We live in troubling times. All around us our examples of our inability to adapt while using technology and its tainted perks as a means of further escape. We claim victories over social ills (racism, economic inequality) where no triumphs truly exist and celebrate those who ride such unrealities all the way to a position of power. In these dark and disturbing days, a film like Dawn of the Planet of the Apes speaks louder than any pundit’s proclamations. As with much art, it reflects the era in which it was made. As with all art, it signposts situations we’d otherwise ignore or try to avoid, provides insights, and provokes questions. This film, like all great art, is alive, vital, and transcendent.
Now, before you accuse this piece of proclaiming Dawn the next Citizen Kane, the term “art” is being used in a non-literal sense. We aren’t declaring masterpieces here, but rather aesthetic intent. When director Matt Reeves stepped in to guide this second installment in the creative reboot of the established sci-fi franchise, he faced a myriad of challenges. Tim Burton‘s version of the story, widely regarded as a fiasco, continues to beckon while Rupert Wyatt’s initial volley into the revamp with Rise of the Planet of the Apes was seen as a solid win. So Reeves had to accomplish two main goals: keep the series afloat, and avoid turning these intelligent animals into another Marky Mark monkey crime.
That he succeeded is beside the point (a click over to Rotten Tomatoes and/or Metacritic can see 91% of the working press patting themselves on the back over this one). No, what Reeves managed is far more meaningful. Aside from the technical triumph, which we will address in a moment, this filmmaker managed to find the social commentary essence that seemed to be missing from most of the Apes efforts. Certainly the 1968 original stared the Civil Rights Movement directly in its conflicted face, while Beneath addressed a different kind of race – the nuclear arms race. Escape attempted to return to the theme of intolerance, but by the time both Conquest and Battle arrived, all ancillary context was slowly leeched out of the narrative (even with obvious bows to slavery and rebellion).
Burton’s attempt at revitalizing the property continues to be met with hate, hoots, and hollers, though it really does do an amazing job of updating Planet‘s people in make-up conceit. The script, it has to be said, tries to bring some brains to the otherwise over the top spectacle of a standard Summer popcorn title, but it all gets lost in a desire to emphasize special effects and art design over ideas. Even previous planned remakes (including an LSD inspired reimagining with Oliver Stone behind the lens and Arnold Schwarzenegger in front of it) failed to find the humanity in the inhuman saga. Instead, almost all the creative focus went to making actors look like realistic apes, especially in light of today’s cynical, show-me viewership.
That was a decade ago. Since then, CG has truly come of age, delivering photo-realistic representations of anything, made even more memorable by the use of motion capture rigs to provide extra performance polish. James Cameron and Avatar argued that you could create whole world with this new cinematic science, and he extracted two billion dollars out of the box office as a result. Since then, studios have strived to use as many computer generated elements as possible to, perchance, find a way towards some of those titanic returns. Few have had the imagination to leap beyond the stunt and discover age old movie magic like character and story. Rise of the Planet of the Apes remembered such artistic attributes and introduced them back into their version of Apes.
Dawn does them all one big broad step better. This may be one of the few films made in the current cultural clime where animated attributes trump true physical actors. Long ago, cinematic Chicken Littles loved to warn that, with the rise in technology, movies would no longer need actors. Both Avatar and Dawn highlight their fears rather perfectly. All throughout these films, there are moments where no living, breathing person is on display. Behind the scenes? Certainly. On camera? No. Instead, carefully rendered figures (aliens in one, apes in the other) dominate the action. They forward the narrative. More importantly, they provide the emotional heft. Imagine these films made with expert make-up effects and the stunt is readily apparent. Thanks to computers, the creation of seamless integration is no longer a possibility, it’s the main purpose.
This is why Dawn is so important to the industry, but for filmgoers, it has an equally necessary motive. Like the original, the message now can be measured out in true blockbuster fashion. While serious science fiction always gets undermined by the more Star Wars like “dogfights in space” brand, Dawn argues that ideas can be part of the process as well. Even better, they can form the foundation for a more meaningful metaphor. When Gary Oldman’s character spits his anti-ape bile, it’s not because he’s some rogue villain. Instead, he’s just an ill-informed hate monger who blames the simians for the disease which stole his family and his way of life away from him. Even when confronted with the facts, this faux leader continues down a tragic path. By being blind, he doesn’t see the endgame.
Similarly, our ape leader Caesar has his own issues, mostly with an angry member of his clan. Koba was tortured as part of medical experiments, and when man comes exploring in the woods, looking for a way to restart their civilization, he becomes obsessed. Even when Caesar states in a calm and rational manner that all he wants to do is let the “humans work,” Koba responds with a devastating objection. Pointing to his damaged eye, his scarred face, the lacerations covering his body, he repeats his leader’s carefully chosen words. “Human’s work,” he growls, showing the injuries. “Human’s work.” Thanks to a well-placed single apostrophe, an entire theme is laid out and legitimized.
Indeed, what Dawn does is set the groundwork for an exploration of today’s telling disputes. From immigration to racism, animal testing to ethical treatment of same, we will soon seen a massive confront where beast comes back to its master making sure said overseer understands the damage that has been done. There will be blood. There will be death. And there will be a new order, one forged either out of an uneasy alliance between man and animal, or one where the latter becomes controller of the planet’s destiny. Rumors have it that the next installment — and all future installments — will function in a manner so that, when Charlton Heston’s astronaut George Taylor lands on that so-called “alien” world in the 3000s, he will indeed be able to scream his telling twist:
“Oh my God. I’m back. I’m home. All the time, it was… We finally really did it. You maniacs! You blew it up! Ah damn you! God damn you all to Hell!”
Considering what’s come already, wherever this Rise and Dawn takes us will be quite special indeed.