Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Hollywood have churned out a lot of disappointing reboots in recent years, and 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes could easily have been one of them - after all, no-one had high hopes for anything ape-related after what Tim Burton did to the series. But no – it was a surprisingly deep, thoughtful take on the simian saga, jumping in at the point of the outbreak, with lab chimp Caesar on the brink of leading his species to freedom.

Jump ten years on (in narrative time, three in real time) and we have Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, by which point Caesar’s gang have established an Ewok-style city in the Californian forests, while humanity has been all but wiped out, the local survivors having established a small community in the centre of ruined San Francisco. Whereas Rise was all about animal rights, with the humans clearly oppressing the apes, here both species are on a level footing, and what we have are two tribes equally fighting for their own survival.

But can ape and human co-exist peacefully? This is the hope of Caesar, who wants to see Apetown grow safely from strength to strength, and of human Malcolm, who needs to venture through Caesar’s woods to get a power plant working. Yet the scars of historical oppression live on, and there are those on both sides who distrust the other. Second-ape-in-command Koba has retained only hatred from his time as a lab chimp, while Malcolm’s engineer Carver, afraid of the species that almost wiped out his race, is a little too trigger-happy. Reminiscent of The Walking Dead season 3, friction between these two gangs of survivors is reaching its tipping point – sometimes, progress is made in furthering peace, but the actions of others spark conflict. War is inevitable.

It’s a testament both to the visual effects work and to the script that the ape characters are just as compelling as the humans. Caesar’s relationship with his son Blue Eyes is one of the main character arcs; young Bluey doubts his father’s wisdom and leans towards Koba’s more aggressive policies, but comes to question these beliefs when he sees how damaging and useless a violent approach really is. In fact, the human characters are comparatively weak – there’s a debate between Malcolm and settlement leader Gary Oldman about whether to build up arms, but Oldman’s ex-soldier is given disappointingly little depth besides a scene where he looks at his iPad’s Photos folder and cries. Meanwhile, Keri Russell’s token female human gets to give out some antibiotics to the token female chimp and another wounded character, but doesn’t really do or say much at all.

Nevertheless, one of the strengths of the film is that the main players all have clear motivations, largely based on primal instincts of survival and fear. Koba is the clear ‘villain’ of the film, and does become quite the psychopath by the end, yet his actions stem not from moustache-twirling evil but from the lingering distrust left by a history of oppression. Yet, while his fears are well founded, it’s difficult to root for anyone except those trying to prevent violence. As spectacular as the action is, I found myself hoping  that, somehow, peace and harmony would win out.

Of course it doesn’t. And when war does come, it’s nasty. People are killed and chimps are killed. The ape attack on the human settlement looks like D-Day. And remember the scene in Return of the Jedi when Ewoks take over an AT-ST? There’s a bit like that, but not at all cute.

And that’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes summed up. Not at all cute. It’s brutal and nasty, but it’s thoughtful and spectacular, offering a powerful exploration of how fear and misunderstanding leads to war. Some characters are weaker than others, but it has just the right mix of moral complexity and pulpy entertainment to make it one of the best blockbusters of the year.

Not to mention, it leaves the gates wide open for another sequel. While the first film was about oppressed lab chimps, and both species were on equal footing by the second, we may finally be progressing to the full-on Planet of the Apes. The big question is, will this series end with a spaceship crashing and Charlton Heston clambering out?


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