Our Savage Foe: What ‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ Can Teach Us of Our Own Humanity

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Since chance or choice endowed mankind with reason, our place atop the beasts below seemed destined by design. At first we shared creation and fought to stay alive, but once we learned to stand and speak, we learned to rule from far. As we grew bolder, we stood taller, and no longer ran from beasts, but walked as men. To live apart, we lived inside, and our homes were made of trees, not in them. The human reign was sealed for sure, when thought now fashioned tools for defense and domination, and all at once the beasts of instinct were left behind, for reason and invention ahead. But had we truly risen above our cousins, and even above ourselves?

Over millennia, our tools refined, and defined us, and as we grew wiser and more sophisticated, we grew further from the natural world. We found ways to cure and comfort, and with success came pride. In our minds, the animals we tamed were proof we rightly ruled. Evolution and Darwin’s assertion that man had descended from apes was an acceptable one, since apes were no threat to our rule, and only resembled us when taught tricks and human mimicry. Although still primates, we naturally selected neighborhoods over nature, purged monkeys from our past, and lived well without the wild—a place only fit for beasts. Our nature was no longer nature, and we worked to nurture the savage from our selves.

Although technology was innovation born to ease our burdens and make less work, it was also a means to diagnose and treat the sick, and improve and prolong life. Whether moved by mercy or driven by greed, our doctors and drug companies are in possession of tools to heal or weapons to kill, and hold the fate of millions in their hands. In 2011’s ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes,’ the worst scenario played out when the cure itself became the plague in need of curing. In an instant, the world was irrevocably changed. A substance, designed to help the brain repair itself and treat ailments like Alzheimer’s, reacts unexpectedly, and the monkeys in the lab are exposed to the agent, which gives rise to a super-intelligent chimp, which then leads to an ape uprising. At the end of the movie, we are shown that a character infected earlier is actually a pilot, who presumably carries the virus to the rest of the world. We learn that mankind’s folly may also be its fall, but the question of its fate, is another film’s to answer.

In 2014’s ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes,’ we find ourselves in the wake of a global pandemic and the collapse of civilization, and where humans are thought to be extinct. Set in 2016, the wake of the ALZ-113 virus has caused the collapse of human civilization, and ten years after the events in the first movie, a middle-aged Caesar, who is now king and leads and governs a new generation of apes in a community located in the Muir Woods—north of San Francisco. The group includes comrades from the ape sanctuary—most notably Rocket (the mean ape who makes peace with Caesar in ‘Rise’) and Maurice (an amiable orangutan who befriended Caesar as well), as well as Koba (the primate formerly experimented on at Genisys), Rocket’s son Ash, Caesar’s teenage son, Bright Eyes, and his wife, Cornelia, among many others. As the film begins, we are treated to an exciting and well-paced movement of apes through the forest, and we realize that Caesar is leading the apes on a hunting party for deer. During the hunt, Caesar’s adolescent son, Blue Eyes, is frightened by an attacking grizzly bear, which is expertly killed by another ape. Caesar is summoned to his home in the apes’ village, where his sick wife has given birth to a newborn son.

During these early scenes, we are introduced to the lush and populated home of the apes—primates from the first film who were inalterably transformed into thinking, rational animals, with newfound powers of verbal speech. This is a world of tall redwood trees, and one with generous vines and plentiful limbs, to aid in easy locomotion. The apes have made homes in structures resembling both nests and tree houses, climbing the trees, and ascending in graceful staggered steps. There are rocky hills, and in the dips between, are apes who appear to be in school, and being taught writing and reading skills by Maurice the orangutan, who has learned to write during the last decade. Behind Maurice, the words “Ape not kill ape” are scrawled on a rock

While out exploring the forest, Blue Eyes and Ash (son of Rocket) encounter a small party of armed survivors in the forest led by a man named Malcolm. In a panic, one of the men who holds a deep distrust of the apes, shoots and wounds Ash. Caesar decides against retaliation and orders the humans to leave. It is revealed a group of humans genetically immune to the virus have established a guarded safe-haven inside a semi-built tower in the heart of post-apocalyptic San Francisco. Caesar preemptively leads the apes to a face-to-face confrontation with the humans at the tower where he speaks and orders Malcolm, the safe-haven’s co-founder, to never enter ape territory again.

As you would expect, the humans need to enter the ape territory, and were there to repair and reactivate a large dam, in order to restore power to the city in ruins. The humans are attempting to establish a home, and we learn that they have inherited a leftover stockpile of weapons. They are confident that they can rebuild San Francisco, and defend it from the apes if need be.

It doesn’t take long for the interests of the humans and those of the apes to clash considerably. Whereas both Caesar and Malcolm—the ipso facto leader of the humans—both seemingly want peace, both are distrustful of the other. A series of blunders by the humans, only serves to reinforce Caesar’s distrust and suspicion, and tensions escalate. As long as the leaders maintain peace, the unsteady truce may hold, but the factious and prejudiced militants on both sides manage to destabilize the situation, and the battle between man and ape is inevitable. The film unfolds in surprising ways, and the action and violence escalates to an exciting climax and satisfying conclusion.

‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ may be the best film of the year to date. That’s not to say it will top every list or should even be your favorite movie, but it certainly is worthy of an Oscar nomination for best picture. It deserves such accolades for its breathtaking vision and the challenging—and improbable—task of orchestrating so many moving parts into one seamless picture. Just by looking at it, you can recognize the love and attention that was meticulously given by talented and attentive actors, designers, writers, producers, and crew, who worked both independently of each other and cohesively, as a collaborative team. The collective determination and ability to execute a vision such as this film, requires steady leadership, and a well articulated vision. The success of “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ would not have been possible without the vision and guidance of talented director, Matt Reeves—a name I was unfamiliar with, but who I am eager to see more of.

Probably the most important measure of this movie’s success is its improbable feat of being both commercially profitable AND a gorgeous work of art. Of course, if I said that to most moviegoers, they would probably turn and run away. The reality is most of our audiences aren’t necessarily looking for art in a movie, but rather, simple entertainment through escape, distraction, humor, romance, or exciting action and explosions. Regrettably, art has become synonymous with pretention, elitism, exclusivity, and impenetrable obfuscation. People don’t want to feel stupid or bored, and to them, art is to be avoided at all costs. What they may not understand is that good art can be welcoming, familiar, and accessible. Art and populist movies don’t have to be mutually exclusive. In short, a movie can be both fun and exciting AND thoughtful and elegant. What’s most remarkable about this film is that it manages to have everything the average moviegoer wants—action, romance, violence, suspense—while delivering it in an elegant and thoughtful piece of challenging art. What makes is so commercial is its ability to offer something for everybody.

Although it most naturally falls under Sci-Fi, ‘Dawn’ defies genre, and seems just as comfortable telling its story in many different styles—remarkably without ever seeming jarring or disconnected. For those who are fans of story, the script is carefully structured, the characters are mostly well developed, and the dialogue is not only taut and engaging, but often quite moving as well. There is sufficiently engaging drama that not only advances the story, but also provides rich subtext for the characters, and cultivates an emotional journey of each of the main leads. The dramatic action alternates between exciting action and visceral action sequences, and quieter, more character-driven scenes, where much of the exposition and plot is delivered, but also where emotional bonds and connections between characters are planted and watered throughout the movie. A marriage between Malcolm and Ellie is a relatively recent development, and we see a mature and deep romance between them. Since he is widowed, but has a teenage son from his first marriage, there is a domestic challenge in rebuilding a new family and having the son accept the new wife. This is not a major plot point, but its inclusion gave the family some depth, and set up an opportunity to help make it a reality. As one might expect, the film had exciting, and well-choreographed fight scenes and action sequences. The CGI was always superb, and nowhere was it more impressive, than when used expertly in fast-moving and precise scenes of violence.

Perhaps the most surprising find in an action-packed summer blockbuster was the deep and profound social commentary, which was subtle enough to not distract from the action, but delicately interwoven enough with the plot, to make it deeply satisfying with those who caught it. For those who cannot help excavating a story for broader contexts and cross-cultural allusions, this film rewards the viewer. ‘Dawn’ provides new takes on the master/slave dialectic by tastefully and sensitively casting the ape as the once enslaved and abused African American, with little education and little opportunity for advancement. As you might expect, the ape in this movie is no fool, and in many ways, serves as the intellectual and emotional center of the film. There was a respectful parallel only lightly drawn, but inescapable. This was no more apparent than in the frightening scene than when the chief antagonist—Koba the ape—acts out a kind of minstrel-monkey show hybrid act in order to pacify and manipulate aggressive humans. The act embodies the reality that African Americans often had to dumb themselves down and perform a silly and degrading act that demonstrated their docility and obedience to their master. Koba’s act is disturbing and convincing, and we see it successfully disarm his captors, with lethal consequences. Humans are derisive in their regard for apes, and distrust their true motives. Humans grossly misjudge their adversaries, by underestimating their ability to read, talk, and reason, much like Southern slaveholders did before and after the war. Koba transformed himself into dimwitted and harmless Uncle Tom, but struck his oppressors without mercy.

The fierce dignity, tribal mentality, style of hunting game, rich totems, connection with nature as stewards of the environment, manner of constructing shelter, close familial bonds, and strength in the face of oppression were reminiscent of Native Americans, and echoed our troubled legacy of mistreatment and constant relocation and displacement of the American Indian. Our progress and our creature comforts have also threatened the natural world, and the habitat apes call home. As one ape pointed out, allowing humans to have their power back was dangerous, and was an eerie reminder that power truly did bring power. Another parable is made in the allusions the story makes between the Apes as sustainable stewards of the environment and humans as exploitive polluters, disrupting the natural order of things, The challenges of brokering peace between two bitter and distrustful foes is compounded by one side’s disregard for the natural world and habitat of the other party. The film raises other questions of how we can only move towards peace when we recognize ourselves in the other, and cannot bring ourselves to harm those, which we know intimately. The parable encourages respecting those we don’t understand—even animals without the ability to think or communicate as we do. Perhaps with equal standing, we may all find peace and reconciliation.

