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“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes Chernin Entertainment

Chernin Entertainment

David Ives - published on 07/11/14

What if apes suddenly found themselves endowed with the same level of intelligence as human beings?

Perhaps you’ve heard of Koko. She’s the 43 year old kitten-loving gorilla whose trainers insist has learned to understand and communicate with humans through the use of American Sign Language. Of course, there are skeptics in the scientific community who question just how much Koko actually understands the gestures she is making, believing her actions to be a result of conditioning rather than comprehension.

Regardless of which side is correct, though, if Koko wants some attention, she signs for it rather than flinging her poop. That’s a step forward in interspecies communication any way you look at it.

One of the more interesting conversations folks have had with Koko was documented in George Page’s book, Inside the Animal Mind: A Groundbreaking Exploration of Animal Intelligence. When asked why gorillas die, Koko signed, “Trouble. Old.” And when asked where gorillas go when they die, she responded, “Comfortable hole. Bye.” Make of that response what you will.

The important thing to note, however, is that the question was asked to the ape, not by the ape. Never, to my knowledge, has there been a documented case of any animal querying a human, “Why am I here, what happens after I die, what does it all mean?” These are simply not questions that occupy an animal’s mind. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not disparaging Koko’s ability to ask someone for a banana if she wants one, but it’s good to keep things in perspective.

But what if apes could have that kind of introspection? What if they suddenly found themselves endowed with the same level of intelligence and self-awareness as human beings? What kind of creatures would they become? Well, that’s some of the questions asked by the makers of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the sequel to 2011’s surprisingly good reboot of the nearly 50 year old film franchise, Rise of the Planet of the Apes. And not only do they take the time to ask the questions, they actually try to answer them in a sobering and intelligent manner.

The new film begins approximately ten years after the events portrayed in Rise. Since that time, the incurable plague now referred to as the “Simian Flu” has devastated the planet, leaving the remnants of the human population to scrounge for survival in powerless, deteriorating cities. The genetically-altered apes, on the other hand, are thriving. Having established a city of their own in the forests outside San Francisco, they now number in the thousands and live a relatively peaceful existence under the guidance of the wise and compassionate chimpanzee, Caesar.

However, not all is bliss. It doesn’t take long to realize that along with their human-like intelligence, the apes now have to deal with human-like problems as well. Along with the difficulties of establishing a new ape law (starting with, you guessed it, “ape not kill ape”), Caesar has to contend with a rebellious and resentful teenage son. Blue Eyes (ask your parents if you don’t get the joke), it seems, prefers the more beastial outlook of the human-hating Koba than he does his father’s more thoughtful and reserved approach to governing.

These tribal tensions are brought to the forefront when a small band of humans, led by the peaceful Malcolm, encroach on the apes’ territory hoping to repair a nearby hydroelectric dam and restore power to parts of San Francisco. Unfortunately, after one of the humans panics and shoots a young chimpanzee, Caesar orders the men to return to their city and never return. Fearing the humans’ desperation will drive them to come back anyway, and encouraged by Koba that a show of force is necessary, Caesar marches his army into San Francisco to show the humans what they will face if they disobey his directives.

As you can imagine, nothing quite instills fear into a bunch of humans like an army of horse-riding monkeys armed with spears who show up at their gates and start speaking in English. Filled with dread at what he’s just seen, and convinced the community they’ve been rebuilding will collapse if power is not restored, the human leader, Dreyfus, prepares his men to take up arms against the apes. Before a war can start, however, Malcolm convinces his friend to give him three days to make peace with Caesar and get the dam working.

At first, things seem to go well as Caesar and Malcolm manage to strike an uneasy truce and work begins on the dam. But Koba, still full of hate and covered in scars from his days as an abused lab animal, doesn’t trust men. Along with a few loyal apes, he sneaks back into the city and discovers Dreyfus preparing his men for battle just in case negotiations go wrong. Interpreting what he sees as a sign that the humans mean to betray the apes, Koba rushes back to either convince Caesar to strike first or to find a way to convince all the other apes to attack should Caesar refuse.

If you’ve ever watched a single Apes film over the years since they first started showing up in theaters in 1968, then you can probably guess things don’t go well from that point on. From the moment Charleton Heston first came upon the exploded fragments of the Statue of Liberty, it’s was clear the series was pessimistic about mankind’s ability to survive its own shortcomings and remain as the dominant species on the planet. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is no exception.

Don’t worry, though. While the film does indeed start with contrasting visions of an idyllic ape city full of familial love and in harmony with its surroundings versus that of a dilapidated human city crippled by fear and the desire for more than the planet offers, it doesn’t make the mistake of lapsing into another tedious “humans are bad, nature is good” storyline (I’m looking at you Maleficent). No, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is far too intelligent for that.

You see, much to Caesar’s dismay, he learns that his apes have gained a lot more from the experimental drug they were given than just increased mental capacity. Along with the intelligence and self-awareness, they have developed something previously unknown to them: free will. And like the humans before them who also once lived in an idyllic garden setting, the apes learn free will brings with it the capacity to sin. And just as in Eden, it isn’t long before the ability to sin leads some into disobedience, then into murder.

Caesar is understandably devastated by the realization of all this. In the first film he was the apes’ Adam, but now he is their Moses. He has brought his people to their promised land, but can now do little but watch as they choose to follow the same self-destructive path as the humans before them. By taking this route with the story, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes becomes less about humans versus nature and more about intelligent beings versus their own fallen natures, and it’s a much richer moviegoing experience for it.

Of course, none of it would work if the apes weren’t believable characters, but that’s no problem at all. Rare is the moment you remember Caesar, Koba, Blue Eyes, and the other apes on the screen aren’t real living creatures. What the motion-capture actors and digital artists have pulled off with the visuals in this movie is nothing short of astounding. Seriously, when you’ve got actors the caliber of Gary Oldman chewing up the screen and yet the most emotionally compelling characters are still the digital apes, you may as well save some time and hand the Academy Award for special effects over to WETA now.

Am I overselling Dawn of the Planet of the Apes? Maybe, but I can’t help it. In a summer movie season that was starting to look like something of a dud, it’s a genuine relief to have Hollywood finally deliver a large scale blockbuster that works both as escapist entertainment and as a thought provoking piece of art.

Yes, I’ve enjoyed other movies this summer, some of them a lot, but I’ve had to make excuses for them. Not this one.

David Ives reviews new releases for Aleteia and spends his time exploring the intersection of low-budget/cult cinema and Catholicism at The B-Movie Catechism.

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