This rebooted Planet of the Apes series continues to surprise me. Rise of the Planet of the Apes was good, and showed amazing potential. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes took what was established in Rise and built upon it in an astonishing way. This film is an engaging, emotional and thoughtful piece of science-fiction. It is one of the best films I have seen this year.
Dawn‘s strength came from telling an old story in a unique way. The film was both a Shakespearean tragedy coupled with a western – an existential examination of the depths of the human heart and the classic struggle between “savage” natives and “civilized” settlers. However, what made this story different and interesting was that all sides in the struggle were equally culpable in the inevitable conclusion. There was no real moral difference between the humans and the apes, and there were villains on both sides.
This film was an uncomfortable reminder that we are all sinners before God. We may think ourselves superior to other people, but when it comes down to it, we have the capability of being just as depraved as anyone else. Sin is sin to the Lord, and He is the only one who can change our hearts and turn us from our natural instincts.
Prepare for dawn… SPOILERS AHEAD!
It’s clear from all the interviews that I’ve seen and heard, and from the film itself, that director Matt Reeves really loves the concept of the Planet of the Apes franchise. He seems to be a great fit for this series. Reeves succeeds by using slow build-up for all of his scenes. A fuse of an idea is lit, and the audience watches the spark slowly make it back to the powder keg, reeling with anticipation. In fact, we know that the keg is going to explode (it’s called Dawn of the Planet of the APES, after all), but we want to see how things end up that way.
The intelligence of this movie rested with Reeves’ ability to set mood in the frame. A good chunk of Dawn was silent, with the apes communicating in a form of sign language. Less competent directors could have lost audiences during these scenes, as many modern moviegoers don’t have the patience for such experimental auteurism. But Reeves made it accessible and engaging. I never wanted to take my eyes off the film for a moment.
Dawn‘s script is so good – tight, smart, thorough and accessible. There were brilliant, quiet character moments that reveal so much about each character. It was astonishing to see a modern blockbuster movie weave these moments into the story so effortlessly. Scenes like Koba pointing out the injuries he sustained at the hands of humans (“human work”) were just plain awesome. Through these scenes, the audience understands characters like Koba and their motivations, which made the drama that much more emotionally strong. It’s really what every movie should do, but is considered unique nowadays because there are so few that actually adhere to it.
The performances of the ape characters were nothing short of amazing, particularly Andy Serkis as Caesar and Toby Kebble as Koba. These two performances, combined with the masterful talents at Weta Digital, carried the film. If they were not convincing, the whole film would fall apart. It seems that motion capture has come a long way, and has become a real melding of actor and technology. The performances are subtle and achingly real. Many mo-cap creatures suffer from “dead eyes” – eyes that do not emote, despite the performance being done by a person (think of the characters in Robert Zemeckis’ The Polar Express). These apes did not suffer from that. Weta’s digital artists took the human performances and really added in those little “human” touches to make them believable.
Michael Giacchino’s powerful score was an outstanding send-up to Jerry Goldsmith’s eclectic score from the first Planet of the Apes film. It was filled with some deliciously dissonant 1960s instrumentation, which heightens the action and suspense on screen with simple leitmotifs and melodies. Giacchino is fast becoming one of my favorite composers because of his ability to use past musical styles and make them palatable for a modern audience.
Dawn had many outstanding scenes and set pieces that really stick in one’s mind after the film is finished, and they were not just kinetic action sequences. There were a lot of memorable, and surprisingly serious, dramatic moments. Koba’s murder of the two human guards, for example, was shocking in the best possible way. The terror came from Koba’s intentional deception. At first, he behaved in a way humans expect apes to behave – playful, curious, wanting food, etc. – long enough to playfully get one of the guns away from the humans. It’s a disturbing notion to think that an animal could do that, and it is played out in a very effective way:
I had a great deal of difficulty trying to think of something I didn’t like. The film’s good qualities were so enthralling that anything questionable was mitigated.
Though they are given more attention than most characters in modern film, there is still very little character development time given to the humans in the film. I do realize that the focus of the movie is the apes, but there was such a stark contrast between the deep, thoughtful character arcs of the apes and the relatively nonexistent development of the humans. It’s almost as if they were given just the bare minimum to elicit an emotional response from the audience.
