The first Planet of the Apes movie had an expressive political and maybe racial subtext which was intriguingly enduring. When I say first, I mean the 2011 reboot. I haven’t seen any of the 60’s versions and I have decided to pretend the 2001 mark Wahlberg version never happened. In Dawn of the Planet Apes, we are firmly lodged in the world of the apes as we watch affecting intimacy and equally heart breaking politics play out.
After Caesar’s rise from the victim of the callousness of man to a leader of his free world in the predecessor, we meet up with him in the aftermath of their successful rebellion about ten years after the fact. Our first sight of them is in a hunting party and we follow them home to their structured colony where all the pillars of society except religion are evident. They question if there are any humans out there as they haven’t run into any in almost two winters. Their question is soon answered when they run into a small group humans led by Jason Clarke and Kerri Russell looking to restore power to the city of San Francisco where survivors of the simian flu epidemic with only a couple of weeks’ worth of fuel energy, remain. The humans are looking to gain access to the dormant hydroelectric plant which is in the ape’s territory. They make their wishes known Caesar and he has to make a decision that affects not only the humans but his own ape colony.
In the first movie, most of us are just drawn to the apes because of their situation and the brutality they suffered. We root for them as they break out the shackles of the man and burst to freedom but here the screen writers take a deeper look at the apes as they have risen to the echelons of higher animals and the burden that level of actualization comes with.
The human characters on show appear flat and largely two dimensional but some of the key players had their mirror images evident in the ape camp. Caesar matches up with Malcolm (Clarke); they both favour diplomacy and the pacifist approach and are both more sympathetic than many of their kind. Koba’s equivalent here is Gary Oldman’s Dreyfus who is a soldier and favours the hardline approach and presumably like Koba has known only violence all his life. That said the dynamic between the two sets of characters is only really properly developed on the apes side.
Caesar is clearly divided here and rightfully so. He has experienced both the good and the bad of human kind in his time with his human father and his stint in captivity. His heart and mind are the battle ground and this extends to his counterpart and right-hand man Koba who we see lose loyalty and respect for Caesar because he feels he is much too soft towards the humans. Koba has known nothing but manipulation and violence from humans and is filled with distrust and utter disdain towards them and the sight of the scars decorating his body make you feel he is justified. Koba’s gripe with Caesar is that he is more human than ape but writers (Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver) are clear on what they think they all are, more human than ape.
I drew parallels to man’s fall in the Garden of Eden which opened up their eyes to enlightenment but also corruption. The apes not only took on the intelligence, organization and other good things of man but also the tainted traits of bitterness, fear and apathy among others. The story is ultimately a dissection of the somewhat vainness of the human condition which the apes have adopted having lost the innocence of their natural state. The writers understand what it is to be fundamentally flawed, we watching do so too and our understanding and connection with the central ape characters is seamless and honest. The script looks at everyone with equity from Koba to Malcolm regardless the choices they make and towards the end when they are all officially drawn into the same world of politics, conspiracy and eventual bloodshed it doesn’t matter. Ape or human, we can’t really tell the difference.
Vital to capturing Caesar’s tussle with the conflicting emotions and his tiring role as their leader is motion capture genius Andy Serkis. I have no doubt that makeup and CGI play a massive part in the character we see but that should not down play the role Serkis’ craft plays in drawing us into the character. It is all about the demeanour he infuses the character with which paint a unique picture of him likewise Toby Kebell who does his best to make Koba more sinister and menacing than his appearance.
The film is not without its visual appeal with their forest abode shot in all its natural splendour. The battle scene despite the weaponry on show still feel strikingly raw and primaeval like the lives they all lived and director Matt Reeves gives us one fantastic shot as he pulls us onto the top of an armoured vehicle for a front row seat as if witnessing a pivotal moment in human history. The filmmaking here is patient and compelling and Reeves doesn’t shy away from the pacifist laden ideas of diplomacy and the human nature’s draw to conflict and violence.
The film leaves us with the apes at a point of no return and looking, I couldn’t find anyone to shift blame onto – ape or human, we can no longer tell the difference.