Lessons from Apes
Now that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes has been out a couple months and I’ve had time to discern whether or not it was a good popcorn movie or a good movie altogether, it’s time to write about it. Sure, I’ve reviewed it and there wasn’t much to criticize with great acting and special effects, but what can we actually learn from it?
Thankfully, Dawn is one of those Sci-fi movies that takes us back to when the genre was full of societal commentary underneath the spaceships or talking apes, etc. Here are some things I really appreciated not from a critical standpoint, but a personal one.
Dawn is a story where the simplest themes say the most.
A quick recap:
When we first get back to the story that Rise of the Planet of the Apes left us with, we’re met with a broken world in which society, as we know it, has crumbled. Caesar, who we already know as the hyper-intelligent ape revolutionary from the past film, has not only led the apes he could to the Muir Woods, but his civilization is thriving. Learning to talk, walk upright, read and write, the apes have built homes, started families, and are pretty much doing alright for themselves.
Now the humans on the other hand, aren’t doing so good. With so many dead from the ending scene of Rise due to the virus released, they’re struggling to survive. What the disease didn’t kill off left the survivors with nothing.
But when the remaining humans left need to move through Caesar’s territory to restart the power in their city, it calls to question not only Caesar’s ideals about ape kind, but it leaves the humans to question if the apes are civilized enough to allow us to live.
While the humans don’t come off as cardboard cut outs, it’s really Caesar that goes through the changes in the film. I was a little afraid that we were going to get a similar story to Jurassic Park where we’re given a tale of morality that’s bound to surface when humans play God. It worked for that story, but here, it would have been beating a dead horse.
Here, we see that Caesar is doing his best to keep his family happy, alive and growing. The well-known Planet of the Apes mantra “Ape not kill ape” is shown written on the stone walls of the apes’ home. It’s a lesson Caesar seems proud to have in effect. He says to Maurice the Orangutan that he occasionally thinks about humans but it doesn’t matter because they’re not around anyway. Or so he thinks.
Gary Oldman plays Dreyfus, the leader of the remaining humans. But even with Oldman in the role, I expected to get a phoned in performance for us to wait around, hoping to see more apes. Again, I was proven wrong as Oldman’s character does what he can to keep those that follow him to keep calm, carry on, and keep the hope that they can not only survive, but live again.
We see that Dreyfus had his own family before the outbreak and he doesn’t use the memories of his family as simply fuel to keep hating and distrusting those around him, but to legitimately keep going. He breaks down quietly to himself when he’s able to see photo of his family from the years before. It’s here we’re allowed sympathize with his character and understand he really believes in the strives him and his followers have made.
Dreyfus seemed to me somewhat of a human mirror to Koba, Caesar’s right hand Bonobo from the first film. Having been a test ape and treated cruelly at that, he follows Caesar but has his own ideas about how his fellow apes should deal with the humans. And that’s the way he was treated- harshly, unfairly. When Caesar decides to allow the humans to move through the apes’ home to set up shop, and attempt to turn their electricity back on, Koba reminds him of what “human work” looks like by drawing attention to the scars he’s covered in; results of the various testing and surgeries performed on him.
His personality is one of rage, viciousness, and selfishness. He’s thinks fighting fire with fire is what you do when you want to win, never realizing the point is peace- not more of the same stupidity.
Amidst all this, we’re shown multiple ways that war, but in general conflict is continued and it’s a team effort, essentially. By Carver’s stupidity, Dreyfuss’ misunderstanding and Koba’s deception. And it’s really his character that drives much of the story. Because of the way he was treated by humans, he’s rightfully pissed off. But because he won’t calm his hatred, and understand the needs of others, he pushes many of his fellow apes to their deaths; some literally.
The closest character I came to hating as a whole was Carver, played by Kirk Acevedo. His character is understandably mistrustful of the apes, but it’s his fear and tense persona that pushes along much of the tension the two races feel toward each other. And while I felt his character was the most forced, nearly shoving the plot to go where it needed to while having little personality past being annoying and fearful.
Carver served his purpose to show that humans aren’t entirely righteous in this story simply because it’s the apes that have a lesson to learn.
After the particularly brutal beating of Koba at the hands of Caesar due to Koba’s increasing disrespect and aggression, Caesar learns a major lesson at the demise (at least temporarily) of his own civility. With blood on his hands and his fellow ape on the ground, dazed after the beating he’d just taken, Caesar reminds himself that “Ape not kill ape.” It’s here that the message really comes into focus- that living in this world means getting your hands dirty.
I don’t believe we’re being told that to step on everyone’s necks if we want to make it to the top, but Caesar had previously gone untested when it came to understanding what it meant to make the tough decisions.
Sure, he’d chosen to stay behind in a cage in Rise even after James Franco’s character was able to take him home but at that point, the damage had been done and the intellectually superior Caesar couldn’t unsee what he’d already been made partial to- his brothers as prisoners. He’d decided to take them under his wing at that point and create a new home for them and he’d done a great job at it- but keeping your home can be even tougher than making it.
It was interesting to me that the writers focused so much on the development of the apes. It was a great direction to go, I was just surprised to see them do it. While the humans have their faults, they don’t go through any changes- we already know about them because we are them, so why preach to the choir?
It’s Caesar that has to come to the understanding that only ruling in a time of peace can be challenging enough, but what about when others challenge you? It’s made mention that to continue ruling as the Alpha male, Caesar needs to show his power. So it’s clear at this point that apes, even evolved apes if you will, aren’t really better than humans.
But it’s no good to tell a story where apes really learn how hard it is to be human since we’re not apes in the first place? The message is clear that while no part of war or conflict is justified, fear, misdirection, disinformation, misunderstanding and other various factors come into play when two opposing forces decide to take more than they’ve earned from the other. Even those who want to live in peace are forced into some kind of dilemma, morally or otherwise, to hold onto what they want to keep.
It’s also interesting that by the end, our human protagonist Malcolm, warns Caesar that the military is on its way and that Caesar’s followers need to escape. Caesar’s role here is one of true leadership where he accepts the blame for the war apes have started. He isn’t personally responsible, but his “people” are no less at fault for actions caused by many of them.
Caesar does what seems so hard for many of us to do in reality; to even understand why others fight us. He can’t dehumanize, for lack of a better word, the humans anymore because he knows his people are just as capable of committing treacherous acts, regardless of their reasoning. And when it came to Koba, who saved Caesar at the beginning of the film, he had to cut his losses.
While some may have just seen this as a good summer movie (which it was), there’s also the bigger issues to contemplate. Dawn isn’t just good, it’s a great reminder of not only how entertaining films can be, but the messages you can take away without even realizing it.