Dawn of the Planet of the Apes movie review: people get ready

MaryAnn’s quick take: A magnificent science fiction drama, and a beautiful one. Wonderfully radical for the simple fact that it is ruled by principled ideas.
I’m “biast” (pro): loved the first film
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
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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.

See also my #WhereAreTheWomen rating of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes for its representation of girls and women.

see also:
Rise of the Planet of the Apes movie review: of primate bondage
War for the Planet of the Apes movie review: empathy for the ape

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Fri, Jul 18, 2014 1:34pm

Yes! This was such an amazing movie. This is one of the best experiences I’ve had in a theater in ages.

The fact that Transformers dominated the box office over obviously superior SF/F films like Edge of Tomorrow and How to Train Your Dragon 2 really bothered me. It’s not just that an absolutely terrible movie was dominating over much better movies–that happens all the time! It’s the fact that an absolutely terrible movie was dominating over much better movies that ALSO had the fantastic elements and high degree of spectacle that are the usual reason people go to otherwise bad movies.
So the fact that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes managed to unseat Transformers–while also managing the rare feat of being a sequel better than the original–helped restore a little of my faith in humanity.

Dr. Rocketscience
Dr. Rocketscience
Fri, Jul 18, 2014 4:37pm

I’m going to have to take the opposite view on this one.

DotPotA‘s primarily commits the cardinal sin of being boring. Never for a moment, during the whole two hours if its running time (which easily felt like 3) was I concerned for the fates, or even desires, of any character on screen. Everyone’s behavior, human and ape, is utterly predictable, in a kind of paint-by-numbers way: here’s where this character disobeys orders; here’s where these characters learn to trust each other; here’s where that character commits the telegraphed betrayal; here’s the death of that character that isn’t actually a death; and on and on. DotPotA just takes it’s lazy sweet time getting to each of these story beats, never even having the decency to be engaging about it. And I’m willing to put up with a lot of nonsense from a movie if it can at least keep me engaged (see: Star Trek (2009)).

This movie has no reason to exist. And I’m not even talking about the larger prequel heavy film industry. DotPotA can’t muster up a compelling reason for its own existence. It does nothing to advance the overall Planet of the Apes story. It barely advances its own story. By the end, we are, narratively speaking, pretty much exactly where we started, minus a couple characters whose largely meaningless deaths were predetermined by the needs of the plot. (I’ll refrain from going into spoilery detail for a few days to give folks a chance to see it.) We’re certainly no closer to the world as it exists in Bolle’s novel.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes was one of the rare sequels that works on its own. It told its own story, which was almost coincidentally telling the backstory of the Planet of the Apes. It got itself out of the way of that backstory, putting the necessary pieces in motion (apes on their way up, humans on their way out, at a speed that makes sense in PotA) without trying to put those pieces in place. It knew that nothing much of interest would happen until Chuck Heston/Marky Mark emerges from his space pod. DotPotA does nothing to counter that.

There are some other odds and ends (aside from specific plot points, which, again, I’ll talk about after a letting spoilers expire a bit) that kept dragging me out of the movie. Example, Dreyfus is worried that his colony (which is holed up in a city where they can’t grow or hunt food) is running out of fuel for the generators, but he needs power from the dam to run the radio?

There appear to be exactly two female higher primates left on the planet: Keri Russell (playing the leading man’s love interest but who could easily have been the lead character, as usual), and Caesar’s “mate” (who has almost no dialog, never moves from one spot, and wears a pretty flower headband on her head to signal to the audience that she’s female).

Apparently white people are the only humans who were “genetically immune” to the “simian flu”. Seriously, all the lead characters are white, and of the supporting characters (and few hundred human extras) I recall seeing maybe a dozen total black and Latino faces, and not a single Asian face anywhere. This in a movie set in San Francisco,

reply to  Dr. Rocketscience
Fri, Jul 18, 2014 6:07pm

I haven’t seen the movie, and I have no idea whether I’ll agree with you, but I’m upvoting your post just because it’s so well-written.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Dr. Rocketscience
Fri, Jul 18, 2014 11:24pm

Yes, I wish Keri Russell had been the lead, too. i wish there were more nonwhite people here.

But I get tired of hearing myself complain about these things. There was enough else here to keep me interested that I let those things slide. If I didn’t do that sometimes, I’d never be able to enjoy most movies.

Dr. Rocketscience
Dr. Rocketscience
reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Fri, Jul 18, 2014 11:53pm

I figured I’d cover that base for you. :)

I’d like to think that, even as a SWM, I’d have noticed the lack of non-white, non-males in the movie even if it had been more engaging. I mean, the level of casual racism isn’t even all that subtle. >.<

Rebecca Dalmas
Rebecca Dalmas
Fri, Jul 25, 2014 10:27pm

I did care for the characters in this film, and, despite the predictability, enjoyed how the success of the good choices was juxtaposed against the screw-ups, how the thin sliver of one advantage tipped everything in favor of one side, then the other.

There’s more to a film than basic plot, things it says along the way can make it more gratifying than others with the same structure. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was gratifying exactly in the way MJ said it was, because it demonstrated principle. The tenuous moral nature of the humans and apes showed us how vital every effort of being good can become when all is weighed.