(95% spoiler free)
What is the nature of ape politics? What historical material would a simian Shakespeare cull to craft his best tragic drama? Director Matt Reeves and his writers have crafted a narrative sustained by the answers to such intrigues.
A decade after a man-made virus has almost wiped out the human species, a small city of survivors, led by beleaguered former police chief Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), struggle to make contact with whatever might remain of humanity. In their search they encounter a different group of survivors, a tribe of super intelligent apes led by Caesar (Andy Serkis in typically photorealistic garb), and a new struggle for survival begins.
Apart from being one of the most intelligent and emotionally compelling films this year, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is, I submit in the same heady breath it takes to say the portentous title, one of the best films designed as pop culture entertainment ever. The plot is the best bits of Shakespeare’s Plantagenet tetralogy, chief among them Henry IV and his son and successor Henry V (with even an Orangutan named Maurice fulfilling a more benign and mentoring Falstaff to Caesar’s son–Henry V–role), delivered with the cinematic vivacity that big-budget films revel in.
And yet, those whom I saw the film with were not so taken in. They coolly rattled off several cinematic antecedents while apparently oblivious to the film’s historical allusions to the Reichstag fire and the rise of the Nazi party. They nonetheless declared the film predictable, seemingly unaware of how ironic it is to admonish a film that telegraphs historical precedents as predictable. It may be easy to see the inevitable outcome of this film, but only because it echoes a history that came before. The resonance with historical allusion seems more the film’s point than its failure.
When I made reference to these historical antecedents they wondered what can the merit of a story be if it’s an extensive borrowing and reworking of history. Though this may be an aphorism disguised as conjecture, taking it rhetorically obviates the need for art. As it seems to me, the purpose of art is to evoke life. Art is the prism by which we might better understand ourselves and our world. The idealization of form in art is the perfection of life, the capture of essence in the form of a subject. Art renews life as it is sustained in turn. That the film chooses to render the real into the fantastical is not so much a feat in and of itself, but that it enables us to see and experience these issues is. That the film manages this while epitomising the power and potential of Hollywood cinema is all the more reason to celebrate it. In a summer which has seen the fourth film in twice as many years repeat the redundant battle between a clear-cut dichotomy of Autobots and Decepticons (repeating without bothering to rephrase the insuperable clash between good and evil), Dawn is a major Hollywood film that dares to resist simple categorization. It is not merely good apes against bad humans, or vice versa. All characters are motivated by what they believe to be in the best interest of their species. Methods may be brutal, violent and terrible, but all are nonetheless motivated by the simple desire for survival. The film steeps itself in these murky depths and dredges up several unsettling questions: What is the measure of justice? What is the merit of forgiveness? What is our capacity for either virtue? Ought it be more be or less?
The film alludes to these questions in its very title. With all the shots of gorillas and chimpanzees it may be all too easy to forget that a human is also an ape. This fact is subtly murmured in events that correlate human methods for survival with the simian, further stressing the title’s ambiguous meaning. The narrative questions–but refuses to answer–which species faces its renaissance and which its doom, without entirely discounting whether a peace might still be brokered between the two. To whom does this Dawn of the film’s title belong (and with it, the planet)?
Like the first film in this newly imagined adaptation (almost in name only) of Pierre Boulle’s original throwaway novel, Dawn similarly understands the potential of this franchise as an allegorical crucible, capable of refining even the most obtuse issues into easily phrased syllogisms. One need look no further than the film’s hypothesized means of our destruction, and to consider it in light of its thematic intent. To wit, despite surviving a deadly virus, the human species remains plagued by the disastrously inconsolable fact that its prefrontal lobe is too small, its adrenal glands too big, and so, as Hobbes phrased it best, man’s natural tendency is for war; bellum omnium contra omnes. In this way the virus functions as both necessary narrative ingredient and potent metaphor.
