The critics and the people have spoken, and "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" is a bona fide summer success.
The sequel to the 2011 James Franco reboot "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" is a stunning achievement for motion capture acting and definitely an action-heavy blockbuster, but much of the buzz surrounding the film has largely centered around how refreshingly profound and thoughtful it is -- particularly on the issue of violence. Gun violence, to be exact. (Spoilers ahead.)
"You’ll hear instances where actors have said, 'I won't appear in a movie poster with guns,' or directors will say, 'I will never put a gun in my movie,' but there certainly aren’t many examples where [blockbusters] tackle this head on," Dan Gross, President of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, told MTV News over the phone. "In this case, it very compellingly shows that before the gun was introduced, a fight was a fight. And now, when a gun is introduced, it has a much greater chance at turning lethal."
Pretty crazy for a franchise that launched starring former N.R.A. spokesman Charlton Heston, no?
Backing up a bit, the film takes place ten years after the Simian Flu from "Rise" wiped out most of humanity. Both the surviving humans and the newly intelligent apes have managed to build small, peaceful communities with their own established rules, with "no killing" being a pretty essential rule for all of them. Eventually the communities intersect, with key members from the human and the ape populations conquering their fears to lean on the other for survival.
The wary but reasonable ruler of the apes, Caesar, establishes a truce with a small group of humans, and allows them to use some ape resources if they don't break his golden rule: no guns. Eventually this rule is broken, but not by a human -- and within minutes of Koba gravely injuring Caesar by surreptitiously shooting him in the chest, all hell breaks lose.
Both the human and the ape communities are quickly destroyed, and while the image of Koba handling two semi-automatic weapons as he guns down unarmed humans will probably be one of the iconic ones from the film, it isn't because he's painted as some sort of action hero badass.
Instead, the fallout from the shot heard round the Bay Area -- which becomes the biggest battle scene in the movie -- is pointedly chaotic, terrifying, and most importantly, overwhelmingly sad. Neither the humans nor the apes are really "bad guys," they're just two very separate cultures who succumbed to their own fears and started a war, a war which we know will end with the further destruction of humanity as we know it. Pretty heavy stuff.
Now, the message here seems to be pretty loud and clear -- so clear, in fact, that Variety said you'd have to be "pretty obtuse" to miss it. But "Dawn" screenwriter Mark Bomback has already tried to dispute the notion that the film is an allegory for the dangers of gun violence, telling The Daily News that Trojan-horseing a gun control message into the film would be a "narrow approach."
“First, the issue of gun control involves lots of complicated reasons why that is or isn't a good idea," Bomback said. "This film takes place in a post-apocalypse in which there's a different meaning behind guns... When an ape uses one in 'Dawn,' it's the moment we see how ape society will ultimately evolve (in the 'Planet of the Apes' world) into a militaristic version of human society. The gun symbolizes human technology dedicated to violence. In that sense here, guns are like the serpent in Eden."
However, Gross feels that the "Dawn" approach to violence is much healthier when it comes to actually tackling the murky, hot button issue that is gun control.
"I don’t think condemning [all guns] is a healthy place to go with the conversation," Gross said. "I think realistic is a much more healthy place. They’re not saying all guns are bad, they're saying that guns make situations more dangerous."
Ladd Everitt, the Director of Communications for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, agrees that "Dawn" isn't condemning guns as whole -- it's just trying to give moviegoers a clearer picture. He also feels that this realistic approach gives "Dawn" the potential to be a valuable conversation-starter, especially given the wider appeal of a major Hollywood action film over, say, a documentary like "Bowling For Columbine."
"In many cases, [movies] are cultural touchstones that we can talk about decades later," Everitt said. "I think ["Dawn"] is important, I really do, particularly for a film where there will be a wider viewing. You'll have young people seeing it and reacting to it -- it doesn't always even have to be a conscious reaction; there could be some subconscious text there going on, too. I think we should be moving past a point now where we're sending constant subliminal images to young people that guns are cool and give you power over others."
One particularly powerful scene that is eerily reminiscent of real life gun culture occurs early on in the film, when a human fires a gun at a teenage ape. The ape poses little to no threat to this character, but the man's fear is very real -- so instead of asking questions, he lets his paranoia take over and stands his ground. According to Everitt, this "shoot first, ask later" mentality, and the laws that okay it, is exactly the kind of thing that movies should be questioning.
"There's a lot of kids in other democracies watching the same movies, and they don't have the same levels of gun violence," he said, adding that studies have revealed that holding a gun can heighten levels of paranoia and aggression. "That begins to play into the message being used in this film, which is, when you introduce firearms into a situation, you're more likely to have lethal outcomes."
Another powerful and highly symbolic sequence comes later in the film, when Koba shoots Caesar and all hell breaks loose. The two apes had fought face-to-face, "man-to-man" only minutes before, but it wasn't until this gun was introduced that the situation became truly lethal. This is probably the most directly condemning moment in the film, though Everitt and Gross were both quick to point out that this wouldn't be the first time that an "Apes" film has used powerful symbolism to make a political statement -- Statue of Liberty in the sand, anyone?
"The original series came out in the late '60s, and a lot of the commentary there was about nuclear weapons," Everitt said of the Heston-starrer. "It was about Cold War mentality, and had a nihilistic view of where that arms race was leading us. It's fascinating to me that now, 40 years later, it's not nuclear weapons that this series is focusing on, it's another weapon of mass destruction -- the gun."
"Dawn" definitely doesn't take as black-and-white a stance on gun violence as the original "Apes" did on nuclear weapons, but it seems like the point here is that the film is opening up a discussion. Because like it or not, history has already shown that Hollywood films can have just as much if not more of an affect on public conversation than the real life events that inspire them.
"Just like the original 'Planet of the Apes' might have been an important part of the conversation around the threat of nuclear war, our hope would be that this one can be an important part of the conversation around the dangers of unsafe access to guns," Gross concluded.
"Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" in in theaters nationwide.