Ooh, help me, Doctor Zaius
by Thom Yee
There’s been a pervasive sentiment over most of the last century, and especially into this one, that humanity is some uncompassionate, unthinking destructive force entirely responsible for the widespread devastation brought to this planet, be it the ozone depletion of the 1980s, climate change of the mid-2000s, or today’s modern fracking technologies leading directly to huge upticks in seismic activity. Carried through to its logical conclusion — that a mass increase in the intelligence of apes will coincide with a human-eradicating virus and the inevitable destruction of our planet by us maniacs blowing it up — and you arrive at the increasingly likely conclusion of a planet full of apes as the alpha species.
But I don’t know, I’m not so convinced that the apes, in a similar position to what humans have been in over the last 2,000 years (if you’re a Bible Belter), would really have done all that much better. Whether or not that’s the message of the overarching Planet of the Apes franchise is up to interpretation, but there’s no denying that a lot of these apes are pretty mean. As an allegory for racial politics and science run amok, Planet of the Apes, has, more often than not, shown us that the natural cruelty of everyone and everything of moderate intelligence will inexorably lead us to everyone and everything of moderate intelligence killing each other. And I for one think the apes, in our place, would also have blown it all up.
The original Planet of the Apes, based on a French novel by Pierre Boulle, debuted in 1968 during what was perhaps our greatest era of political and social upheaval. More importantly, I’ve never seen it. Oh sure, I’ve watched the beginning, seen the end, and witnessed parts of the middle, but I’ve never really sat down to watch the whole thing. As with all things true and worthy in my life, the first and most dominant contact I’ve ever had with the Planet of the Apes came from The Simpsons, and it’s for that reason that, to me, the broader concepts of the franchise have never really reached beyond the comedic. I’ve heard about apes ripping off the faces and hands of people in real life, and that’s truly horrifying, but there’s a big part of me that never feels any real terror when it comes to the species, even if it’s a room full of them, staring hatefully, machine guns in hand, with certain malicious intent.
Ten years after the Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the apes haven’t taken over as much as there just don’t seem to be many humans left. Safe, secure and happy in the San Francisco Redwoods, the ape chief Caesar (the starring hyper-intelligent ape from Rise who unlocked the apes’ intelligence and set his ape brothers free) leads his band of merry apes in hunting deers, teaching life lessons, proving authority, and wondering where the humans went. But when the apes spot the first human they’ve seen in two years (Kirk Acevedo’s Carver, who of course shoots one of them), the apes issue an ultimatum to the remaining humans to leave them alone or face their wrath. So pretty boiler plate stuff, and not necessarily that different than splitting the diner in two à la I Love Lucy.
In the intervening ten years between Rise and Dawn, Caesar has lived and loved his way through a pretty full life as ape leader, with a wife (that is if the apes believe in marriage — it at least seemed pretty clear that the two had boned), two sons, semi-loyal subjects, and established societal patterns. I’m no anthropologist (or “apethropologist” if you will [and you shouldn’t]), but the ape society often seems overly advanced for its mere ten years of progress. Most of them even seem to speak sign language in addition to ape grunting and full-on human English, which is better language development than most North Americans today (many of whom struggle with one language [and when to use ‘whom’]). I guess the apes started off with at or near present-day human intelligence and the examples of a dwindling human populace to emulate (or not emulate), but for a society whose greatest rules come down to things like “ape shall not kill ape” written on communal cave walls and such, some of their more advanced beliefs and systems seem a little incongruent. And if they were really as smart as the humans, surely they’d miss watching TV more than anything else.
Strewn throughout Dawn are the broader implications and consequences of speciesism between the dominant apes and the remaining humans. Apes don’t trust humans, at least one of whom (Kirk Acevedo’s Carver) is always doing something stupid like bringing a concealed firearm, while many of the humans (Kirk Acevedo’s Carver) mistakenly think it was a simian virus that brought about the downfall of mankind. Our hero, Malcolm, one of the human leaders, must form a truce with the apes and gain access to the hydroelectric dam he and his people need to continue living and attempt to make contact with any other humans that might be out there. It’s through the trials and travails of navigating ape-human relations and working on the dam that we (constantly) witness the inherent (and obvious) similarities between the two groups — humans like books, so do some of the apes; humans have family members, so do some of the apes; some humans are paranoid racists, so are some of the apes; etc. — and it’s a point that’s obviously going to be repeated and dragged through the mud right from the beginning and the first time we see the ape society, gathered together to scream about something or other. Just like human girls and… I don’t know, One Direction, or human boys and… violence in general.