The film is bursting with ideas and is an allegory for a lot of social ills. These kind of artfully woven ideas and philosophical musings are the stuff which intellectuals and lovers of cinema crave and are grateful for. The movie is so profoundly successful mostly because it realized it could have it all. As improbable as it seems, the film can be all things to all people all at once, and somehow still keep all its rich artistic integrity. Art and commerce can coexist peacefully, and this is not a lesson Hollywood learns and not one they abide by. Rarely does lightening strike twice and the industry capture lightening in a bottle. Films combining both profit and artistry are rare, like ‘Lord of the Rings,’ and now, ‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ as well.

In general, I found all the humans, save Malcolm, to be underdeveloped and either too blustery or complete non-entities. The poor depiction of humans—including the criminal underuse of Gary Oldman as a villain—was the weakest and most disappointing part of this film. However, humans were not the focus of this movie, and I felt were adequate foils and fulfilled their function as plot devices fine enough. I don’t like that choice, and it dehumanizes most of humanity, but that was so on the periphery, I was able to overlook it. Malcolm carries the weight of the sins and accomplishments of humanity, and he is our access point to the apes. And that is where the movie is stunning and worth overlooking the rest. I never thought I could empathize and get so invested in a CGI animal until I saw this movie. As much as I have liked other films with extensive CGI, none captured my heart and imagination as much as this one. Whereas the humans may have been one-dimensional sketchings, save Malcolm, the apes were full and rich characters. It is rather funny and surprising that I would be more moved by a piece of rich computer art with a voice, than real human beings on screen. That is a testament to how powerfully successful the CGI and motion-capture technology was in this movie.

As a director, I marveled at the apes’ use of sign language, expression, and then the big reveal that they are capable of speech. The dynamics and meticulous attention to non-verbal communication was palpable in this film, and I admired the use of symbol and metaphor shared amongst the apes. It made them triple communicative threats. They had the ability to use their typical non-linguistic ape grunts to communicate, as well as physical sign language, and finally verbal English communication. That’s not to mention the use of touch and other non-verbal means. What that communicated was a rich and powerful community, with deep modes of talking amongst themselves. It not only humanized them, but also made them almost more dynamic and successful in something humans pride themselves on.

An interesting parallel was drawn early on with the contrasting relationships of Caesar to his son to Koba and his son, and showed the love and affection of the former to the fear and abuse of the latter, and also foreshadowed later familial tragedy and reconciliation, on the part of Caesar.

This band of mismatched apes and monkeys live lives of social hierarchy, but respect the code, because it respected them. As Alpha male, the nuanced performance of Serkis allowed Caesar to rule strongly, but with compassion and measured restraint. Although he may not be considered eligible for an Oscar, because his performance was not solely his own, Andy Serkis is as deserving of a nomination as anyone I’ve seen this season. His Caesar was as real to me, as any human’s was. The relationship between him and Malcolm was astonishing to watch, and deepened as their trust grew. Serkis was both instinct and savage and thoughtful and kind. His Caesar is merciful and forgiving, and often paid the price for being so. Serkis perfectly capture the human condition, in that we are all at the mercy of our instinct and animal nature, while also burdened/ blessed with intellect and reason. His performance was inspired, and rarely do you see such nuanced and sensitive acting in an action/ sci-fi film. It truly was remarkable to watch. Koba was a dangerous foe and engaging to watch as well, mostly because he knew how power worked and how to manipulate events to rip power from those who stand in his way. But not just through sheer brute force, but through subterfuge and deception and even switching faces if it served his purpose.

In closing, I completely understand that some people were not satisfied with the shallow way most of the humans were depicted. That is a valid grievance. However, most importantly, this is the story of Malcolm and Caesar, who are symbols and the hope of both their peoples. Perhaps the most moving story within this greater story is that of two males of their species, so desirous of peace, that they allow themselves to see how similar they really are, and that if ape can’t kill ape, how can it kill human either. Whether you see African Americans’ plight in America, the Native American struggle, Palestinians and Jews, Aussies and Aborigines, or some other analog, the real life parallels are there. And true to life, those who cannot forgive and find themselves in the hearts of their foes block the road to peace. Malcolm and Caesar can’t have the thing they want the most, and which others seek to destroy. And so it is so around us. This film is a great action movie. Or Sci-fi. Or whatever. But most importantly, it is a great work of are with tremendous heart and provokes us to do what our two heroes did, and see ourselves in a movie that could have easily asked nothing of us, and simply blown stuff up. Instead, it entertained us and asked us to look at ourselves and each other just a little differently.

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