Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is often viewed as Matt Reeves’ best work. In celebration of The Batman, let’s revisit the film’s devastating themes on humanity.
Franklin J. Schaffner’s 1968 adaptation of French novelist Pierre Boulle’s 1963 novel “Planet of the Apes” is one of those rare science fiction stories that have stood the test of time no matter how many times they’ve been adapted for the screen ever since. In it, we follow an astronaut crew that lands on a planet where intelligent talking apes are the dominant species, and humans are the oppressed and enslaved. There’s something oddly fascinating, timeless, yet terrifying about our civilization falling apart and being enslaved by an entirely different civilization.
Usually in the sci-fi genre, aliens and A.I. are the ones to be portrayed in this position of power that we’re supposed to be intimidated by, but Boulle’s original novel changed this by making primates the ones to outsmart and overthrow humanity’s grasp on planet earth. This eerie narrative allowed both Boulle and Schaffner to explore racial issues, start a conversation regarding evolution and de-evolution, discuss animal rights and the themes of war and how we could be the ones responsible for our own possible demise in the future.
With such an original and timeless story, it isn’t surprising that Hollywood would try to replicate the success of their first adaptation with several sequels and reboots down the line. Tim Burton was one of those filmmakers that took on the daunting task of modernizing the franchise with his re-imagining of Planet of the Apes (2001). Though commercially successful, Burton’s take on the source material left a lot to be desired. Rather than doing his own thing and swinging for the fences as you would expect with Burton on the helm, we instead got a choppy film that left behind the series’ themes in favor of huge sets, impressive makeup design, and a tone that didn’t know if it wanted to take itself seriously or be satire. As a result, 20th Century Fox rebooted the franchise once again a decade later with Rupert Wyatt behind the camera and Andy Serkis (The Batman) starring as our ape protagonist.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the first in a trilogy, proved to be the right direction to take the series as it opted for a more grounded and realistic approach to this story by taking us to the origin of how the apes took control of planet earth. The film follows a group of scientists who create a substance designed to help the human brain repair itself. The drug’s creator, Will Rodman (James Franco, Kill the Czar), along with his scientists, experiment this medicine on chimpanzees, which ends up giving advanced intelligence to an ape named Caesar. Raised as a child by Will, he ultimately finds himself taken from the humans he loves and imprisoned in a facility with other apes. In order to escape, Caesar gives his fellow apes the same drug that he inherited, resulting in him leading an ape uprising.
Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a stunning work of fiction and a great way to reinvent the franchise for modern audiences, but, although it’s a fantastic film by its own merits, we’re not here today to talk about Rise. No, instead we’re here to dissect its groundbreaking sequel Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. I don’t think I am exaggerating when I say that nobody expected these modern movies to transcend the genre, or get on the same level as the 1968 film. Somehow, though, director Matt Reeves found a way to strip these characters down to their core in such a humane manner that allowed them to re-explore the same themes from the original story in a fresh way. Regarded by many as the director’s best work, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes takes place ten years after Rise and follows a group of people struggling to survive in the city of San Francisco following the aftermath of a plague nicknamed “the simian flu” that has wiped out most of the human population. Their only hope to stay alive? Get power back to the city in order to keep what’s left of civilization connected with the outside world for supplies. The only problem is that, to get power back, they need to venture onto the mountains where a hydro-electric dam is located, which happens to be in the territory of Caesar’s community of intelligent apes.
Given the current state of our world, nearing three years living in the middle of a pandemic, the opening montage of Dawn hits close to home, as we get to see the collapse of mankind as a result of the deadly virus that has infected millions and killed billions. It’s a great way to re-introduce the audience to this universe and remind them what happened in the previous movie, as well as to set up the devastating tone the film carries for the entirety of its runtime. This is followed by a sequence establishing the community of apes where a good chunk of the movie takes place. Here, we learn Caesar has built a family of his own as he’s seen protecting his oldest son from a bear while his wife gives birth to their newborn. From the very beginning, director Matt Reeves shows that, although happy with his current life, Caesar can’t help but to keep thinking about humanity and whether or not there’s any left in the world. His interactions with Maurice (Karin Konoval, Snowpiercer) are some of the best in the first act as they talk about how Caesar’s experience with humans is very different from everybody else’s, and that he should understand that the rest of the apes only saw their bad, destructive side.
What Matt Reeves does with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes reminds me a lot of what Christopher Nolan did with The Dark Knight: two visionaries who understand that, in order to make a compelling sequel, you have to determine what would be the hardest possible situation for their main characters to face. For Caesar, this would be his struggle to keep his community of apes at bay while yearning to help the surviving humans of San Francisco, a particularly strong conflict that creates a lot of chaos and ends up doing more bad than good by the end of the film. Caesar isn’t the only one dealing with protecting his own kind: human protagonist Malcolm (Jason Clarke, The Devil All the Time) also has his own agenda in doing whatever is possible to strike a bargain with the apes in order to keep his people alive. The relationship these two develop serves as the emotional anchor of Dawn, as it demonstrates both apes and humans can coexist if they see past their differences. Neither of these characters want war, that’s the last thing they want, but, you see, what’s left of humanity resent the apes because they blame them for the simian flu, even though the disease was created by scientists and the chimpanzees were victims serving as lab experiments. Apes, on the other hand, like the human characters, hold a grudge against mankind because of the mistreatment they underwent at their hands. All of this makes for a short-lived peace treaty that ends in these two factions clashing against one another.
