Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

In this sequel to the 2011 prequel Rise of the Planet of the Apes, we discover that Cornelius, who will eventually end up being played by Roddy McDowell, had a pretty rough childhood before following Caesar’s lead to have sympathy for humans.

It appears that humans can’t abide living in squalor and are desperate to keep the lights on after nearly being wiped out by the ALZ-113 virus, commonly referred to as simian flu. Venturing into the Muir Woods just north of Golden Gate Bridge, human survivors find the genetically evolving apes have exponentially multiplied! Led by Caesar, who if memory serves is honored with a statue in 1973’s Battle for the Planet of the Apes, the apes simply want to be left alone.

That prehensile thumb hasn’t limited apes from flourishing, building communities and hunting deer, so that what they may lack in skill is adequately compensated for by determination. Plus apes don’t have an environmental regulatory board breathing down their neck or activists telling them what is and isn’t moral to consume. Bolder, darker and more ape-oriented, Dawn is focused on a fragile peace where mistrust is fueled by reactionary humans and renegade apes, each hoping for an advantage against the other.

In that sense, this movie is structured similar to a ‘50s western where the fort needs water and a search party is sent to convince the Indians to grant them safe passage.

Caesar doesn’t trust humans any more than his lieutenant Koba does, but he’s willing to hear them out, which is perceived as weakness. In the 1950s, resistance to seeing Indians portrayed as sympathetic led filmmakers to introduce the plausible scenario that like townsfolk, Indians could have both good and bad elements.

In Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, we get the first inkling as to how apes became the dominant species discovered by those returning astronauts in the original film: apes realized guns gave them a better advantage. Koba knows apes to be stronger than humans but guns counterbalance that strength, so he sets his sights on the humans’ arsenal.

Both the police state and tyranny hinge on the availability of guns. Sticks and pitchforks can’t stand up to automatic weapons. When the Soviets rolled into Hungary with tanks, guns would’ve at least given some resistance, more so than pitchforks.

Dawn, like the western Broken Arrow, examines that for their basic differences, both apes and humans stand to equally lose in any confrontation. It recognizes the autonomy and authority of a culture that isn’t ours but has an idea of how ours works. The moral blot here isn’t conflict but the failure to see the other side as civilized.

And in some ways the apes are more civilized than the humans who congregate in mass gatherings behind fortified rubble. Apes just want privacy, which is the cornerstone of civilized behavior. Apes believe in the closely-knit family unit. Humans, separated by disease and social collapse, have redefined the family unit.

Many will see this movie as nothing more than one huge battle royale, a slam-bang blockbuster, which may be premature and a better description of what’s to come. Dawn plays like the middle of a three-act play and may well be!

In the key scene, Cornelia, Caesar’s spouse, is struck ill, and once discovered, Ellie (Keri Russell) offers to share her antibiotics which were possibly developed via animal testing. Caesar permits it, suggesting he remembers medicine as one of the beneficial advantages of civilization.

Throughout Dawn of the Planet of the Apes the dichotomy persists that good apes and good humans can forestall the rising bad blood, creating a reversal of sympathies within the viewer: one minute you pull for the apes, next those “damn dirty apes,” to quote Heston, can’t be trusted.

The abyss that threatens to swallow ape and human alike looms on the horizon, and once implemented, gorillas will seize the opportunity to trade-up as the controlled become the controllers.

This is the thread that stitches the previous film to the 1968 original: social control determines the future.