When I bought my ticket for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, I certainly wasn’t expecting a startling commentary on human nature and the great “Nature Vs. Nurture” debate; though I shouldn’t have been surprised that that was exactly what I got, especially given the nature of the first film, 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which was a shrewd commentary on animal testing and the psychological damage done to animals in captivity. The events in Rise lead to an all-out global pandemic (Simian Flu) which killed off most of the human population, and Dawn picks up 10 years after the last film left off.
I’m a sucker for a good apocalyptic story, especially ones that showcase the fall of the human race; these are the films that best showcase the human condition. After all, our true capacity for compassion — or lack thereof — is revealed during the fight for survival. What I found most compelling about this film was that it focused on the emotions of the apes, specifically Caesar, the highly intelligent leader of the apes, and Koba, the human-hating second in command. They live in a colony just outside the now-overgrown and overrun San Francisco. They communicate via sign language and some broken words and there, but through their communication, it’s easy to see the bond that has formed among these apes; they are one unit, a family, and they answer to no human.
It’s easy to sympathize with all the major primate players here, given what we know about their gross mistreatment in the first film. They were tortured and studied and confined to cages. In fact, it’s pretty hard to identify or sympathize for the humans in Dawn at all. I actually found myself saying, “Yep. We deserved that.”
Still, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is not a film that’s mean to chastise (common) human practices, nor is it a film that sets out to make a statement about the destruction of humanity. It’s the quite the opposite, actually. It’s a smart action film, one that relies on brain over brawn.
In the films quiet moments — of which there are many (prepare yourself for two hours of intermittent subtitles) — you can really feel the presence of humanity blossom between ape Caesar and humans Malcolm (played by Jason Clarke) and Ellie (Keri Russell.) It’s in the small acts of kindness passed back and forth between Caesar and Malcolm/Ellie, that highlight just how incredible it can be when we open up our hearts and our minds to the unknown and embrace the extraordinary. And in the film’s darkest moments, the evils of closed-mindedness are exploited.
Between both Planet of the Apes films, the lesson(s) to be learned is this: Our reluctance to change and evolve, coupled with our knack for choosing violence over peaceful resistance is ultimately what brought civilization to it’s end. Also, when we rise from the ashes and rebuild, we will be tested again: do we repeat our mistakes and act before thinking, or do we evolve with the changing landscape around us and adapt? We have a history of changing our environment to fit our needs instead of changing ourselves to fit into our environment. This begs the question: Are we more influenced by our environment and the people that surround us, or are we driven by natural impulses? Are we taught to hate and mistrust, or are hate and mistrust born into us? These are the questions swirling around Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and amidst breathtakingly realistic special effects, and enough action to placate the most avid action movie enthusiast, is a profound message that, should you take the time to not just watch the film, but absorb it, will resonate long enough it’s 2 hour and 10 minute runtime.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes urges us to examine our own humanity; after all, war is coming.