Review: ‘Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes’ – Et Tu Koba
Potential spoilers for ‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’
Ten years have passed since Caesar led his Simian army from the confines of a testing lab into the Muir Woods outside San Francisco. As the global human population dwindles- a consequence from the spread of the Simian Flu- the apes thrive, forming a strong working colony, proving life can exist without smart phones and the Internet. The trade off in this civilization is a return to hunting with spears and communication through sign language and intermittent grunting. It’s prehistoric by human standards, but off the chart for apes.
For those seeking armed, horseback riding monkeys doing battle with humans, you’re in for a treat as long as you can hold out through some extended exposition. ‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ takes its sweet time getting to the meat, taking its cue from its 2011 predecessor, ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’, choosing character depth and world building over explosions and chaos. (Are you listening Michael Bay?) By spending time constructing the ape characters as individuals with personalities and motivations not unlike our own, true emotion is allowed to permeate the landscape, resulting in a final act with purpose. Seriously, if the only plan is to just blow shit up, what’s the point if I don’t care who or what gets caught in the blast radius? Director Matt Reeves and his writing team understood this from the onset and took great pains in ensuring I had characters I cared about and a rooting interest in what happened to them.
‘Dawn’ doesn’t try to cram a “humans are evil, greedy, war-mongering narcissists” plot down our throats. It’s a refreshing angle since most of what Hollywood churns out under the guise of summer blockbusters lazily reheats the same tired premise that we are inherently our own worst enemy when it comes to the ills of our world. Here, human and ape are on equal footing, both motivated by a common desire for survival. Yes, you can look to the Simian Flu epidemic, a human construct gone awry, as the initial catalyst for the current state of affairs, but that’s in the past and those left aren’t looking for scapegoats. It’s all about what’s next.
What’s next for the humans is to repair a dam out in the woods that may restore some power back to the city. What stands in the way is a colony of apes with chips on their shoulders. The easy route would have been for one or both of these groups to start throwing down immediately, giving validity to an all-out war and allowing the filmmakers to just cut to the chase. It is a popcorn movie after all. But that’s not how this narrative chooses to play out however, at least for the moment. After some tense stand offs between the humans and apes, each faction comes to an understanding that collaboration, no matter how undesirable that may be, is the only route to achieving a lasting peace. Of course, we know that never works, in real life or in this imagined one.
So how do we come to the brink of war with such like-minded adversaries? Well, every society must have its allotment of assholes, and these groups are no different. So goes the saying, ‘All it takes is one bad seed to ruin it for all of us.’ The seeds have been planted, so conflict is inevitable. The only way to coexist in this new world is to build a foundation of trust; a difficult proposition considering one side has spent the bulk of its existence serving as lab rats for the other. Insert racial analogy here as needed.
“Their leader is….remarkable.” – Jason Clarke as Malcolm
That leader of course is Caesar, brought to life once again by the talents of Andy Serkis and a small army of animators at New Zealand’s Weta Digital. Caesar’s motivation is simple. Protect and secure a future for the apes. He understands war against the humans is a reckless course of action; one that will result in many ape casualties and unrest for the foreseeable future. At the moment, the only thing keeping this small pocket of humans alive is Caesar. Thankfully for them, Caesar spent his formative years playing freely in James Franco’s attic, thus he is the sole voice for the goodness that can exist within humans. Caesar has his supporters, but a contingent of apes do not subscribe to these views. They only know hate and torture at the hands of humans, so while their ideas for next steps may be reckless, they are certainly valid. Caesar is forced to walk a fine line in order to keep the peace and satisfy the brewing rage which exists among his brethren.
Most notable among the ape dissenters is Koba (Toby Kebbell), Caesar’s right hand ape. And just to prove that teenagers are difficult even in the ape community, Caesar’s son, Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston) is also eager to betray his father and side with Koba. There’s no real excuse given for Blue Eyes’ rebellious attitude, but it provides some conveniences later in the film that help tie up a few loose ends in the narrative. As for the humans, well, they’re sort of in the same boat. There are some that want to go into the woods guns blazing. The dam needs to be fixed in order to supply power, and humans aren’t willing to forego creature comforts just because a bunch of damn, dirty apes tell them to go away. As one man proclaims, “They’re just animals!”, he’s either ignoring the harsh truth or just doesn’t give a damn. Animals indeed, yet the problem exists that these apes ride horses, carry spears and talk in threatening voices. That, my friends, ups the ante. Paradox achievement unlocked!
The difficult part in watching this play out is the understanding you have for all points of view. Even when actions veer off the course of righteousness into maniacal and unethical, all stem from initial motivations that are completely legitimate. Even as Koba turns progressively evil, there is sympathy to be had in his plight. Not a lot of time is spent fleshing out the human characters. This is a very ape-centric narrative, and at the end you are likely to remember more ape names than human. Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) appears to be in charge, mostly because he gets to talk into the bull horn more than anyone else. Malcolm (Jason Clarke) is the definitive face of the humans, at least as far as the apes are concerned. Both men capably navigate this world, but neither stands out as spectacular. Ellie (Keri Russell) serves little more than a Florence Nightingale role, patching up the men who do man work and appealing to the softer side of the human condition. She’s no damsel in distress, but her presence serves no purpose in elevating female status in Hollywood blockbusters. Malcolm’s son, Alex (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is barely relevant.
The visual effects in ‘Dawn’ are unrivaled by any other film from this summer season. The movements of the apes and the manner in which they interact with humans and their environment are virtually seamless. While Andy Serkis is going to get all the love for his portrayal of Caesar, it would be tragic to ignore the contributions of Kebbell and Thurston, both matching Serkis point for point. No one is setting the visual effects bar higher than Weta right now, so to combine their efforts with top of the line motion capture actors/artists, the result is flawless.
I’m not sure if William Shakespeare ever imagined his works would serve as inspiration for a story about talking apes that take over the world, but I like to think the Bard had some geek cred, so why not. There is plenty of tragedy to be had in ‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’. Alliances are formed, trusts are broken and Caesar’s empire is fractured by an ultimate act of betrayal. Sound familiar? Et tu, Koba.