Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

(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.

If you like where these words are going keep up to date with them on Twitter @binarybastard.

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?

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4 thoughts on “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

  1. Still processing most of what you wrote, but will chime in on one of your earlier points.

    It surprises be to hear people use the predictability of this film’s story as a flaw to its overall quality.

    Not all films need to have an unpredictable and original narrative. In fact, it would be near-impossible for any film nowadays to have what one would call an original narrative.

    Every story has been written and filmed. What Dawn does well is wrap that familiarity with a new skin. The film wasn’t suppose to surprise it’s audience a plot-twist driven narrative.

    We know that this franchise is working it’s way to a future where the apes rule over the humans. Dawn’s job was to tell a story of another step towards that inevitable fate.

    If there was anything remotely resembling what I would call a surprise/twist it would be who was ultimately the architect of the betrayal, violence and the war that’s now descending on the growing ape community.

    I’ll let that last part go unspoken for now.

    • Spoilers:

      I myself was surprised, though perhaps as a result of my naiveté, at the film’s perhaps only outright villain. Like Caesar, I had subscribed to the fantasy of their utopia. Those I saw the film with said they knew he would turn out to be the villain from the beginning based solely on his appearance. I don’t know if I was misled because I assumed a character so obviously villanous would turn out to have a soul after all, and whether that’s a strike against the film or not, but I honestly hoped things might turn out for the best. That is, until he went full out tyrant and I knew there was no turning back. But I enjoyed how they made Caesar’s son a helpless accomplice to his rise, personifying the aperçu that all it takes for men to do evil is that the good remain silent.

  2. Yes…..[SPOILERS]…..while Koba became the main antagonist in the film, I would say that in the grand scheme of things his actions was born out of a conscious decision made by Caesar from the first film.

    Yes, he’s ultimately the root of the conflict which occurs in Dawn and which destroys any attempt to avoid the coming war with the surviving humans.

  3. I saw this and loved it. I don’t really have much to add (you’ve covered it), but I will say that I really admire Reeves’s attempt to make what he described as “a movie without villains.” It’s more a story of competing philosophies, and throughout the film we see each philosophy evolve from ideas that make a lot of sense to each man or ape who embodies them. Its only through a sort of distilling of each philosophy down to its most potent reduction that the lines of the conflict become increasingly drawn and hard fought to maintain. It reminds me of that quote from 30 Rock: “There are no bad ideas, only great ideas that go horribly wrong.” It is true that this is a film without villains in that the apes and humans both have their counterparts. Gary Oldman and Koba are the parallels whose philosophies are based upon immediate survival and preservation of their own species, but their motivations are increasingly revealed to be such a narrow, egotistical view of the world that their insticts to help their species actually undoes them. There is also the parallel of Caesar and Malcolm, who embrace a more subjective and inclusive view of the world, but whose more open-hearted outlooks can be exploited by machiavellian actions that reframe their strengths as weaknesses. You mentioned that this movie addresses the question, “What is the nature of Justice? Of Forgiving?” But the obstacle Caesar faced, as do all people who embrace philosophies of forgiveness, is “What is the power of forgiveness when those who would be forgiven are unaffected by it?”

    I did find Gary Oldman frustrating as a character, but his actions were frustrating in a satisfying way. We all know those people who delude themselves into thinking they’re making a situation better when step after step their actions unravel any good that has been achieved. Of course there’s a tendency to want to jump through the screen and yell at them, “You’re being crazy! This isn’t helping things at all!” But having experienced these people in the real world, and even seeing Malcom’s attempts within the movie to reason with him, it’s clear that this all-to-common form of single-mindedness will only drive itself to its own self-destruction. I guess I wish I had seen more of Gary Oldman’s history in the film in order to understand his motivations a little better. Maybe I just spaced out at the wrong time in the movie, but I feel like I didn’t get a good understanding of what had happened to his family and hardened him into his current beliefs. Just a few extra words or images would have gone a long way for me here.

    I really liked the appropriation of Shakespeare you describe. I’ve never seen him employed in quite this context. I had a professor who used to say, “If an alien would land on Earth and wanted to know everything there was to know about human beings, all you’d have to do would be to give them a complete volume of all of Shakespeare’s works.” He does seem to be that one person who has been captured all the disparate and dynamic qualities that make us human, so to see these transposed onto another species entirely, it’s almost as if to say, “Not just human. This is what it’s like to be life.” It’s disorienting to see our own values thrown back at our species in such a frustrating, maddening reflection of ourselves. The humans in the movie view the apes as animals when they are acting in ways that are most human. In this way, the movie without villains begins to villainize philosophies, or forces, common to all life. I guess, in this way, the movie intends to throw back at the audience the full spectrum of our own species’ capabilities for constructive or destructive philosophies in ways that are still uncomfortable, but are easier to accept via the lens of an “other” as our own mirror.

    What else can I add. I loved the CGI, which isn’t a phrase I thought I would ever say. The characters were so well developed, both visually and emotionally. I couldn’t help but empathize with them. I also loved how art was the key that opened the door to an increased trust and understanding between the two species. To a lesser degree, this was also true of medicine. I thought the score was great, especially in the big battle scene where it went quiet as opposed to more bombastic. It’s as if the film was trying to shush the audience and say, “Shhhh. Pay attention to this. It’s important for a reason other than what you’d expect for a typical battle scene.”

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