We need a bigger word than humanist.
That was a word I used to describe the lovely, honest, sensitive Rise of the Planet of the Apes — and god, did it feel good to be able to connect those words with a big-budget science fiction movie. But now it feels too small to encompass where Dawn of the Planet of the Apes takes the ongoing story. People-ist is the first coinage that leaps to mind, clunky as it is. Because there are nonhumans here who are as fully people as the humans are… in fact, the story is very much about the humans coming to terms with the incontrovertible fact that they are no longer the only creatures on the planet who are intelligent and self-aware, who have a culture, a history, and hopes for the future.
The problem of what to call this wider awareness of our world and our place in it, and our extension of dignity and self-determination to nonhumans, is a good problem. It’s a magnificent science-fictional problem that is thrilling to consider not only because it borders on the science-factual — there are movements in the real world to extend personhood to other higher primates and to cetaceans — but because this sort of philosophical thinking is so rarely woven into the cloth of blockbuster genre films. This is what science fiction is supposed to do: make you see the world in a new way, and see that the way things are are not inevitably the way things must be. And it’s something cinematic SF very rarely bothers with.
It is such a joy to know that someone — in this case, director Matt Reeves (Let Me In, Cloverfield) and screenwriters Mark Bomback (The Wolverine, Total Recall) and the team of Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, returning from the first film — cares about this kind of thing, and cares enough to make it work in a film that still satisfies in every way we’ve come to expect from our summer blockbusters.
Of course there are no real chimpanzees like Caesar (CGI plus the motion-captured performance of Andy Serkis: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Arthur Christmas), who became an ape genius (in the first film) via a drug intended to cure brain diseases in humans. But the notion that Caesar and his people — a large band of chimps, gorillas, and lonely orangutan Maurice (mo-capped Karin Konoval: Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Diary of a Wimpy Kid), the original group of whom had escaped from a research facility — do not deserve to live as they choose is impossible to extract from the story that Dawn is telling without it collapsing entirely. (If you don’t want to have to consider the possibility that at least some “animals” should not be treated like objects and property, you could even call this movie propagandistic.) It’s not humans versus apes here. There are no real villains, only people — I use the word in the widest sense — who have been traumatized beyond their capacity to heal.
Mistrust born of old pain is the only true enemy here, and it infects both the apes and the humans. It’s ten years on from the events of the first film, and humanity has been all but wiped out by a “simian flu,” a virus that was being tested on chimps by human scientists but escaped the lab and mutated. (That’s some serious blowback from animal testing!) A band of perhaps several hundred naturally immune humans, led by Dreyfus (Gary Oldman: RoboCop, Paranoia), has been holed up in the now overgrown ruins of San Francisco, and now they’re starting to venture up into the hills outside the city, hoping to get a hydroelectric dam operating again now that the fuel they’ve been using to run generators is about to go dry. In the forest they encounter Caesar’s people, who appear to outnumber the humans in the city, and are now living in a little village of their own making, having smart little babies — wise, kindly Maurice is the schoolteacher, passing on reading, writing, sign language, and such learning as “ape not kill other ape” — and wondering, or they had been, at least, whether the humans were all dead.
The perhaps natural — or at least understandable — tension between the humans and the apes might have settled down into uneasy but peaceful detente if not for the exacerbation on the human side by Dreyfus, who is only desperately worried about human survival and is eager to attempt contact with other possible human communities around the planet, and so will do anything to get that dam up and running; and, on a smaller scale, by Carver (Kirk Acevedo: Invincible), who blames the apes for the simian flu and hence for the deaths of everyone he once knew and loved, and doesn’t understand why other humans don’t feel the same way. Didn’t Malcolm (Jason Clarke: White House Down, The Great Gatsby) lose his wife and the mother of his teenaged son, Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee: The Congress, ParaNorman)? Didn’t Malcolm’s new partner, Ellie (Keri Russell: Austenland, Extraordinary Measures), lose her daughter?
On the ape side, with far more reason to despise the humans than any human has to despise apes, there is Koba (mo-capped Toby Kebbell: The Counsellor, The East), who — in one of the most upsetting moments in the film — reminds Caesar, via the scars he acquired in human captivity, what humans do. Caesar’s own son, Blue Eyes (mo-capped Nick Thurston), worries that Caesar is being too accommodating of the humans and is leaning toward Koba’s perspective, and Caesar’s explanation that Koba learned only hate from humans, while Caesar himself knows that humans are capable of love, isn’t quite enough to convince the youngster.
The powers of forgiveness and fear are at war here as Malcolm and Caesar find themselves unlikely allies in preventing actual war from breaking out. And in ways that could not have been achieved on film until this very moment — thanks to extraordinary FX that works even better than they did in the first film to create utterly credible ape people — the gulf between human and ape seems like hardly a gulf at all. No suspension of disbelief is required to instantly accept that the only real differences here are between those who approach hard-won differences with genuine honesty and a desire to find a common ground, and those who use guile and violence to turn their own anxieties outward onto others.
This is an amazing film, and a beautiful one. It’s wonderfully radical not only for its principled ideas but also for the simple fact that it is ruled by its ideas. May it inspire Hollywood to make more movies like this.