Themes and Thoughts
Good science-fiction not only tells an exciting story; it also exposes an aspect of our own civilization/culture wide open for all to see and chew on. It is clear in every aspect of this film that Dawn was created by people who understood what the Ape movies, in essence, were all about. Since the very first film in 1968, they have touched on aspects of the human condition such as prejudice, race relations, religion versus science, and war. In fact, the finale of that first film was so impactful that it is still used as a springboard for conversations about nuclear war.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes exposed man’s sinful nature, and demonstrated that sin does not discriminate – it tempts and corrupts every single human being.
“…for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God…” Romans 3:23
What I enjoyed the most about Dawn was that it shattered the cinematic myth of the “noble savage” – the notion propagated by films like Dances with Wolves and Avatar that a land’s “innocent” indigenous people are somehow morally and ethically superior when compared to the settlers/colonists, who are often portrayed as inherently evil and greedy. According to the makers of those films, the only way to truly live life is to embrace the customs and traditions of the natives; there is nothing the settlers could teach or impart that would be of any importance.
“I chose to trust Koba because Koba ape. I always think ape better. Now I see how much like them we are.” Caesar
In fact, it is this breaking of the “noble savage” myth that was the thematic tentpole for the entire film. After being betrayed and left for dead by Koba, Caesar realized that apes are no different than humans. The “natives” are not superior. They have grudges, jealousies, greed, hatred – just like the humans do. If there is any peace to be had, it would have to come from a realization of culpability followed by mutual grace, forgiveness and eventually trust.
Every side in the film’s conflict had some kind of sinful bent, and all were equally culpable – both sides had good and bad characters. It made it difficult, perhaps intentionally so, for the audience to outright choose a side. We can easily justify sin in our own hearts. We understand Koba’s hatred toward humans because of his mistreatment by humans. We understand Dreyfus’ animosity toward apes because of the loss of his family and his dedication to human civilization. But sin is still sin, no matter how much justification we assign to it.
“For out of the heart come evil thoughts – murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what defile a person…” Matthew 15:19-20
Sin is a prevalent force in the hearts of all human beings, “civilized” or not. We all harbor the potential to sin, and have been corrupted by our own selfishness.
One horrendous choice could ruin something peaceful and wonderful. Toward the end of the film, Caesar and Malcolm knew that the two sides were destined to war with one another, and that their one chance for peace was destroyed by both sides. It reminded me of the great tragedy of humanity’s fall in the Garden of Eden. We, similarly, had one chance for true, unequivocal peace – a world free of fear, pain and sin. It was thrown away by our own selfish desires and refusal to follow God’s commands. Because of our sin, we are indeed separated from our Heavenly Father – for a holy God cannot tolerate sin (Habakkuk 1:13). There is nothing we can do on this earth under our own power to reconcile our relationship with our Creator.
However, all is not lost. There is a hope.
It is because of God’s infinite love for us that He became flesh and “God made Him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). God’s grace and sacrifice is a constant reminder that we must forgive and extend grace to those who do wrong to us. Mind you, this does not mean that one’s life will be puppies and rainbows after one accepts Christ. What it means is that you will be sanctified and equipped by the Holy Sprit to deal with the trials that await.
“I have told you these things, so that in Me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” John 16:33
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is one of the best movies of the year. It’s a movie that has a lot to say, and in a sea of films that don’t, it stands out all the more. I’m very excited to see where the franchise is headed. Though we know where the outcome will lead, it will be interesting to see how it got there.
Like the film’s conflict between the apes and humans, there is no hope of self-reconciliation on earth. Because of humanity’s sinful nature, there will always be murder, slander, adultery, war and other terrible things. While the protagonists in the film are left with little hope for peace by the end, we have a definitive chance for peace. The only hope we have is with God, and accepting His perfect sacrifice. God has the ability to change sinful hearts, if we are willing to put faith in Him to do it. Only in God, through Jesus Christ, will we truly have that “peace that surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4:7).
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)
20th Century Fox / Chernin Entertainment
Starring Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell,
Toby Kebbell, Kodi Scott-McPhee, Enrique Muriciano and Krik Acevedo
Written by Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver and Mark Bomback
Based on La Planete des Singes by Pierre Bouille
and characters created by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver
Directed by Matt Reeves