Ape, Man, What’s the difference?
The movie poster for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is quite ridiculous. A chimpanzee straddles a horse with a machine gun pointed towards the air in the foreground of a burning Golden Gate Bridge. It’s just plain scary. Eventually you see this scene unfold and it’s ten times more dramatic. An army of digitalized apes stampedes the remaining human population huddled together behind a barrier of weaponry. By that point, this flipped reality doesn’t seem as ridiculous. AK-47’s swap bullets and fire engulfs the rubble, standard blockbuster fare. This visceral monkey onslaught is everything you’re prepared to believe, and yet it’s still horrifically insane.
But the poster is also a little misleading. Behind the militaristic conquest and collective shrieking is an ape leader, Caesar, played exquisitely again by Andy Serkis, who is not so quick to apply his war paint. His relationship with humans is different than most of his tortured species. He was the adopted chimpanzee saved by James Franco, who perished like most of the human race thanks to a global simian flu. That’s described in an opening montage that includes wide hysteria and violence. The aftermath is a surviving genetically immune and diverse group of people led by a military commander Gary Oldman. They’re in a carved out shell of San Francisco buildings, sitting below the string of redwoods where we last left the small gathering of large primates.
Director Matt Reeves, whose previous work includes Cloverfield, is not afraid to show his antagonist’s (or protagonist) hand early. In fact, most of this movie is seen through Caesar’s perspective. Consider the first sequence, which begins staring right into our hairy subject’s clenched eyes. For the remaining 15 minutes we witness a hunting attack, and the small gathering has multiplied into an army of vine swingers, spearing elk to bring back to their impressive architectural home base. Shortly Caesar’s son Blue Eyes (Matt Thurston) runs into a Grizzly bear and immediately attacks it. Caesar ends its life with some help but becomes assertive with his son. “Think before you act, son,” he instructs motioning in sign language, paternal advice that seems more human than ape.
Eventually these genetically modified chimps use their words and form close to full sentences. It made everyone jump in the theater during Rise and it makes a small group of hikers stupefied. They consist of Jason Clarke, his partner Keri Russell, their son Kodi Smit-McPhee and a few hothead assistants including Kirk Acevedo. They’re climbing to fix a hydroelectric dam that’s nested in ape territory, hoping to trigger electricity for their grid below. After a panicked bullet pierces a young chimp, hundreds quickly flank the intruders; the apes are eager to vanquish more members of the population they thought had all vanished. But Caesar negotiates instead. Wary of the city’s fortressed compound, Caesar extends a peace offering.
This doesn’t sit well with Koba (Toby Kebbell), a brutally tortured lab ape who has seen only the worst in humanity. He sees ahead. The humans will get electricity, make contact with the outside world, join forces, and begin reclaiming the shambles of their dominion. But Caesar doesn’t rush to this pessimistic worldview. His navigation is much narrower and trusting, seen in the layered forehead wrinkles and crisper eyebrow peaks and valleys. The struggle is not so much with this small human family as it is with his own tribe. Compassion can be seen as a weakness or strength and Caesar and Koba fall on opposite sides of this power-hungry coin.
Quickly, more unfiltered, mistaken militancy provokes tempers and puts guns in the wrong hands. A resurgence boils and soon the movie poster comes to life. It’s easy to see a changing of the guard, an uprising in a setting where supreme knowledge of the land trumps any technological advantage, especially in a Wi-Fi-less world. Naturally this evokes great Westerns where “Cowboys” confronted “Indians” and muskets met axes. Or back further to Columbus or Plymouth Rock. But eventually even Native Americans used gunpowder to even the playing field. That’s the fear that drives the movie. This is it. The precipice of extinction is ironically occurring with our evolutionary partners.
What it really does is make Transformers: Age of Extinction look more ridiculous than a horseback ape. That title is the title of every Transformers movie because every story hinges on an apocalypse. While Rise and Dawn share linguistic continuity, and promise more sequels to come, they at least have a coherent plot distinction. Michael Bay takes nearly three hours to drop metal garbage onto metal garbage. He’s killing people for sport and calls it the solution to alien-robot crisis. Bay’s sequels have no arc; they just progressively amplify. Reeves doesn’t let his fiery crescendos dominate an often biblical allegory though. Instead, war is a setup for dialogue when most summer hits prefer to inverse the phrasing.
That’s primarily because the Apes franchise is built on discussion. These are not the 1960s military protest days though. Today’s current crises ring of ambiguity and uncertainty, a tone Reeves, along with writers Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver and Mark Bomback, lets linger between both apes and humans. The parallel editing helps the metaphors. When electricity ignites the small compound a celebration erupts just as apes begin a war-inspired pep rally. Later an ideological battle over preservation takes place between Caesar and Koba just as one begins with Clarke and Oldman. By the end, Caesar and Clarke will stare into each other’s eyes with mutual disappointment. It’s a resigning look, a somber concession of their surrounding animals’ incessant inclination for dominion.
It leaves you spellbound. Not only that you can empathize with the narrative tugs, but that you can be so intensely wound into its nearly three quarters computerized webbing. You forget people are wearing motion capture bandages. A reunion between Caesar and his son for instance shares the same emotional weight as when Russell and her adopted son pause for a sincere discussion about their lives. For now there’s equality. It’s just inevitably waiting to be tipped again.