It says something about the overall quality of blockbuster cinema these days that so many people are surprised by the cinematic quality and thematic complexity of these newer Planet of the Apes films. It shouldn’t be surprising though. The original Planet of the Apes was as high concept and challenging a science fiction film as was produced in the 1960s. Planet of the Apes was released a month prior to 2001: A Space Odyssey, and where 2001 gets expansive, Apes gets pointed, damning, in the end, a specific problem in the real world. (If you haven’t seen it and don’t know what I’m talking about, consider yourself lucky and go watch the original right now without telling anyone what you’re doing lest they spoil it for you.) We ought to expect these Apes films to be rich cinematic experiences, but in a time too full of reboots and remakes, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes seems like just way to tap into the pockets of a tapped out fan base.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is great though for all of the reasons Gary Ingle mentions here in the review we originally posted on our site of the film. I would add that the tensest and most thrilling scenes in the movie, for me, are the ones where the apes are in counsel together trying to decide what to do about their human problem. In these scenes, Serkis reminds me most of Marlon Brando’s Vito Coroleone considering whether or not to get into the heroin business, zealous Koba/Sonny on one side campaigning for action, cautious Maurice/Tom on the other urging restraint. Meanwhile, Ceasar/Vito sits silent and listens, speaking only when he’s made up his mind, and always with an eye toward the future repercussions of their actions.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a film of surprising scope, and while the action sequences are grandly staged, the key source of that sense of scope is the relationships between the characters. There is a Shakespearean complexity (a reference I owe to Adam Kempenar and Josh Larsen’s Letterboxd blurbs as I missed the connection myself) to the relationships in this film on both sides of the conflict between the humans and the apes. Everyone wants peace, they just all disagree on the best way to achieve it. Some, like Koba and Dryfus want to wipe out the potential problem. Others, like Caesar and Malcolm, want to forge an alliance, even if it is an uneasy one. As Gary pointed out, who to trust and how to trust are the questions at the heart of their deliberations. In an age of fear, like the one we live in, those questions couldn’t be more timely.
Another thematic thread that runs through the film concerns strength and what it looks like. As Caesar says, “Ape only follow strong,” but what kinds of strength does the film feature and ultimately promote?
Before we consider that question, we have to remember that these Planet of the Apes prequels are tragedies, at least if you have a soft spot in your heart for humans. Watch the original film. All this doesn’t end well for people, and ape society isn’t exactly just. They hold humans as slaves, after all. So we ought to know going in that this series can’t have resolution that is holistically healthy.
Half of the key characters in this film believe that strength lies in physical or technological superiority. Humans have an arsenal. Some of the apes want to get ahold of guns. Also, Caesar maintains his authority in ape society by physically besting any challengers until they submit to his dominance. He doesn’t do this with all the apes in his clan though, but only the ones that adhere to that sort of power structure. I got the feeling he would rather maintain authority in a different way if only the violent apes would respect it. Then again, perhaps they need to see it modeled by a truly committed, non-violent leader to realize that another kind of strength—one based in servanthood—is a viable option.
The necessary plot arc of this series can’t include a leader like that and can’t accommodate that kind of societal change. We don’t live in the world of the film though, thank goodness, and the sadness that hangs over this film as it ends ought to prompt us to reconsider the ways we respond to people like Koba, the kinds of people who believe strength is located with whomever has the best weapon. Obviously, it doesn’t work to play by their rules. We have to change the nature of the game like Jesus, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and countless other nameless protestors have done throughout history.
A significant SPOILER follows.
The newly formed ape society is based on a few rules, the first of which is, “Ape not kill ape.” Caesar’s justification late in the film for killing another ape then is that the ape he kills isn’t a real ape, because that ape has killed other apes. The illogic there is pretty apparent, I think, because what then does that make Caesar? I guess because he declares that the ape he kills isn’t really an ape, then he, Caesar, hasn’t actually killed an ape, right? Using the apes as a metaphor for the human race—a metaphor right on the surface of this series in more ways than I could list but particularly in this film’s opening and closing shots of close-ups on Caesar’s eyes in which we can’t tell if we’re looking at an ape or a human—that means committing murder disqualifies you from humanity and allows actual humans to do with you what they please.
Where does our humanity lie? In how we treat one another? Or is it deeper than that? Is our humanity bestowed upon us by an extra-human authority? By God? Is it granted to us by other humans? Humans can certainly treat other humans as less than human, but does that make the mistreated inhuman, or does it make the ones doing the mistreating inhuman? The only one who has ever become human who wasn’t human already is Christ, so we ought to look to him to see what it means to become human and to eventually become something beyond human, to enter into the resurrected life.
Even a sin as bad as murder doesn’t disqualify someone from humanity. If we fail to treat even the most heinous sinners as human, it is our humanity that’s affected, not theirs. And becoming human isn’t our ultimate goal anyway (though I can see how it might be the Goal of Goals for an ape). We’re encouraged to be like Christ, and Christ is more than merely human. He is our exemplar, and he didn’t kill anyone. “But he will! When he returns!” some of you more literal minded Revelation readers might be saying. I’d say you’re free to join in that activity after you’re resurrected like him if indeed that part of the Bible is intended to be taken literally. Until the resurrection, we should be the kind of humans Christ was, and he was silent before his accusers, he turned the other cheek, he forgave his murderers, and he told his followers to put down their swords. That’s the kind of strength the apes need, the kind of strength we need, and the kind of strength that will eventually redeem the world.