So too does the tendency towards violence propagate in the other apes of the film, and it is this capacity which provides Serkis his chief antagonist in the film, more than any flesh and blood adversary (though he certainly has those to contend with as well). The clash of hormones over limbic operations dominates several charged scenes of judicial conflict in which Serkis is required to breathe ragged enough to hyperventilate; the struggle of mind over both matter and matters. Dawn isolates the human condition as a war against our animalian instinct. Its greatest cinematic feat is in managing to document the incurable condition of being human, and using a CG chimp to do it.
Reeves continues his penchant for tracking shots loaded with information he had shown previously in Cloverfield, expanded in Let Me In, and here mastered in a series of expertly photographed sequences that combine maximum diegetic information with crisp visual sensibility. Each beat of this film achieves that paradoxical valence of seeming finely tuned and calculated while at the same time feeling powerfully organic. The film’s lush colour palette, for example, is perfectly orchestrated to carry the film’s story from the blues and greens of the film’s arboreal opening to the amber tones of its fiery conclusion.
The multi-purposing of events abounds most notably in the finale. Though the action-packed climax of the film may seem designed to appeal to our lower consciousness, the film wisely refuses to elide the brutality and futility of war. So too does composer Michael Giacchino thankfully restrain the score for this barbaric scene, avoiding any of the triumphalist bombast typically associated with summer escapism. Unlike the makers of similarly destructive blockbusters, Reeves and company seem as tired as the rest of us to see another fictional world come crashing down, and so they focus on the means by which its inhabitants rip their own worlds apart. The film builds its way towards a war of individuals more than that of tribes, while never forgetting that often the most challenging conflict is the one within.
Indeed, Caesar’s edifying realization of his own stupid prejudice (painfully cultivated by his traumatic experiences in the first film) highlights the ironic failure of discrimination, in that failing to distinguish between others is precisely a failure to be discriminatory. It is this moment that solidifies the appeal of the script’s ostensible paucity. A single scene functions on multiple levels of information: as necessary plot information, as character growth for Caesar, for his son, and to renew a filial bond previously broken between them. The moment also offers a chance for the human characters to demonstrate their capacity for benevolence, and to crystallize the film’s inspiring message as both father and son realize the folly and futility of any bias. If all apes cannot be equally good the corollary then follows that the same logic ought to be applied to humanity in the reverse.
Still, the script is not without its flaws. The sign language of the film is purple-prosed nonsense, too full on pretension and lacking much subtlety (though the film deserves special mention for withholding dialogue for as long as it does). And one wonders why if contact with others was dependent on hydroelectric energy that it took ten years for the human survivors to get around to seeking it out; or, if they were trying all along, how fortunate to the plot that they should finally make contact with the outside world mere seconds before a massive ape invasion. Such details are minor quibbles and factor little into the overall story (so little in fact that they could easily have been omitted).The film could perhaps have done more than to repeat the messianic trope of betrayal, death, resurrection and ascension, but the story manages to eschew repetition by remembering that knowledge requires sacrifice. (It seems impossible to escape Joseph Campbell’s overworn and overly familiar monomyth, which has turned Hollywood cinema into a cliché of a pop-pseudo-analytic theory.) To renew one’s ethos is to suffer the death of the old self and to welcome the dawn of the new. And it is no coincidence that the film’s final scene is conducted under the auspices of a new day’s light, or that the final shot restages the opening shot but effaces the primal war paint that originally coloured it.
The turn to Joseph Campbell seems necessary in this light. As Campbell himself explained in an interview with Bill Moyers, “A legendary hero is usually the founder of something–the founder of a new age, the founder of a new religion, the founder of a new city, the founder of a new way of life. In order to found something new, one has to leave the old and go in quest of the seed idea, a germinal idea that will have the potentiality of bringing forth that new thing.” However, the film isn’t simply rephrasing the liberal application of Campbell’s ideas, nor is it merely dabbling in simian-human history and politics: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes forges a collective myth too, one perhaps capable of sustaining a cinematic future.
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Call to action (be ye warned, spoilers ahead):
For those who’ve seen the film, what do you make of the actions of Gary Oldman’s character in the film. Morally justified or reprehensible? Insane or logical? And from a narrative standpoint, frustrating or satisfying? How about from an emotional one?