Thursday, July 10, 2014
Things were looking up for Caesar (Andy Serkis) when last we left him at the close of Rise of the Planet of the Apes. He had just shepherded his followers through a fierce battle on the Golden Gate that, though not without its fair share of deaths, didn't claim as many casualties as the revolt did in Rise's 1972 iteration, Conquest. If you stayed for Rise's closing credits, you'd have seen that the story's worst news was saved for a quick stinger depicting the spread of a genetically engineered virus that would soon wipe out most of humanity. In Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, director Matt Reeves (notable for somehow improving the noteworthy Swedish vampire film Let the Right One In with its American remake, Let Me In) picks up from there, quickly explaining the state of civilization in a world purged by plague. Humans have all but disappeared. And the super-intelligent apes led by the regal Caesar (Andy Serkis) are thriving peacefully in a forest outside of San Francisco.
If Rise was strongest in its evocation of the way human scientists form bonds with their simian subjects, it certainly was at its weakest in conjuring some of the allegorical propositions that Conquest did. Frightening as it was, the animalistic rage the apes vented against the cops astride their horses was mitigated by Rise's constant, nearly insecure quoting of previous films in the once popular Apes franchise. Caesar's overthrow of the government in Conquest possessed a terrifying quality of immediacy, mostly because director J. Lee Thompson blocked and shot the ape revolt in such a way as to recall the sixties' fiery, and still fresh, race riots (like the '65 Watts Riot, problematic as the equating of blacks with even heroic apes might ultimately be).
The problem was that the Apes franchise failed to capitalize on the groundwork laid by Conquest, following it up with Battle, a sequel that presented an ape utopia in which humans peacefully submitted to their simian rulers while gearing up to fight a third faction. Perhaps, because Fox was tempted by the then burgeoning market of merchandise licensing first spearheaded by the lucrative Apes line of action figures and playsets Battle felt neutered, as if to appeal to younger viewers. There was little chance this particular demo would show up to theaters after the pronounced violence of Conquest, so why turn against the kind of viewer they had already won over. What Reeves did with Let Me In, he does again here, taking some of the most profound, and adult, concepts introduced in Battle and extrapolating from there. If Rise was a sub-par remake of the harrowing Conquest, then Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a magnificent improvement on the half-baked Battle.
The crux of both Dawn and Battle lies in Caesar's distrust of humans and his promotion of the idea that "Ape shall not kill ape." It blinds Caesar to the fact that one of his closest followers, the gnarly-visaged Koba (Toby Kebbell), is seething at the knowledge that humans are slowly encroaching back into ape territory. Caesar's son Blue-Eyes is the innocent whose recent near-death experience offers Koba an opportunity to manipulate him. Driving a wedge between son and father and, indeed, Caesar and their entire society, Koba exploits the ape society's terror to position himself as a new warmongering chieftain who'll stop at nothing to gain power. Despite the best efforts of Caesar and his human opposite number, the gentle, tolerant Malcolm (Jason Clarke), both are helpless to stop an impending confrontation in the face of cohorts like Koba and the hawkish human leader Dreyfus (Gary Oldman).
Reeves brings a sense of complexity to the various characters' motivations in Dawn that has thus far eluded the franchise since its first film (Conquest being the possible exception). Dreyfus is justified in fearing an attack from the apes on his already devastated followers. One more may decimate the shreds of civilization entirely. Koba has no reason to trust humans either, since many of his scars came at the hands of scientists conducting painful experiments. Poor, young Blue Eyes isn't wise enough to discern right from wrong yet. And Caesar and Malcolm are among the few that realize that both human and simian are more alike than different. We can infer from the downbeat conclusion that Reeves believes the cycle of violence promulgated by combat is a verity. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes declares that the horrific price of war spares no species, race, or group, an eternal truth applicable to any and all of our real-world conflicts.