Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the second movie in the rebooted Planet of the Apes series, establishes this as a superior franchise inviting comparisons with Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy.
The movie begins exactly where Rise of the Planet of the Apes left off, with a tracker plotting flights around the globe showing the spread of “simian flu.” An accompanying news montage informs us that ten years have passed since the outbreak began and that almost all humans have been wiped out. The apes, who at the end of Rise had crossed the Golden Gate Bridge and founded a new order in the forest, have now established a settled community.
On the other side of the bridge a group of human survivors, who appear to be immune to the virus, have created a makeshift but well-armed fortress. When a small group of these survivors unwittingly trespasses into the ape territory intending to restart a hydroelectric dam, the stage is set for a fascinating examination of how two neighboring, but utterly distinct communities, might relate to each other.
One interesting contrast between the two communities (leaving aside the fact that they are different species) is that the apes are a newly founded, tribal community, based on principles of in-group loyalty and highly hierarchical. The humans are the last remaining remnants, on the point of extinction, and desperately seeking a source of electricity without which they cannot survive. Thus the apes are strong and autonomous whilst the humans are desperate and dependent. Both groups, however, are small communities who cannot afford to sustain significant casualties. This means that both humans and apes are depicted in a defensive mode, and the movie explores different responses to the need for self-defense.
As the action develops, it becomes clear that the majority on both sides are rather belligerent and see attack as the best form of defense. But Caesar, the leader of the apes, develops a relationship of trust with Malcolm, a member of the original human scouting party, and he allows the humans access to the dam. Malcolm similarly advocates for restraint among the humans and it is his influence that convinces Dreyfus, the leader of the human survivors, not to use their considerable weaponry to immediately wipe out all of the apes. This tentative truce is shown to be extremely fragile, and the tension in the movie derives from the inevitable, but unbearable, inevitability of its unfolding.
Caesar’s rival is Koba, an ape whose experience as a subject of vivisection has given him a lifelong and justified antipathy towards humanity. Koba resents Caesar’s alliance with the humans and challenges his position as alpha male. When his challenge is unsuccessful he resorts to more nefarious means and introduces the apes to the humans’ arsenal of weapons. Apes had previously had an abhorrence of guns and living an isolated existence had not needed to consider how to defend themselves against armed outsiders. The irony is that Koba’s high sense of in-group belonging leads him to adopt the superior technology of the out-group humans; by trying to remain ape he becomes more like a human.
I read this as a subtle comment on the impossibility of retaining a separated, traditional community in an age of technology. The apes live a self-contained, balanced, and peaceful existence but unfortunately for them their land happens to contain a resource valued highly by invading Americans. There are many, many humans around the world who would look on the apes’ plight with a great deal of empathy.
In Rise the symbol of the fasces was used to demonstrate the maxim that a single ape is weak but apes together are strong. In Dawn the overt fascist/Roman Imperial imagery has been toned down and distilled into the apes’ central credo: ape not kill ape. This more sanitised message is also in keeping with the apparent moral of the movie, which seems to indicate the truth (platitude) that there are good people in out-groups and bad people in in-groups. But in many ways, this overt moralizing is undercut by the logic of the movie itself.
For one thing, it is not at all clear that the doves on both sides have actually acted to protect their respective communities in the most effective way. Dreyfus’ original impulse was to wipe out all of the apes using the humans’ extensive weaponry. He makes a speech to the survivors, whipping up their antipathy to the apes and appealing to the shared suffering the community has undergone over the preceding years; classic appeals to in-group loyalty. It is Malcolm’s influence that persuades Dreyfus to allow a more peaceful approach. By the end of the movie it’s clear that this approach has led to many human deaths, however inadvertently. Malcolm’s and Caesar’s humanitarian diplomacy might be foregrounded as the most reasonable position to take in the movie, being a more rational and intelligent response to a new threat, but the movie does not pretend that it brings about a peaceful solution. The movie ends with a larger war between ape and human imminent, and Malcolm and Caesar both have to retreat back to their own sides.
Because the movie is so concerned with issues around in-group loyalty it is tempting to read it in a racial context, and I’m sure that some will do so. For me this is not the most interesting way to think about it because the apes and humans mirror each other in so many ways, even to the extent that they can both be seen as multicultural, the humans in an obvious sense and the apes due to the different simian sub-species who have banded together.
For me the most interesting way to read the conflict between man and ape was to see one group as a dying, late civilization, utterly dependent on technology, and the other as a newly emerging culture, reliant on physical strength and hierarchy. Both sides have particular vulnerabilities but there is no doubt which side history favors.
In its depiction of a technologically dependent humanity, decimated by a lethal virus, and struggling to adapt to harsher conditions, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes seems to have taken inspiration from the 1970s British TV series, Survivors. Survivors (which really demands an essay of its own) showed in relentless detail just how much we take the functioning of the modern state and economy for granted. Much of the series showed people coming to terms with how inept they were when there were no shops full of food and other goods. None of us is well equipped to begin from scratch, and Survivors gave an unflattering portrait of our dependency on state and commercial functions. It also managed to question whether its characters’ need to re-establish communities and get society functioning again was actually a desirable goal, or whether, in contrast, the collapse of society was a liberation. Dawn echoes Survivors in many ways, even to the extent that the last series of Survivors ended with a hydroelectric dam being brought back into use.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes has taken the Christopher Nolan approach to blockbuster film making by embedding ambiguity and complexity into its otherwise very entertaining narrative. As the sickly, dying race of humans gives way to the new order of virile ape warriors I look forward to the next installment where, perhaps, the apes will discover their numen.