Following Tim Burton’s widely disliked 2001 remake of the original Planet of the Apes (1968), no one really expected much from Rupert Wyatt’s 2011 addition to the franchise, titled Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Yet, to almost consensual delight, Wyatt’s film not only formulated a clever pre-story to the ape-reigned Earth of the future, but also re-imagined and deepened the story’s philosophy and wowed us by the human-raised ape “Caesar”, stunningly brought to life by Andy Serkis, through the magic of motion-capture acting. The film acutely wrestled with the environmental and ecological impact of man’s arrogance and assumed power over other species, profoundly tapped into animal rights issues and ended on a terrifying note, right at the start of a “we got what we deserve” flu epidemic (simian flu, as we later find it to be called) that was bound to wipe out the human race.
Fast-forward to 2014, and we have Matt Reeves’ (Cloverfield, Let Me In) Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which is a tad trivial, politically. After a monotonously predictable start with a crisis-mode newsreel montage from around the world following the increasingly threatening epidemic, we jump to the demolished San Francisco of 10 years later where apes peacefully live in the woods under Caesar’s leadership, by basic laws such as “Ape no kill Ape.” Turns out the human race isn’t completely wiped out either, with a small clan living in a makeshift community in dire need of electricity, which can only be obtained by having access to a dam that apes control. After initial conflicts (one of the humans non-fatally shooting an ape out of fear), Caesar lets in a small group of them, led by our main human character Malcolm (Jason Clarke), his romantic interest Ellie (Keri Russell, doing the best she can in her stock character’s thinly drawn skin), his son Alexander (Kodi-Smit-McPhee) and the dam expert Carver (Kirk Acevedo) who quickly declares himself to be the “asshole” of the group. The condition to access the dam is simple: no guns. But of course, you know where the story leads from here. Carver ends up hiding a gun, breaking the ape-human trust. The tension between species only deteriorates when Caesar’s tolerance towards humans is challenged by the rightfully human-hating ape Koba (Toby Kebbell). On the human end (with electrical power restored in their quarters), things are similarly bleak between Malcolm, whose priority is his word to Caesar, and the community’s chosen leader Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), who puts survival of human race above all.
A technically superior film to Rise of the Planet of the Apes it may be (with apes in as prominent roles as humans here, multiplying the artistic and technological merit of Rise by a hundred, albeit with particularly unnecessary 3D), yet Dawn of the Planet of the Apes lives on thematic grounds that are somehow obliquely detached from the philosophy its predecessor founded. On the metaphorically political route the film aims to take, apes are not just a once-oppressed species that form a society in the post-apocalyptic world, but they also represent a people sheltering the good and bad within, just like the humans. In other words, the story is set in a world where both sides are equal and could be right or wrong for their own reasons. And if you took a hint from Rise of the Planet of the Apes and expected to watch our species be further “damned to hell” for our arrogance and sense of entitlement, this installment is likely to let you down at first. That is, until you engage with its newfound and eerily timely ambitions around gun control (the film is loudly anti-gun and anti-violence), and neighborly political conflicts that lead to war, which also reflects upon contemporary culture and the entirety of human history. That stinking thought won’t leave you alone, though; knowing deep down the integrity of apes is compromised here for self-serving political messages and that we, as humans, deserve to be inferior –not equal- to their kind. But luckily, the film does what it does so damn well and you won’t necessarily have a moment to shake off the tension to really care.
Regardless of who you side with (the audience at my screening was clearly divided, with equal enthusiasm for both sides), you won’t be able to overlook the tremendous weight the film places on the topic “gun control”. While I’m completely on board with its clear and worthy stand against weapons, this is also where the film goes slightly off the rails only because of its choice as to who starts off the war. True, it’s a human who pulls the trigger first out of fear and uncertainty, yet while tensions rise and hatred born out of fear brews within both communities, it is in the hands of an ape that the conflict becomes a full-scale battle. One can argue it is also an ape who temporarily saves the day (pay very close attention to Caesar’s son Blue Eyes, wonderfully played by Nick Thurston) and many will insist it’s all a metaphor that makes the question “whose fault is it?” irrelevant, yet when you place this film in the context of what came before it, this decision becomes troubling at once.
Still, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a summer blockbuster that defies what blockbusters are known for nowadays: it aims to wow its audience (who probably don’t expect much intelligence from run-of-the-mill summer flicks anyway) not by empty spectacle but by muscling its way into current, challenging topics and using action in favor of the story without overwhelming its truthfulness. Maybe the sequel did lose the original’s footing and urgent feel a little, but truth be told, man and ape have never been this close to or alike one another, and that’s no small achievement.