What if I told you that the current top of the box office was a film that addressed complex geopolitical themes, incredible views on the foundations of civilization, a complex look at the nature of war, mind-blowing effects, and complex characters who have to earn their sympathy?
You would probably think I was describing some film that had been released in time for Oscar season. But I’m describing Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, one of the best films I’ve seen so far this year. I expected it to be good; Rise of the Planet of the Apes was a good film that featured amazing special effects. But this takes the source material to a level I didn’t know existed.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes takes place about ten years after the original. If you’ll recall, the finale of the original film focused on a retro virus that made apes intelligent and killed human beings. In that ten years, humanity has been virtually wiped out (the exposition at the start of the film states that the virus had a survival rate of 500:1). So, for most of the first act, we focus on the apes and how they are thriving as a society.
Caesar (Andy Serkis, the king of mo-cap who deserves at least an honorary Oscar) is the leader of a tribe somewhere on the west coast of the United States. We see how the apes hunt, how they live, and how they form relationships with each other. We see Caesar’s children, and how they disagree with aspects of his rule.
These scenes are amazing. There is almost no dialogue in the first act of the movie (the apes talk like the Frankenstein monster), but we get a sense of all the issues at stake. The fact that these nonhuman characters are the most sympathetic in the film says something about director Matt Reeves and Serkis. We get a sense of what’s at stake for the Apes and why there would be a conflict between them later. But there’s very little dialogue. The apes, particularly Caesar, are able to talk but mostly rely on sign language and grunting. How is it possible to communicate their language in this manner and make people really get it?
It’s a difficult task, but Reeves succeeds. The apes are the best characters in the film even though they can barely speak. This continues after human characters are introduced The primary conflict in the film is between Caesar and Koba (Toby Kebbell). Caesar is willing to work with them, while Koba despises them for the medical testing he endured. It is not simply a question of good versus evil – the film never says who is truly correct and the humans and apes are equally capable of evil. But mostly, they just want to reactivate a hydroelectric dam in ape territory and start rebuilding their own civilization. There are great scenes between Caesar and his new human friend Malcolm (Jason Clarke). They don’t trust each other, and there are good reasons why, but they do realize they will need to at least cooperate.
It’s a very complex relationship that has a lot to say about current geopolitical battles. Both sides may have a point and the decisions the characters make will be hated. But even those who want to respond violently are at least able to explain why.
The third act of the film does devolve into a simpler action film. But even then, the themes of the work have been set up so well that it makes sense. It’s simple, but it’s something that could happen given what we’ve been told. Koba’s hatred for humans is reinforced by the massive arsenal of weapons they’re building and his actions take on a desperation. Koba isn’t exactly evil – he’s become blinded by his own beliefs. There is something Animal Farm-esque about Koba and how he arrives at his conclusions.
The last act also features some of the best moments from Cesar as he contemplates on why he is more willing to trust apes than the humans who had not made a deliberate invasion against their society. And that final fight actually means something – it is not just a reason to showcase CGI. It is a battle of ideologies. There is an “evil” side, but it one that makes sense in the context of the world and isn’t simply dismissed or defeated. The conclusion is very satisfying and is the preamble to how these two societies will get along – or if they’ll be able to. The third film in this revived franchise, if it’s done correctly, is going to take these questions to new heights.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes knows exactly what it needs to do to be successful. It addresses its themes with a level of confidence and skill that I thought would be impossible for this time of year. It’s an amazing movie and the revived Apes has the potential to be the greatest blockbuster franchise in a long time.
I can’t wait for the third one. Hopefully they’ll bring back the pantsuits.