Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014, dir. Matt Reeves)
Ten years has passed since the outbreak of the “Simian Flu” and humanity has dwindled to extinction level numbers. In the Muir Woods outside of San Francisco, Caesar leads a tribe of apes granted intelligence by the same scientists that created the flu. Their life is relatively peaceful until human intrude and kill one of them. Tensions mount between Caesar and the human colony in the ruins of the Bay City. One tribe member, Koba, becomes increasingly angry as his trauma at the hands of humans is reawakened, and everything heads toward a tragic ending.
Dawn is a film about two sides, arguably justified in their anxieties, who make terrible decisions that attempt to say the ends justify the means. Now past the origin story of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, we get into the meat of this series that makes it interesting, the conflict between humans and apes. The Apes, under Caesar’s leadership, have a non-aggression agreement. Caesar has established inter-tribal rules about how they will treat each other when an emphasis on doing no harm to each other. As the film goes on, this non-violence pact is tested and, depending on your reading of the film, abandoned. One theme throughout the film is Caesar’s self-reflection on his personal views. He seems assured of what he is doing at the start, and by the end, he seems profoundly resigned to going down a path that likely leads to oblivion and definitely leads to no possibility of man and ape allying.
Koba represents a very different perspective than Caesar’s. In the first film, Koba is brutalized by human scientists as part of their experimentation to develop an Alzheimer’s cure. He still bears the physical scars of their work across his body. Koba is entirely justified in hating the humans. Dreyfus, the leader of the San Francisco colony, is also justified in his hatred of the apes. His entire family was killed as a result of the Simian Flu outbreak. The greater world around him crumbled as the virus led to violence between desperate humans and their governments. Every character has a reasonable justification for their actions against others, but the film is not going to let them off that easy.
Koba’s actions cause hundreds of apes to be killed, and he is even called out on this. One ape tells him he is allowing his personal hate to be disguised as a great revolt. Caesar points out that the only thing Koba learned from the humans was hate. And it is Caesar who has the larger scope of understanding. In Rise, he has an adopted human father and has experienced the empathy and caring that humans are capable of. Koba ends up a tragic character, so broken down by his traumas and unable to find a way out, he is consumed, and his hatred damns him. The hard part is that he isn’t necessarily wrong because from his perspective humanity is this destructive monster. His fall begins when he decides that the ends justify the means and that he must do anything he can to “prove” all humans are liars by nature.
It’s almost impossible to watch Dawn without thinking of our current political climate. There are two tribes so amped up on fears and assumptions and misinterpretations that they live in a ticking time bomb. Caesar’s strength is that he is willing to listen to people that he should rightly run from or make an example of. In the early moments of the film, a human shoots, a young ape and Caesar could have easily killed the man. He chooses to let the man go because he looks at the larger picture. He sees where the path of violence would lead his people and it wouldn’t be to an ultimate victory.
The weakest part of the film were the humans. But this is sort of a common trend in the Apes movies. The human characters are merely plot vehicles. It’s in the development and growth of the apes that fascinate us. Dawn showcases strong CG motion capture that doesn’t muddle the performance but allows actors to break free of the constraints of oppressive makeup. The highlight here are the performances of Andy Serkis and Toby Kebbell as Caesar and Koba, respectively. They cause the potentially unreal to become more dimensional than the humans on screen.