Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the most depressing blockbuster movie of the summer. It’s an absolute bummer and I loved every minute of it.
That’s what the Planet of the Apes franchise has always been. They’ve always offered us social commentary on our world, while giving us a nihilistic gut punch in the end. They were always a true bummer.
Except for Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Rise had a hopeful ending, which is the only thing the prequel/reboot got wrong about the franchise. Rise was the story about Caesar (Andy Serkis) going from victim to hero. The script may have had political elements, mainly about the ethics of animal testing, but Rise was a traditional hero story. Caesar became the sympathetic movie monster, just like Frankenstein’s monster and King Kong; you completely identified with him and may have even cheered him on as he dispatched other human beings. It was the underdog story of an ordinary ape realizing his extraordinary potential, rallying his fellow apes and becoming a warrior rebel.
Like any good sequel should, Dawn takes what the original set-up and expands on the mythos. It complicates Caesar’s story by showing us the aftermath of Simian Flu and how the Ape civilization is flourishing and the humans who survived the epidemic are on their last legs. The humans are running out of fuel and need to repair a dam in the forests near San Francisco to keep the electricity running. There is a problem, the dam is located near the Apes home and Caesar and his fellow apes do not want the humans anywhere near them, considering the first time the group meet, a human shot an Ape.
However, that’s not only conflict in the story. There’s tension within the Ape community itself. There’s a divide building between Caesar and Koba (the scarred ape from Rise) who hates the humans and is constantly reminded of that hate by the scars he has all over him. There’s also slight tension in the human faction as co-founders of a human camp, Malcolm (Jason Clarke) and Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), have different approaches about dealing with the ape problem. These small tensions and discussions they bring, is what makes Dawn great and memorable science fiction.
The first 20 minutes of Dawn has no dialogue, only subtitles. The apes are either speaking though sign language or going about their lives. We are introduced to them hunting and we get a tour of their home. You see the schools; you get a real sense that these aren’t animals anymore, they’re beyond that. They have a system, a way of life. It also tells the audience that these Apes are the main characters, not the humans. There were parts in Dawn that made me wonder how this movie even got made, let alone the fact that Fox put in $170 million to produce it.
Dawn further challenges the norms of a typical summer blockbuster by adding political discussions that are relative to our current world. Take out the apes and put two warring tribes fighting over a resource that one tribe doesn’t care about and you have James Cameron’s Avatar or the Israel and Palestine conflict. The only difference is that Director Matt Reeves crafts his allegory with such great finesse that you are drawn into it’s characters and story instead of focusing on it’s real world parallels. Dawn layers its message so deep into it’s story that you don’t see the real world in it’s movie, you see the movie in the real world. After watching Dawn, I had begun to see scenes of the movie play out in the new articles I was reading. An IDF soldier shooting a Palestinian teen made me remember Kirk Acevendo shooting Ash. Or a hateful human being getting a gun and going on killing rampage made me remember Koba executing those two men the moment he got his hands on their gun.
Dawn can also be seen as a desperate plea for gun control. The first commandant of the ape world is, “Apes shall not kill Ape.” That is until guns are involved. This isn’t a macho portrayal of men and Apes with guns, it is a horrifying spectacle. Dawn is not the most action-packed blockbuster that is currently playing in theatres but when it does deliver on the spectacle it does so to horrifying degrees. It wants to scare it’s viewers away from the violence, even moments that other films would portray as badass, Dawn shows you the bleakness and the unnecessary bloodshed of war. Every time a gun is fired on screen it is meant to shock, scare, or horrify the viewer. There is a night time assault sequence where an army of Apes attack the humans; a scene that is in equal measures horrifying, sad, thrilling, unsettling and visceral.
During that set piece there is an incredible long take of the apes taking over an armoured vehicle, that displayed the horrors of war at the same level a film like Saving Private Ryan did. That scene offers are 360 shot of all the carnage and by having it be a single take, Matt Reeves does not allow any relief for the viewers.
Dawn is a film about preventing war. It echoes our fears on the casualties of war: the loss of family, the lives we have built, and loss of innocence. Going back to its plea for gun control, Dawn has a scene where an ape is smashing human guns because a human with a gun can’t be trusted. That all changes when apes get control of those guns and actions of greed, hatred and jealously take over. And Dawn of the Planet of the Apes does all this without yelling it’s message at you, it’s subtly weaved into the plot. It’s so well integrated into the story that if you don’t agree with that message it won’t stop you from enjoying the film.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is far from a perfect film. One of it’s flaws is a lack of female characters (both humans and apes), who have any importance to the story being told. Dawn stars the awesome Kerri Russell & Judy Greer but both are restricted to the role of a stereotypical female caregiver/baby machine. Kerri Russell (former CDC employee, Ellie) plays the doctor or caregiver and Judy Greer (Caesar’s wife) gives birth and then falls deathly ill. It’s a serious problem for an otherwise near flawless film.
The other problem is the clunky dialogue in the film’s script. Where a character says a cheesy one liner, so that they can head off to the next scene. However, this is a minor problem because Matt Reeves transitions from one scene to the other so well that I’d listen to a throw-away line just to get to a scene like the one where Caesar and his apes march through San Francisco to show the humans how much they outnumber them.
On the characters side, this film has no hero and villain; it just has protagonists and antagonists. It’s people and animals whose ideologies have been shaped by the environment they grew up in. It’s beings dealing with horrible circumstances and making the best decision they know how to make. You understand Koba’s rage at the humans as much as understand Caesar’s plea for peace. It’s the rare summer blockbuster that doesn’t paint it’s main characters as morally black or white.
Going into Dawn I expected the final act of the film to be a giant spectacle with guns firing and stuff exploding left to right but this isn’t a Michael Bay movie; Dawn may just contain one of the most thought-provoking and moving endings I’ve seen in a modern blockbuster. There is obviously a big fight sequence but it plays out more in an ethical sense. Both Malcolm and Caesar have choices and decisions to make, ones that will decide the fate of each species. Watching Malcolm and especially Caesar make those decisions was truly heartbreaking to watch but how many blockbusters allow their characters to fully control the outcome. Most blockbusters would never allow their characters to make such tough decisions and get their hands bloody but Dawn does. There is no last minute save, there is only the realization that all that has taken place has passed and now we have to deal with what’s to come.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is an extremely depressing movie in terms of what it says about people. It is not optimistic about us, there may be good in us but our bad has the ability to infect and poison other species/races/cultures we come in contact too. The apes were perfectly fine until they ran into us again.
I’ve lost track of how many times I may have said this but: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the smartest blockbuster you will see this year. It’s compelling, it’s hauntingly beautiful and it manages to convey it political elements without being too heavy-handed. If you love films that entertain as much as they are thought-provoking then you need to see Dawn. In my eyes it has helped solidify the Planets of the Apes franchise, not just the 1968 film, as an important piece of science fiction cinema.
Score: 9.5 out 10.