve a mind to. Indeed, in my screening, there was scattered laughter and applause at horrifyingly inappropriate moments from a handful of viewers who apparently wanted more of what the earlier film offered.
But the reality is that the blockbuster triumph of Rise has been replaced in Dawn with a powerful sense of tragedy and loss, rooted in real moral fury at the ignoble impulses and attitudes that sabotage human well-being.
Dawn is about hostility versus empathy, cooperation versus belligerence, suspicion and fear versus daring to trust. It’s also about how much harder it is to build bridges than to burn them, and how maddeningly easy it can be for those given to the latter to undo the work of those struggling to achieve the former.
Bridge-builders on the human side include Malcolm (Jason Clarke), a widowed father whose teenage son Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee) shares his natural immunity to the “simian flu” that wiped out most of humanity over the last 10 years, and Ellie (Keri Russell), a former Centers for Disease Control nurse. A Grade-A bridge-burner (Kirk Acevedo), in what he means as a sarcastic remark, helpfully self-identifies as the jerk of the group (though he uses a stronger word). Then there’s Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), acting leader of a small colony of increasingly desperate survivors hanging on in San Francisco, who could go either way.
On the ape side, there’s Caesar the super-chimp, again played with astonishing persuasiveness by Andy Serkis via the magic of performance capture technology, with an assist from digital animators. The leader of an incipient simian Stone Age civilization in the Muir Woods sequoia forest north of the Golden Gate Bridge, Caesar is suspicious of humans, but harbors fond memories of the scientist who raised and educated him (absent James Franco); he also doesn’t want conflict that could cost the lives of his apes.
Caesar generally commands the loyalty of the apes, above all Maurice the orangutan (Karin Konoval) and the chimpanzee Rocket (Terry Notary). The most likely bridge-burner here is Koba (Toby Kebbell, replacing Christopher Gordon in the first film), a bonobo who bears the scars of captivity and experimentation. What about Caesar’s son River (Nick Thurston), helpfully marked throughout the film by the scars of a bear attack in the early going? Time will tell.
At the climax of Rise, when the apes squared off against the humans at the Golden Gate Bridge, the film’s sympathies were squarely with the underdog apes against the long-dominant humans. In Dawn, both humans and apes are underdogs, and when large-scale conflict breaks out, the film’s sympathies are less with one side or the other than against the battle itself rather than for it.
Dawn offers a remarkably robust allegory of the insidiousness of “us vs. them” ideology: of the tribalist tendency to assume the moral, cognitive or ontological superiority of the in-group, and to define those outside the group as other, as malicious, untrustworthy or worse. Even Caesar, sitting in judgment of one of his own, first finds it necessary to place him outside the group. This is required in a way by his own principles — but it also highlights the importance of moral realism in a fallen world.
Gratifyingly, the film offers this allegory without devolving either into a naturalistic equating of humans and animals or a “noble savage” portrait of corrupt civilized men vs. primitive apes living in harmony with nature.
It’s true that the 2011 film, in its impatience to get to a civilization of super-apes, blurred the line between enhanced apes and ordinary ones. At this point, though, it’s simply a given that, whether or not the first film sufficiently explained it, Caesar’s followers aren’t ordinary apes. (“Do they look like ordinary apes to you?” Malcolm asks.) Certainly the apes don’t consider other species (deer, for instance) their equals.
It’s also true that Caesar initially seems to consider apes superior to humans, even implicitly pointing to humans as the root of evil among the apes, though he admits humans have their good points as well. By the end, though, it’s clear that the reality is more complicated than that. Caesar may be the noble hero, but that doesn’t mean he has no blind spots.
Apes and humans are more alike than either side readily admits — a point underlined in a touching scene highlighting that prejudice is learned, not innate (and that the cuteness of infants is not limited to one’s own species). Each potentially has something to offer the other. Technology, and human dependence on technology, comes with drawbacks, but also clear advantages that apes as well as humans can benefit from.
Shortly before things break down, the humans win a substantial victory, not against the apes but with their help, and there is a real sense of joy and achievement, undermined by sorrow that it is so short-lived. An aural punchline — a commonplace sound that hasn’t been heard in the world of this film in years — gives way to an unexpectedly poignant twist: Of all the potential consequences of long-term power loss, how many of us consider, if the lights went off for good, all the digital images of our loved ones we would never again be able to see.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is both a deeply humanistic film, in the best sense of that word, and a deeply pessimistic one. It recognizes the importance and urgency of efforts to work for peace and the futility of such efforts in many times and places. In a way, it’s a counterpoint to the optimistic climax — probably too optimistic — of this summer’s X-Men: Days of Future Past.
J.R.R. Tolkien once remarked that as a Catholic he did not expect history “to be anything but a ‘long defeat,’ though it contains (and in a legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of final victory.”
Eucatastrophe, as Tolkien called such “glimpses of final victory,” is among the noblest functions of fiction. But there is also something salutary in catastrophe, in glimpses of something like final defeat. It dramatizes what is at stake in our efforts, for one thing, and brings home to us all that we have to be grateful for, and to lose.
Steven D. Greydanus is the Register’s film critic and creator of Decent Films.
He is studying for the permanent diaconate for the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey.
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Caveat Spectator: Brief strong action violence; an obscenity and some crude language. Teens and up.