It’s a big blockbuster summer action movie. About monkeys. I went with fairly low expectations. But Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the smartest, saddest, most deeply tragic film of the year, a soulful, brilliant movie, thoughtfully conceived and superbly rendered. It feels like a Shakespearean tragedy, honestly, that kind of power and resonance. Images linger. My wife and I went home, and could hardly talk about it; it overwhelmed us both. It’s just a remarkable film, an amazing meditation on leadership and the limits of leadership and on the inevitability of violence and the way peaceful intentions can become derailed.
If you saw the 2011 Rise of the Planet of the Apes, with James Franco, this is the sequel. In that earlier film, Franco played a scientist researching a cure for Alzheimer’s, desperate for a cure for his rapidly diminishing father. He experiments on Caesar, his pet chimpanzee, and is astonished when Caesar develops human intelligence and emotional complexity. But Caesar is taken from him, and placed in an ape sanctuary, where he becomes a leader to the other apes. He acquires more of the drug developed by Franco, and he and the other apes escape to a forest sanctuary. But the same drug, it turns out, is toxic to humans, and a massive pandemic threatens mankind.
As this film begins, most of the human race has died in the pandemic. Some few survivors, however, had a genetic defense against it, and have gathered in San Francisco, where they have formed a community under the leadership of Dreyfus (Gary Oldman). Also in that community, Malcolm (Jason Clarke), his domestic partner, Ellie (Keri Russell), a doctor, and his teenaged son from before the pandemic, Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee). The community’s energy reserves are badly depleted, and Malcolm has been tasked with repairing the electrical generators at a nearby dam. But his route to that dam runs straight through Caesar’s forest home.
Caesar, meanwhile, has created a city, a refuge for apes, perfectly adapted to simian abilities and needs. They have a highly sophisticated kind of sign language, but can also speak human English, though they have difficulty forming words. They tend to use the human language for emphasis, but for conversations requiring subtlety and nuance, they prefer signing. They’re mostly chimps, along with one gorilla and one elderly orangutan, Maurice, who serves as the teacher for their school. And Caesar has given them a religious code of sorts, the first commandment of which is ‘ape not kill ape.’ Caesar’s ‘chief-of-security’ is a deeply damaged and angry ape named Koba. Caesar is also married, with a son, and his wife has just given birth to a second boy.
As in the earlier film, Caesar is played, in an extraordinary physical performance (then animated via CGI), by Andy Serkis. As in the earlier film, Maurice is played by Karin Konoval. But the film’s antagonist, Koba, is now an actor named Toby Kebbell. And he gives the performance of the film.
Okay, so, the first big cultural clash between human and ape comes when Malcolm’s team of humans, trying to fix the generators at this dam, cross ape territory, and are confronted by a security team led by Koba. One of the humans shoots and wounds an ape, and it appears as though the confrontation is likely to turn violent. But Caesar shows up, and by his sheer presence, forces Koba to back down. Malcolm and his party retreat back to San Francisco. The next day, Caesar and a large party of apes show up at the human colony and Caesar warns the humans not to return. He’ll maintain the peace, as long as humans stay in their territory and don’t trespass into ape lands. (All this is expressed in a few words, but it’s unmistakable).
The problem is, the human colony desperately needs energy, for heat and light and, above all, for communications, for attempts to contact other possible human enclaves. And so Malcolm goes back, and negotiates a truce with Caesar. He promises that humans will surrender their guns, if safe passage can be guaranteed to and from the dam. And Caesar agrees to this, although it really puts his authority with his own people to the test. Koba especially does not trust humans. Koba was, in the earlier film, the subject of the most brutal kinds of animal testing–he’s a torture victim–and in a deeply moving scene, he points to his various scars and says ‘human work, human work, human work.’ (Which is one of the things I love about this film. Koba is the ‘villain’ of the piece, but he’s a deeply wounded, damaged, sympathetic character, beautifully written and acted.)
So Malcolm and his men get the dam repaired (with considerable help from the apes), and suddenly, San Francisco has electricity. And we see one of the characters, searching through a suddenly-aglow gas station, and he finds a CD player, and he puts in a CD, and we hear the strains of The Band playing The Weight. And we see him dance.
But Koba, always mistrustful, leads a small team back to the city, and finds where the human weapons’ arsenal is. And he sees a a group of human soldier-wannabes taking target practice. And all his suspicions about the untrustworthiness of humans are confirmed. And when the human ‘soldiers’ see him, they’re about to shoot, but he puts on a happy monkey act for them, what would be for apes a Stepin Fetchit act. A Cheetah act; jivin’ and grinnin’; monkey blackface vaudeville. It’s a tremendous scene, and an effective one, seeing Koba demean himself to survive. And then Koba playfully grabs an AK-47. And then he starts shooting humans.
And then, back at the ape town, Koba shoots Caesar, abandons him, and leads the rest of the apes back to San Francisco, on horseback, heavily armed. And a battle scene commences, an ugly, violent horrific war between man and ape. And then Koba commandeers a tank, and we see the battle unfold from his POV. And the humans are defeated, and crowded into cages. As are Caesar’s remaining allies among the apes, including Maurice. And Caesar lingers, close to death. And Caesar’s older son is torn, between his loyalty to his father, and his admiration for Koba and Koba’s courage and charisma and pain.
But Malcolm and Ellie find Caesar, and Ellie performs life-saving surgery. And Caesar survives. And heads back into San Francisco, again to lead his people.
I don’t want to give away the ending. But what’s remarkable is this; it’s not triumphant. Caesar and Malcolm remain close friends to the end, but this will not end peacefully. The two real leaders have become impotent; peace eludes them, and will continue to elude them. Foolishness and paranoia and fear and the enticing prospect of violence are too ingrained in both human and ape personalities; war must come, and it will not end well.
I kept thinking of historical parallels. The first is to our own history, and the ugly warfare between whites and Indians that marred it. Caesar could parallel some of the extraordinary Native American leaders of the past, men like Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull and Tecumseh and Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce. On the other hand, the people against whom Sitting Bull was pitted had not been decimated in a pandemic, while Native tribes certainly all were. Or we might look to our day, to the inevitability of violence between Israelis and Palestinians, to the current battles fought between the Israeli army and Hamas. Or we might look to other historical parallels. Much of the power of this film is in its dissection of what inevitably happens when two peoples fight over limited resources. This film manages to feel historically grounded, without recalling any one specific historical period or conflict. But it’s completely convincing, especially in its depiction of genuine, great leadership (Caesar, and to a lesser extent, Malcolm), and suspicion and hatred and paranoid leadership (Dreyfus and Koba). Leaders can only lead up to a point. And then everything blows up.
I should add a word about the acting in this film. Obviously, Serkis and Kebbell give extraordinary performances, given the extra detail of seamlessly integrated CGI. But I can’t say enough about Jason Clarke. He was terrific in Zero Dark Thirty, equally fine in The Great Gatsby. This is his first big action movie lead, and I hope it really launches him. He’s a tremendous actor, another of those Aussie acting marvels, and I’d love to see him have one of those Mark Ruffalo/Peter Sarsgaard careers, where he’s great in everything in he’s in, but is never quite an A-list superstar. He’s certainly remarkable here, if a bit overshadowed by Serkis’ performance.
Anyway. Wow. Great movie. See it. I know; summer action movie. Monkeys. It doesn’t matter. This is the best movie of the year, so far. See it.