Warning: Spoilers for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (and all of the Apes films, for that matter)
When Battle for the Planet of the Apes ended the franchise’s first cinematic run in 1973, it concluded the series with something of a whimper instead of a bang. While many of the original Apes sequels are enduringly fascinating in their expanding narratives, trenchant topicality and surprisingly bleak endings, they were also assembly line products rushed through production annually, with nearly each successive entry’s budget slashed in half – a series constructed on a model of diminishing returns.
Most of the normal creative team were not available for the fifth entry, so The Omega Man’s married screenwriting team of John and Joyce Corrington were hired to helm Battle despite being unfamiliar with the series. After inter- and intra-species conflict, Battle ends with a flash-forward (a bookending device) showing a monument of Caesar (Roddy McDowall) with a tear going down his face as the orangutan Lawgiver (John Huston) tells his story of unifying man and ape. The ending has been criticized then and now for its cloying, unearned sentimentality – perhaps the fatigue of Vietnam made even this call for peace in a “family film” ring false only four short years after John and Yoko urged Americans to give it a chance – and it emotes without ever really saying anything. Is the Caesar statue crying over achieving peace, or with the knowledge that peace is only temporary?
Inadvertently or not, the ambivalence of this final moment in Battle speaks to the defining allegorical power of the Apes series as a whole, a thematic thread of the franchise that enduringly reproduces its relevance outside any period topicality. The theme of difference, and how its structuring breeds conflict, is a subject entirely embraced by Matt Reeves’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.
Just as the first Planet of the Apes was, among many things, a cautionary tale about nuclear power and the destructive possibilities of humanity’s hubris in the face of awesome weaponry, 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes played at tensions around a post-human earth as a result of more insidious threats – namely, humanity’s gradual and long-running abuse of nature itself. Rise proved a strikingly brazen Hollywood film in part because it intricately depicted resistance strategies toward the overflow of an oppressor, and one that inspired an audience of humans to root for the beings that bring to mankind what’s deservedly coming to them (or, you know, us).
When Caesar (Andy Serkis) first speaks by giving a booming “No!” to Draco Malfoy, the moment doesn’t resound only because it delivers on a 72-minute slow burn of Caesar’s beginnings, or just because it’s really fucking cool, but because of the power of what that declaration represents: it’s a profound rejection of subjection in favor of imagining new possibilities for liberation that have to be taken, not asked for, in order to be achieved. The violence that the apes subsequently bring upon the humans, in this case, feels entirely justified, and it explains Rise’s exceptional aura of exhilaration compared to other contemporary blockbusters: we aren’t simply seeing the typical spectacle of CGI-laden battle, but are witnessing a populace create its own terms of agency. We are in the seat of the powerless, watching them decidedly transform into the powerful.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, by contrast, bears a more ambivalent relationship to the requirements of Hollywood screen violence. Michael Giaccino’s score occasionally abandons its references to the original series’ percussion-heavy war chants in favor of an ambience reminiscent of Hans Zimmer’s work in The Dark Knight when the apes violently descend upon the flailing humans’ San Francisco compound. The film almost feels contemptuous of the spectacle of war that is its major selling point – at least one other franchise entry of this year staged a meta-critique of the machinations of war that extend to tentpole filmmaking itself, but Dawn of the Planet of the Apes drags its heels kicking and screaming into the inevitable fallout of peace negotiations between humans and apes, then descends into a violent chaos characterized by nihilism, self-destructiveness, and, most importantly, prejudice.
While less thrilling than Rise, Dawn is easily more radical in that it posits (unlike its predecessor, or nearly any other mainstream film for that matter) that there is no honor in battle – that violence and the desire for it is only produced by, and further perpetuates, regimes of fear. When Caesar kills Koba (Toby Kebbell), this is hardly a sign of a triumph of good, but a moral negotiation in dire circumstances if not a necessary evil. (And one that Caesar is only able to accomplish by “de-ape-ing” Koba, perceiving him as an inferior, irredeemable force by conditioning if not by nature. This moment would have had even more depth if Dawn’s screenplay wasn’t satisfied to make Koba into a one-dimensional villain by the end.)
At the heart of Dawn is a story of segregation. Yes, the apes arguably live in an isolated utopia at the film’s opening, but that is because they reside in the myth of isolation. As long as their stasis is uninterrupted by alien forces, they can continue in relative peace and comfort. But such interruption is inevitable, and homogenous isolation is a breeding ground for destructive myths of superiority. Unlike Rise, the conflict in Dawn does not arise simply because of the folly of humans, but in part because the apes fail to learn a cautionary tale that humans have demonstrated so frequently: conflict is created through the idea that we cannot, or do not have to, share this earth.
Thus, Dawn is about the differences we create and the walls we erect that produce false histories about the Other, those inherited and self-aggrandizing myths which force us to see the Other as a uniform body of opponents and threats rather than a complex collective of individuals. The film explores how we create scapegoats, enemies and prejudices through the walls of power that divide us. To put it in somewhat species-ist terms in the context of this film, Dawn is about how we “de-humanize” the Other by abstracting her or him, and how fragile the myth of superiority reveals itself to be when confronted with the Other.
This allegory is not a call for a, erm, “species-blind” approach. Instead, Dawn emphasizes how the scarring power exchanges of history produce these structures – Koba’s scars are just as important here as Caesar’s warm memories, just as the trauma of losing loved ones to a source scapegoated as the “simian flu” is for humans. But beyond these particulars is a rather urgent mirror of the inevitable violence that ideologies of separatism inspire, for acknowledging the Other as “human” is really a confrontation with the self, and if one’s self only has meaning and power through shortsighted prejudice, then, well, that’s a meeting to be avoided at all cost.
As with many of the Apes films, Dawn has inevitable topical relevance. As other commentators have pointed out, its allegories of separatism, violence and dehumanization potentially speak to the seemingly endless conflict in Gaza, the Central American refugee crisis, and, most potently, a culture of gun violence propped by a valorized perception-based approach to self-defense and Stand Your Ground laws. But beyond any immediate, topical potential lies a stark depiction of one road familiar and another less traveled that will endure the topicality of present and future conflicts — the former a call to war based on structured difference and fear, the latter a path to an accepting, compromising, difficult co-existence.
Dawn’s opening depicts an ape community mobilized by an ethos learned from the ills of human history, one that shows a hard-earned but possible pathway to peace before falling away with the taste of bloodlust. The ape community we’re introduced to shows value over literacy, rationality, community and diplomacy over paranoia, instinct, sectarianism, and reactionary thinking. For a Hollywood that trades on the spectacle of representing violence, this is a welcome vision that is too rarely taken as seriously as it is here.