Thomas Hobbes argued that the natural state of human affairs is one of universal conflict—all against all, neighbor against neighbor. That he failed to apply this dictum to hyper-sentient apes can be excused as the myopia of the seventeenth century. One escapes this warlike state of nature—perpetual war with one’s neighbors—says Hobbes, by banding together with other likeminded individuals and forming a political society for mutual defense. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes opens on a fledgling society of apes striving to do just that.
Rise of the planet, dawn of the planet…all the cosmological ambiguity in the world can’t eclipse the fact that eventually James Franco’s America turns into Charlton Heston’s America. But, for all that, there is a noticeable absence of damned dirty apes in the early minutes of Dawn. A montage of news broadcasts alerts the viewer that a decade has elapsed since the events of the previous Apes installment, and the pharmaceutical debacle that spawned Caesar and his band of intelligent tree-climbers also created a virus that has wiped out most of the human race—neat and believable, but not the blockbuster ape-pocalypse it might have been. Meanwhile, Caesar and crew (last seen blowing up helicopters on the Golden Gate Bridge) have made a quiet life for themselves in the forests outside of San Francisco, teaching themselves to read and write, and forming small nuclear families, laboring on in the assumption that they are more or less alone in the world now.
There are humans still clinging to life, though, and several hundred of them have holed up in downtown San Fran. It is seemingly without any intended irony that man’s final failure to propagate the race should take place in the Bay area. When the men learn of the apes’ existence and vice versa, both sides mistrust each other and begin to fear for their fragile ways of life.
The two groups mirror and parallel each other extensively. Both are living at watershed moments in the histories of their respective species, but the correlations are even more concrete. Caesar, performed adroitly by Andy Serkis, is the cool-headed primate patriarch with mixed feelings about humans. History has shown that even a terrific motion-capture performance from Serkis cannot single-handedly redeem a sub-par primate picture, but his pathos is expertly managed here. Caesar wants earnestly to keep the peace with his less hairy neighbors, but his right-hand-ape, Koba, wants to fight, and Serkis makes good on every ounce of conflict and anguish as things unravel. Both apes have their counterparts in the human camp in Jason Clarke’s (Zero Dark Thirty) diplomatic, trusting, overly muted Malcolm and the underutilized Gary Oldman as the warhawking Dreyfus. Let us not speak of the movie that might have been, had those castings been reversed. Caesar and Malcolm come to the fore of things—both with families to care for, and both with high-minded ideals that are frustrated at every turn by the cruel pragmatism of other figures who have already lost too much.
Much of the doubling and inversion, in fact, is so elemental and fully realized that the story takes on a certain fable-like quality. One may wrestle with the cynical notion that the screenplay was simply adapted from a better-than-average film school exercise where such foils and tropes are commonplace. However, the correspondences are cleverly leveraged to shift the film’s main question from “How do I live peaceably with my neighbor?” to “Who is my neighbor?” And, as in the parable, the answer is satisfyingly thoughtful without becoming overtly didactic. In fact, though the material is rich for shrill politicizing, the film is almost never sermonic. When one of the humans remarks offhandedly of mankind’s seeming demise, “We did this to ourselves,” the comment is uttered too fatalistically to make a point, it is simply an objective reflection about the state of things. There is no indictment of the audience lurking behind the words.
That kind of self-conscious reserve is one of the film’s greatest strengths but also (and unequivocally) its greatest weakness. Movies without thoroughly human characters to relate to have often been a hard sell with audiences, but in Dawn it is the apes who have all the fun and the apes who have all the emotion. Opposite the reserved Malcolm and the mostly-absent Dreyfus, Keri Russell approximates an aged, post-apocalyptic version of her titular character from the nineties series, Felicity (also a Matt Reeves project), and now seems compelling to an even smaller demographic. From the blockbuster shot of the century—a scar-faced ape on horseback riding through flames whilst firing machine guns in both hands—to the diversity of personalities and depth of feeling—consider Caesar’s awed elation at the birth of his son—the apes constantly outstrip the dull humanoids, whose chief employment is waiting around for the primates to do something exciting. If they’re all that’s left of humanity, maybe the planet is better off without them. It would certainly be more interesting.