Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Review: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Spoilers for "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" and "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" ahead.

When I watched "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" back in 2010, I was positively surprised. It was a well thought out, gripping movie that managed to tell an interesting story with interesting characters, avoiding some major storytelling chliches among the way. The movie ended with the apes finally free in the woods around San Francisco and humanity on the verge of the outbreak of a giant virus. The "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" is set ten years later. I have to admit, when I watched the trailer back in 2014, I wasn't entirely convinced. It seemed like a pretty generic story, in which the good human Malcolm (Jason Clarke) would be drowned out by the bad human Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), leading to conflict with the peaceful apes under their benign leader Caesar (Andy Serkis). But the movie doesn't go down this route at all; one could even say that the trailer was a deliberate disception. 

The story runs as follows: the apes under Caesar have established their own home under the chief rule that "ape don't kill ape", when two of them encounter some humans, which the apes thought to have been extinct by now. The incident sees a shot fired, but Caesar allows the humans to leave, only to later show up at their colony with his full strength announcing that the apes don't want war but would fight if anyone came to their territory again. Unfortunately, the humans want to repair a dam in order to get electrictiy, and said dam lays in ape territory. Malcolm manages to get Caesar to cooperate, and Dreyfus, though sceptical, gives him three days before he attacks with the full firepower of the human settlement. 

Here is where the movie leaves the expected area. If you haven't watched the movie yet, you may consider stopping now and coming back later. 

While an aggressive member of Malcolm's group almost reignites conflict with the apes, the humans can defuse the situation by sending him away and get on reparing the dam. However, Caesar's second in command, Koba (Toby Kebell), hates humans back from his time in the labs, and he scouts the city on his own, discovering their weapon stach and stealing a gun. He uses the gun to shoot Caesar, claims it was the humans (including burning down the ape village in an ape-version of the Reichstag fire) and leads the apes against the armory and then the colony itself. 

The apes overcome the unprepared human defenses in a bloody battle, herd the humans together and assert control over the colony. Malcolm, in the meantime, finds the wounded Caesar and nurses him back to health, but the latter is too weak to fight Koba. Caesar needs to overcome the issues with his son Blue-Eyes (Nick Thurston), who then leads the ape rebellion against Koba. But Dreyfus has rigged the ape headquarter with C4 and managed to get in contact with a military base in the north. Time is running out...

As Caesar later explicitly acknowledges, it's "ape who started war", and that's the one big reversal of expectations I have to admit I was unprepared for. It's Koba in his hatefulness, not Dreyfus, who's pretty reasonable throughout the movie. The humans, despite their aggressive attitude, aren't the ones attacking the apes and might really have lived in peaceful co-existence (at least until they became more powerful). But it never comes to that. 
The second big thing of the movie is its ape-centric narrative. Caesar, Blue-Eyes and Koba are the main characters, and there are several names minor ape characters - more than humans, in fact. About two-thirds of the screen time show the apes, and the movie is mostly told throughout their perspective. This is a pretty gutsy move in a blockbuster (remember when Avatar still resorted to the White-Savior-Trope only five years prior?) and it pays off, big time. The humans are a species in decline, and their days are numbered. We know this, because it's the Planet of the Apes and everyone and their mother knows that at some point the Statue of Liberty will be buried in the sand. 

Therefore, it makes sense to watch the civilization on the rise, the apes. In the beginning, they're living in splendid isolation, building it up with remains from the humans and living like a prehistoric cave society. The humans and their technology are the temptation that disturbs this equilibrium. The movie never goes full hippie on us, though, and keeps everything ambivalent, which is yet another strength of the script: Caesar's wife is sick, and the antibiotics or Malcolm's wife are saving her. Technology can destroy and it can heal. It's all in who uses it how. In the hands of Koba, the technological prowess of the humans instantly brings out the worst. "Ape don't kill ape" goes down the sewage drain, replaced by hate speech: "Caesar loves humans more than apes". 
Aptly, the conflict doesn't have a resolution. When Caesar defeats Koba, holding him over the precipice, Koba appeals to Caesar's principle: "Ape don't kill ape". Caesar fights with himself (the CGI for the ape faces is incredible), pulls him up a bit and then states that "You are no ape", letting him fall to his death. Caesar then announces to Malcolm that they have to part ways because "ape started the war, and human won't forgive". They have a heartbreaking good-bye, and the movie ends with the apes gathering to prepar for all-out conflict with the humans. 

Neither side is good nor evil in this movie. Malcolm as well as Caesar display a readiness for violence if they think it's necessary, and Dreyfus is really only trying to protect humanity from a threat he can't understand that no one explains to him. Malcolm as well as Caesar both fail to pacify their respective communities, mostly because events gather their own dynamic and forces within their faction push to war. It feels realistic and true - too easy, the movie could have fallen into the trap of letting their well-intentioned speeches shouted down by one-dimensional villains. Instead, their developments mirror each other, only one community is on the downward trajectory and the other on the upward one, but neither of them will the same once they reach their destinition. 

If you expect to be entertained by an action movie with apes in it, you'd be disappointed. The action sequences are there, but they are not essential. The conflict within the humans and apes and a depressingly real portrayal of First Contact make this a thoughtful and great, but not at all dumb movie. I highly recommend watching it (as well as its prequel).


  1. Err..Ceaser fights Koba in the climax, not Blue-Eyes. Its pretty much why they gave Blue-Eyes those scars in the beginning: so you can tell them apart.

  2. Koba? Interesting choice of name!