Why is there war?
Whoa, that's a heavy question. I came here to find out if I should go see a summer blockbuster about talking chimpanzees! But “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is a heavy movie even if it is hidden in the gorilla suit that is action-adventure entertainment. This franchise, now in its second reboot, has always had twin purposes. On the one hand: talking apes riding horses. Basic dopey kid stuff (there was a cartoon in the 70s!) that relied heavily on special effects. On the other hand: a none-too-subtle exercise in social commentary that frequently went to dark places. The original '68 film ends with Charlton Heston banging his fist against the sand damning us all to hell. The sequel blows up the earth. The third one ends in infanticide.
Why is there war? It's surprising to say, but “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is one of the very few movies out there that provides a cogent response to this tough question. There's also a scene where two angry simians beat the hell out of one another atop a skyscraper.
“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” begins where the closing credits to “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” ends – watching a graphic of criss-crossing planes carry a new plague around the world. With a little exposition we learn how most of the world drops dead of “simian flu.” There are a few survivors, huddled together in cities, unaware if they are the last ones out there. We meet a group out of San Francisco, led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke), a good and noble individual, and Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), another good man who just wants his people to be safe, but is perhaps a little more willing to let the ends justify the means.
These humans (and others) are sympathetic because we can easily identify with their pre-apocalypse lives. But they are just half the equation. The far more interesting groups are in Muir Woods, where Caesar (again motion-captured by Andy Serkis) leads his army of hyper-intelligent apes. Along with a second generation of children, we see most of the gang from last time. There's loyal Rocket, wise and friendly Maurice and the rage-infested Koba.
The humans need access to a hydroelectric dam to keep their society functioning, but it is on Ape land. The Apes just want to live free from humans – nearly all of them were abused in labs prior to the events of this film. Chess moves ensue, propelled both by fear and self-interest. Caesar, who professes no love for the humans (though maybe still feels a bond with his adopted family, led by an off-screen James Franco) recognizes that the way to maintain peace is through cooperation. But anxiety and anger (on behalf of the humans) and ego and envy (on behalf of the apes) quickly leads to violence.
The genius of this film lies in that we are rooting for both sides. When the first big battle comes – even with director Matt Reeves (“Cloverfield,” “Let Me In”) pulling some characteristic visual tricks out of his sleeve – our feeling is one of dread. The upshot: all we want is for this remarkable action to stop.
As with so many really difficult conflicts in the world, it isn't that one side is all right and the other is all wrong. Everyone has a point and there are good people coming at it from both directions. There are also villains on either side whose character flaws escalate things to their depressing, inevitably bloody finale.
“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is a good and exciting yarn, but it is also a bit depressing. Its sci-fi cloak enables viewers to pretty much graft it onto any real world troublespots and it kinda works. Its vagueness, to use a critical term (malleability, if you are more kind) leads you connect the dots to whichever current event or crisis from history you want. At the end of the day, so many of the world's conflicts boil down to one thing: two tribes who are afraid of one another.
So, a fun summer flick for the whole family? Not quite, although the entertainment isn't totally shelved for the good of bellicose allegory. Serkis' Caesar gets more than his fair share of rip-snortin' badass moments. He's arguably the finest leader of men we've seen on screen since “Lincoln.” But don't call him a leader of 'em. He's an ape and he's proud and anyone who has a problem with that is likely in for some trouble.
SCORE: 9.0 / 10