The themes of war and discrimination are best represented through the film’s principal antagonist Koba (Toby Kebbell, Servant). What’s great about him is that he doesn’t start out as a mustache twirling villain, but progressively descends into madness. His hatred of humans becomes greater than the love he had for his own community, especially the respect he had for his leader. The anger blinds him from seeing what’s really at stake: peace. As a result, he ends up betraying Caesar’s trust by attempting to murder him and take control of the apes and use them as an army in an unnecessary war. Not only does Caesar have to come to terms that apes, who he viewed as part of his family, can do just as much damage as humans, but Malcolm has to decide whether he wants to side with his people or be somewhere in the middle as he still naively believes peace between the two groups can be achieved.
Matt Reeves’ eye to create tension never fails to impress me every time I revisit Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. He strikes a perfect balance where he’s able to put character work first, and spectacle and entertainment second, pushing the boundaries of what can be done within a PG-13 blockbuster. You can have the most violent action set pieces, yet not feel the tension whatsoever. You feel it in Dawn, though, because it’s character driven. Besides a few edge-of-your-seat encounters in the first and second act, Matt Reeves makes his audience wait for any kind of battle to take place. In a way, it’s similar to what he did with his remake of the horror-thriller Let Me In. A slow-burn crime drama that tackles vampire mythos. These two concepts shouldn’t work together as well as they do, but Reeves mesh them in such an organic way. In contrast, a modern take on this story could have so easily been just as silly and unrealistic as Tim Burton’s reboot, but from the opening close-up shot of Caesar’s eyes to the haunting closing shot with the same set up, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a visual and narrative marvel.
As dark as the film can get, Reeves doesn’t shy away from giving people moments of hope throughout the movie. To continue the parallels between humans and apes, Malcolm’s son Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee, The Power of the Dog) serves as the counterpart of Caesar’s eldest son Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston, Dota: Dragon’s Blood). Alexander quickly develops a fascination for the apes as he gets close to Maurice, who is also curious to learn about humanity’s good side just as Caesar loves to talk about. Blue Eyes, on the other hand, has his doubts about the real intentions behind Malcolm’s people after being poisoned by Koba’s hatred of them, but he eventually learns, like his father, that both sets of people are capable of good and evil, and that one group isn’t superior to the other. This leads us to believe that perhaps one day the next generation will learn this lesson, no matter how many mistakes have been made along the way. It doesn’t necessarily pan out as we like to imagine in War for the Planet of the Apes, but that sense of hope is still very effective here.
Andy Serkis’ Caesar manages to be one of the best written heroes in modern blockbuster cinema. Not only that, but it’s got to be one of the most refreshing performances an actor has given in a film of this magnitude. Many will disregard Serkis’ acting chops because of the fact that motion capture technology was used to bring his character to life, but Andy’s acting skills are still visible on screen. I would argue a computer generated character has never felt this real before. Serkis’ work in The Lord of the Rings as Gollum remains a milestone, and we’ve had other characters like this in superhero movies like Avengers: Infinity War with the villain Thanos, but nothing this close of perfection. Every movement, every facial expression tells a story and helps us understand our protagonist’s psyche without having to utter a single line of dialogue. Though debated by many back in the day, I would argue Andy Serkis should have, at the very least, received a nomination for best actor during awards season. It’s that emotionally impactful and memorable of a performance.
There’s a great sense of tragedy looming over the film that I can only compare to that of a Shakespearean tale, particularly towards the climax in the third act. Koba has taken full command of the town with the remaining human survivors being hostages as well as some apes who rebelled against his ideals. Caesar manages to overthrow Koba as he falls to his death from the top of the town’s tower, but it is too late. It doesn’t matter if it was all a misunderstanding caused by Koba’s actions, war between these two communities has officially begun. A war that will determine who will come on top as planet earth’s dominant species. Malcolm and Caesar say their goodbyes and part ways. Unable to stop the inevitable, they learn just how flawed both of their people really are, leading to what will cause the unnecessary deaths of an unspeakable number of apes and humans.
Matt Reeves started out his career making smaller films that felt intimate and personal. Even his monster flick Cloverfield has a richness to its visual language that can’t be compared with any other movie in the genre. With his two sequels in this newer iteration of Planet of the Apes, he proves he can craft delicate human stories that we can relate to, one way or another. Somebody else could have seen the excellent Rise of the Planet of the Apes and approach its sequels as a paycheck job, but Reeves did not. He saw the beauty in these characters and the potential of Boulle’s original themes and ideas, and he ran with them and made this universe his own. Not many filmmakers can make something this special that feels like a part of themselves is reflected on the screen, but Reeves does. In my eyes, he’s one of the best directors working today in the industry and if Dawn of the Planet of the Apes demonstrated anything, like The Batman has as well in my humble opinion, is that Matt Reeves is here to stay and show audiences blockbusters can get us to think about our world and ourselves in a meaningful way.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is now available to watch on digital and on demand.