I will admit to no small amount of trepidation going in to Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. As a long fan of the franchise and a devotee of the reboot Rise of the Planet of the Apes, I had high expectations of this sequel (made all the more intense by the overwhelmingly positive reviews the film has so far garnered from the critics). Even as a devoted acolyte I couldn’t help but wonder: will this film live up to my expectations? Is it even realistic to think that it will? I honestly didn’t think I could stand the disappointment if it turned out that I couldn’t connect with the film in the way I had to its predecessors.
Luckily for me, I did.
Not that there weren’t a few touch-and-go moments. The beginning of the film is very deliberate in its pacing, showing us in great detail the society that Caesar and his fellow apes have painstakingly carved out of the Muir Woods. For a while, I wasn’t sure that I was going to be able to connect viscerally and emotionally with Dawn, although I should note that from the beginning I was intellectually engaged with the aesthetics and politics on display. Two scenes (neither, ironically, involving the main protagonist Caesar, but instead his chief lieutenant and confidante Maurice the orangutan), proved unequivocally that this film indeed reaches into the depths of emotion, both human and nonhuman. In the first, Maurice carefully instructs young apes in the laws that govern their fledgling society, including the cardinal rule that ape shall not kill ape. In the second, Maurice bonds with the young human Alex, both of them connecting over a comic book. Throughout these two scenes, and indeed throughout the film as a whole, the deep, soulful eyes of Maurice beckon to us, suggesting a world of wisdom gained through suffering and pain, but also through witnessing the miracles of compassion and triumph through adversity. At the same time, they also remind us of the fact that, for all Maurice and his fellow apes may behave like humans, part of them remains beyond the pale of human understanding.
Perhaps no figure exemplifies that message better than Koba, the tortured and scarred bonobo from the first film. Having made it through the rebellion and risen in the ranks to stand next to Caesar, Koba represents the fundamental distrust that nonhuman apes have of their human counterparts (and with good reason, considering the troubled and violent history that undergirds the relationship between the two groups). When a troop of humans seeking the use of a hydroelectric dam to keep their struggling colony stable stray into ape territory–shooting a young chimpanzee along the way–it is Koba who pounds the drums of war. And it is Koba who ultimately betrays Caesar by shooting him and leading the apes on a march on San Francisco. And it is, alas, Koba who not only imprisons Maurice and others he deems too faithful to the memory of Caesar, but it is he who also breaks the ultimate commandment and murders Ash after he refuses to kill a defenseless human. In the end, after an epic battle between Caesar and Koba, between conciliation and annihilation, Caesar sends his erstwhile friend plunging to his death, having proclaimed that Koba, through his betrayal of his own kind and his warmongering, is no longer an ape.
Far more than a typical action flick, this film is instead a tragedy, brimming full of pathos and the seeming inexorability of war between humanity and apes. Koba, far from being an outright villain, emerges from this film as its antihero, but this is not to say that his vision of the future is an unjust one nor that Caesar’s is the only viable option. When Koba, having successfully overcome the human defenders of the San Francisco colony, stridently and defiantly announces that now they know what it is like to live in cages, I honestly felt the same thrill I felt when the apes succeeded in escaping from San Francisco in the first film. Given the tortures he has endured–made clear when he shows, in brief and poignant gestures, the human-inflicted scars on his body–how can we, as viewers, not be sympathetic to him?* The fact that his body, especially his face, is rendered in such exquisite detail, underscores the dark depths of his tortured and twisted psyche. The film may not ultimately ask us to approve of his actions, but it does invite us to understand them.
All of this is not to take away from Andy Serkis’s performance as Caesar. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes allows us to see the ways in which he has evolved as a leader and as a character. If Rise chronicled Caesar’s loss of innocence in the face of human cruelty and subsequent rise to leadership, Dawn shows us the terrible price exacted by that role. There is a world of sadness and melancholy in Caesar’s eyes as he views the digital footage of his long-dead father-figure Will, and even more when he regretfully tells his human ally Malcolm that all-out war between humans and apes has already begun. We, in the audience, also understand that Caesar has finally accepted the unfortunate fact that violence and bloodshed will only end when one side has finally emerged triumphant. It is a truth all the more bitter in that it so nakedly reflects the unfortunate realities of our own geopolitical experience.
This film is, ultimately, an expression of what the best science fiction can do. It can utilize the filmic technologies available to evoke a world so completely that we believe it is possible. The cinematography here is brilliant, ranging from the murky, blue-tinted shadows of the apes’ forest home to the glaring reds, oranges, and blacks of Koba’s triumphant yet costly (in terms of ape life) siege of the human colony. Just as importantly, Michael Giacchino’s score manages to evoke both soaring emotions, as in the final scene of Caesar’s acclamation by his followers, to deep and abiding unease, as in the score’s numerous disturbing and unsettling orchestral allusions to the original 1968 film’s soundtrack.
In the end, however, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a potent reminder to humanity of not only how precarious our species’ existence is but also, as Caesar ultimately realizes, how little separates us from the nonhumans with which we share the world.