I was just as surprised as everyone else by the success of 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes. The latest installment of the franchise, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, had more to live up to and, thankfully, hits every note with perfect special effects, a smart script, and a thought-provoking narrative.
Ten years after the events of Rise, the majority of the human population has been wiped out by the simian flu, a man-made virus. Survivors hunker dow in ruined cities throughout the world. We focus on one in San Francisco lead by Dreyfus (Gary Oldman). Across the bay, in Muir Woods, thrives a growing ape community. Caesar (the young ape from Rise), now older and wiser with a broader vocabulary, leads this peaceful community. A cornerstone of their teaching is that ape will not kill ape.
When the humans’ power supply begins to run low, they venture into the forest in search of alternative energy resources, notably a hydro-electric dam. Along the way, they encounter the apes. The two communities eventually strike a deal: the apes will allow human access to the dam on one condition, no guns. This is a tentative peace, especially when another ape, Koba, realizes that the humans are stock-piling weapons. On top of the threat from humans, Caesar must negotiate power struggles within his community too.
Dawn has a slower pace than its predecessor, but it never feels like it drags. When you have such a smart script/story, you can get by with smaller stars, so to speak. Jason Clarke, Kerri Russell, and, of course, Oldman, all do a fine job, but the CGI apes, lead by Andy Serkis as Caesar, are the stars of the show. They feel real and diverse and never distracting. The post-apocalyptic San Francisco and the Muir Woods refuge benefit from strong production design.
There are numerous themes at play in Dawn, the most notable of which is the nature of peace, how it is earned, managed, and, unfortunately, lost. The tension between Caesar/Koba and Malcolm (Clarke)/Dreyfus represent two different approaches to inter- and intra-communal relations with Caesar/Malcolm practicing a cautious, peacemaking approach and Koba/Dreyfus embodying a shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later mentality. Caesar, himself, is a clear example of the importance of being a peace-maker rather than a pacifist. His effort to keep the peace reveals that it takes hard work, patience, and sacrifice. His response to weapons is particularly important as he destroys them rather than confiscating and using them like Koba. There will likely be more than a few viewers who see parallels between Caesar and Jesus.
Dawn shows the tenuous nature of peace given the absurdity of violence. Like so many major real-world events, the catastrophic event in Dawn starts with miscommunication, betrayal, or a pointless, smaller act of violence. A level of vigilance is necessary to earn and manage whatever peace there might be between opposing sides. Dawn also shows that no matter how different we may all seem, we’re just alike. Of course, this is why we might so quickly resort to violence: rather than facing our own failures, we’d rather just punish others for their own.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (130 mins.) is rated Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action and brief strong language and is in theaters everywhere.