“Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
This quote seems apropos, strangely enough, for the latest summer blockbuster to come down the pike: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, a somber, sociopolitically murky take on the “man vs. monkey” classic sci-fi mythology rebooted in 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes.
Rise gave us a poignant tale of one man’s (James Franco) heartfelt connection with his evolutionary forebear (the chimp Caesar) as he searched for a cure for his ailing father’s (John Lithhow) Alzheimer’s. That film dealt with themes of a medical research industry that has little regard for nature (or for any of us, for that matter) and of the inevitably that man’s own hubris will lead to our destruction at the hands of the ecology with which we endlessly tamper.
The plot of Dawn is a logical continuation of the Pandora’s Box opened in that earlier film where primates who had been subject to cruel experimentation exact their revenge. Dawn is set ten years after Rise and depicts a society where humans have been decimated by a virus unleashed through the same experiments that gave the primates their super intelligence.
On the outskirts of San Francisco, Caesar and his followers reside in a commune that resembles something across between Return of the Jedi‘s Ewok village and a guerrilla (sorry) warrior encampment. On the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge, a small band of not-scruffy-looking-enough humans are barely hanging on, living in what looks to be the Presidio, retrofitted as a refugee camp.
Things start to go sideways when a small party of humans led by ape-sympathizers Keri Russell (The Americans) and Jason Clarke (Zero Dark Thirty) set off into the simian-occupied forest to jump-start a dam that could provide much-needed electricity to all. This sets off a chain of events wherein the primates, justifiably mistrustful of humanity but led by Caesar who still has a James Franco-sized hole in his heart, decide to help the humans but are then betrayed by man and fellow ape simultaneously.
Gary Oldman, who has demonstrated that he is a jackass in real life, fortunately plays one on screen here as well. While Russell and Clarke are in the woods, he is actively stockpiling weapons to use against Caesar and his brood. As you might predict from the previews (and even the film’s poster) the apes discover the weaponry and make plenty good use of it against the humans.
Caesar finds himself on the wrong end of a monkey-sized coup (shades of Orwell’s Animal Farm), and the remainder of the film is spent with the audience wondering who will take charge of the chaos. I won’t spoil the ending, but the film resolves itself in a way that will satisfy both fans of the original series and those unfamiliar with the earlier films.
Directed pretty solidly by Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, Let Me In), the movie is too long by 20 minutes and suffers a bit for having none of the sweetness of its predecessor. Given this installment’s subject matter and the progression the overall narrative ultimately has to make toward Mr. Posturing Charlton Heston showing up one day in a rocket-ship to see the Statue of Liberty in pieces and to exclaim “damn dirty ape!”, the darker tone is understandable.
Clarke and Russell are adequate as the soulful scientists who see themselves and their people darkly reflected in the increasingly contentious simian society, but Oldman is a hammy mess with a sloppily written character – like he’s recycling his Commissioner Gordon portrayal by way of Rod Steiger … on a really sweaty bad day.
There is a thematic density to the script that occasionally overpowers the popcorn fun with social commentary pretensions – a la The Dark Knight Rises. However, the implications for our present-day life are interesting and thorny: what devastating impact unfettered access to guns and ammo and other firepower can have on a society caught up in simple-minded bloodlust; how quickly our sophisticated human systems, processes, and other governance can slide right off the rails when faced with epic crisis; and who or what is really the dominant species on this planet when the chips are finally down.
The true star of the film is Andy Serkis with his motion capture performance as Caesar. His haunted eyes and physicality convey the pointed sadness of a leader watching his new society devolve into all the ugly excesses of the prior one – try as they might, the simian utopia can’t escape the ugly brutality they learned from their years subjugated by human “civilization.”
Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.