Click on the player below to listen to Slate's Dana Stevens and David Weigel discuss Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Note: This podcast is meant to be heard after you've seen the film.
Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) was one of my favorite summer blockbusters in recent memory, largely because it featured what felt like a groundbreaking motion-capture performance from Andy Serkis as Caesar, a genetically engineered, hyperintelligent ape. After he’s abandoned to a life in captivity by the geneticist (James Franco) who raised him like a human son, Caesar eventually spearheads a primate rebellion. Whatever alchemy of high-end animation technology and actorly skill it was that brought this philosopher-ape to life, Caesar made for a gripping and unusually complex antihero: a Frankenstein monster betrayed by his creator who only reluctantly, after mourning his ejection from the human world, steps up to his role as the simian Moses.
In the thrilling ape uprising at the end of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, an impromptu militia of chimps, gorillas, and orangutans shut down the Golden Gate Bridge. (The fact that human audiences—members, after all, of the species being routed on-screen—couldn’t help cheering for the apes to prevail says something about how seriously Rise treated questions about the distinction between humans and animals, the ethics of laboratory testing, or the inhumanity of zoos.) If that ending conveyed the heady rush of liberatory zeal we associate with the French Revolution, the current installment, Matt Reeves’ Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, documents the French Revolution’s chilling second phase: the Reign of Terror, when the fiercest zealots of the revolution became among the most rigid enforcers of its new and increasingly bloody rule of law. Like that second revolutionary phase, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is something of a comedown, being considerably grimmer, more violent, and less idealistic than its predecessor. But thanks to Serkis (and a supporting cast of ape characters animated as much by the performers who play them as by the WETA workshop’s digital magic), Dawn still manages to be one of the most intelligent and entertaining big-studio releases of the summer so far.
In the 10 years since Caesar’s revolt—which left him and his comrades starting a new ape society from scratch in the redwood forest of Muir Woods—a deadly simian virus has swept the planet, eliminating much of the human population and leading to wars and riots that have destroyed the earth’s electric grid. A band of surviving humans, attempting to make repairs to a hydroelectric dam to restore power, makes accidental contact with the ape culture, which has developed writing and somehow tamed the horse, even though humanlike articulate speech is just beginning to supplement the apes’ beautifully evoked gestural communication system, translated in subtitles.
The few glimpses we get of the apes’ nascent civilization—a hillside of thatched cottages, female foreheads adorned with crude beads, a sort of schoolroom where young apes learn the first commandment of their species (“Ape Not Kill Ape”)—made me long for an Apes sequel with more Jane Goodall–like opportunities to observe primate culture in its pre-contact state. Instead, the film (scripted by Mark Bomback, Amanda Silver, and Rick Jaffa) seems in a rush to establish that apes have established a complex and peaceable culture in order to get on with the scenes—and there are many—in which that way of life is spectacularly and violently destroyed. If the 2011 Apes was an origin story and a loss-of-innocence parable, Dawn is a straight-up war film, with a story that alternates an escalating series of ape/human battles with scenes of intra-species conflict and betrayal in both worlds.
Have you noticed I haven’t yet mentioned any of the human characters by name? That’s because they’re so generic and undifferentiated they’re hard to keep straight. Malcolm (Jason Clarke) is a former architect who lost his wife to the simian virus; after the ape society is contacted, he leads the first diplomatic mission into ape territory, bonding enough with Caesar to broker a fragile truce. He has a girlfriend (Keri Russell), who is a nurse, and a teenage son (Kodi Smit-McPhee), both of whom serve mainly as ape-bait in suspense scenes (though Russell’s medical skills do come in handy when the conflict worsens). Back at the humans’ heavily fortified HQ in San Francisco, there’s also Gary Oldman as a megaphone-wielding organizer of the city’s surviving population. At first he appears sane enough, but by the time he starts advocating all-out human-on-ape warfare with the species-ist justification (always issued at top volume) that “THEY’RE ANIMALS!,” you understand Oldman’s character is there to represent humanity at its most narrow-minded and bellicose.
The ape world has its own intolerant rabble-rouser in Koba (Toby Kebbell), an old colleague of Caesar’s from his lab-rebellion days, who becomes the despotic leader of a violent splinter movement within ape society that comes to include, among others, Caesar’s ambivalent son Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston). The ideological divide between Caesar and Koba finds echoes in struggles taking place around the world right now, in the Middle East and elsewhere. And Caesar’s despair as he sees the community he’s founded betraying its own ideals can’t help but evoke (at times heavy-handedly) Shakespeare, Greek tragedy, even Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ furry-brow-furrowing over quandaries of political and social injustice doesn’t extend to gender issues: Females in this story, whether human or ape, exist mainly to nurture, give birth, and look pretty in peril. It feels like a real step back to see Keri Russell—who, as the undercover Russian superspy of The Americans, seems tough enough to pose a one-woman threat to Western democracy—reduced to dispensing encouraging hugs and makeshift bandages. And in all the sad annals of Judy Greer wastage, has this gifted actress ever been more squandered than she is as Cornelia, Caesar’s silent, flower-adorned, adorable newborn-toting mate? (At least in those Sprint “framily” ads she gets to speak, if only to a less-than-Weta-worthy talking hamster.) But the new ape society—and the rebooted Apes franchise—have just begun their inexorable rise. To judge by the final close-up on Caesar’s steely eyes, the coming chapter seems likely to be even more warlike. Here’s hoping the next ape uprising will be matriarchal in nature.