Similarly, ultimatums and limited timelines rule the progress of the movie as the human leaders (primarily Gary Oldman’s Dreyfus) give Malcolm and his group three days to reconnect the power before they attack, and then Caesar gives the humans only one day to work after he finds one of their group (again, Kirk Acevedo’s Carver) brought a gun with him when they were supposed to leave their guns behind. But really, what’s the hurry? Why not everyone take their time, think things through, and do things right? Instead, the humans send off half-cocked a-holes like… Kirk Acevedo’s Carver… who we all know will just ruin things, even as the apes fail to recognize the potential for dissension and deception in their own ranks, fooled by one of their own into eventually going to war with the humans.
By now, it would be almost shocking if the animators managed not to pull off things like realistic-looking apes, and perennial motion-capture artist Andy Serkis’ star-turn as Caesar is convincing, somewhat charming, and occasionally astonishing. Just like last time. Just like King Kong. Just like with Gollum. These kinds of things have gotten to the point where it’s impossible to expect anything less, and while I’m never going to dismiss the work that’s involved, it’s hard to talk about things like effects or animation with any overriding sense of wonder. As far as table-stakes are concerned, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a resounding success in telling a cogent, reasonably relevant story, with strong special effects and riveting set pieces. But still, there’s just something missing. For one thing, we don’t have a post-127 Hours, post-Academy-Award-ruining, pre-just-what-the-hell-is-going-on-with-this-guy James Franco-level near-iconoclast to lead the way, and I don’t think it’s racist on my part to say that I never found any of the apes worth rooting for in terms of protagonists. Jason Clarke’s Malcolm is fine, Keri Russell’s Ellie is fine if a little relegated to supportive female role, Kirk Acevedo’s Carver is the same disruptive, destined-to-die a-hole we remember from such roles as most everything else he’s ever in, but there’s just no one role that stands out in the film, be they human or from chimpan-A to chimpan-Z. Even Gary Oldman, who’s pretty much always a standout, doesn’t get much to do.
Eventually I found myself just sort of waiting through Dawn, well aware of its place in the series, and just hoping to see something a little weird or out of place happen. That never happened. In its quest to become a more realistic series, the modern incarnation of Planet of the Apes loses a lot of what made the original series so fun. At least from what I gather from reading Wikipedia articles on those movies. And after that, it just becomes predictable. I may not have watched all of the original Planet of the Apes, but at least part of what kept me watching part of that movie was just how weird it felt. When Astronaut Taylor finds Lieutenant Stewart’s dessicated body after coming out of hibernation, that was unexpected. It didn’t even feel necessary or important, but it was mildly shocking and it stayed with me. Seeing the different parts of the ape civilization was always kind of hilarious, especially because of how much they looked like humans with ape masks on. There’s a certain kind of Rod-Serling, something’s-outside-your-window, everybody’s-pig-faced horror in watching masked people pretending to be apes that just can’t be caught with sophisticated motion-capture tech. The twist ending is something that will stay with me forever, even if the first time I saw it was through The Simpsons lyric:
Oh my god, I was wrong, it was Earth all along, you’ve finally made a monkey out of me.
Watching and waiting through Dawn, I realized that I can’t personally look at and love a Planet of the Apes series without the camp value. I can’t let go of the ape masks. I can’t let go of the speculative ‘60s sci-fi twists. I can’t let go of ridiculous actors like Charlton Heston churning out ridiculous lines and generally carrying themselves in a way that just makes me laugh on the inside the same way you can’t help but laugh at the strikingly absurd idea that the world would be safer if everyone had guns because then we could all defend ourselves against deranged, mass-shooting gunmen. I can’t let go of those quirky intangibles of the Planet of the Apes, and I won’t, not until you take them from my cold, dead hands, you damn, dirty fill-in-the-blanks.
As a predominantly male-ruled society, the apes are certainly no better than the cruel, vengeful, time-wasting men that rule over us today, and maybe the real message of the Planet of the Apes is that the women should be in charge. Many of the apes may not trust and would prefer to kill the humans, mirroring the feelings of the remaining humans, but we never really hear from the female contingents of either side. After all, the passive aggression of a society that calls each other bitches behind each others’ backs must be far more preferable than the active aggression of nuclear arms. Right? Right?
What we have with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the continuation of a saga that’s always been fundamentally informed by the crazy stuff that can happen when we lose control of our science. It’s a tale that’s been told ever since John Henry and the steam-powered hammer (which foretold that man would someday face epidemic levels of heart attacks… because of technology… or maybe I missed the point of that story), and continues to be imagined ad nauseum with the rise of AI. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is far greater than serviceable and far better than it need be, but in becoming grittier and relevant, it loses a lot of what makes the series so charming: being able to laugh at it.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes final score: 7
On the Edge
- I like how we never find out what happened to the black and Hispanic guys in Malcolm’s group.
- It’s weird how the apes turn out to be near-instant experts in the use of firearms. Not only are their hands and fingers not quite the right shape, but pretty much everyone, human or not, should have training before using a gun.
- And then they just drive around in tanks and stuff. I wouldn’t know what to do inside a tank.
- Now let’s go back and count up how many times I used the word ‘ape’.
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