In Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the anticlimactic sequel to 2011's Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the apocalyptic war between the formerly oppressed simians and their former human masters has reached a tense stalemate. The shock of the apes' uprising and their furious assault on everything human — including the sacking of San Francisco — have worn off. The surviving humans have retreated to a fortress in SF's Financial District, and the apes have set up camp across the Golden Gate Bridge in Marin County. Now it's up to the apes' chimpanzee leader, Caesar (Andy Serkis), to chart their next move.
The surprisingly good Rise was written by the team of Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver as an ironic morality play reeking with social overtones — and chock-full of thrilling doomsday action set pieces. Through Jaffa and Silver's screenplay and the direction of British director Rupert Wyatt, we were able to see the world through the angry eyes of ex-pet Caesar, both as a cruel, unjust, human-dominated jungle, and also as a place in which we, the rational ones of whatever species, need to slow down and judge each creature individually, by his or her actions. Failure to do so means chaos and utter destruction.
Let's face it, though: The spectacle of chaos and utter destruction is what sells movie tickets. But this sequel, directed by Matt Reeves (Let Me In) and written by Jaffa, Silver, and Mark Bomback, asks us to look beyond the head-bashing and fireballs to consider a unique dilemma. In the past, the humans engineered their own comeuppance by mistreating animals — particularly their primate "cousins" — in lab experiments intended to develop an anti-Alzheimer's drug. The tipping point came when Caesar's budding intelligence interacted with the apes' pent-up fury, setting off an inter-species war as well as a global, viral epidemic.
Now, in Dawn, we ask questions. What are the apes thinking? How much do they really understand? Are anti-human hotheads like Caesar's comrade Koba (Toby Kebbell) any different than the drunken rednecks holed up in San Francisco with automatic weapons and explosives, itching to obliterate any and all hairy beasts? Is basic human nature any more trustworthy than the primate revenge instinct? Caesar has a tough job in front of him now that he's the leader of a victorious rebellion.
As such, these are pretty deep waters for a two-hour popcorn movie. Maybe I'm reading too much into a sci-fi potboiler about angry monkeys. But it's fun to consider. Caesar emerges as the wise, thoughtful conscience of the apes, in contrast to the bloodthirsty Koba. Even the scientist Malcolm (Jason Clarke) and his kindly wife Ellie (Keri Russell) have something to learn from Caesar's forbearance, in contrast to Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), the gun-toting man who heads the "kill all apes" contingent.
As with other recent big-screen monstrous saviors of humanity such as Godzilla, Caesar undoubtedly represents the notion that despite our miserable failure in managing the Earth, we humans deserve a little sympathy and understanding from the natural world we have so cruelly abused. Caesar, our "man" among the apes fondly remembers the time he spent (in the other movie) with James Franco's Will Rodman, the man who captured him in the wild and taught him to speak. Somehow we need to believe that Caesar has an innate compassion, something higher and nobler than that of the foolish humans. It's on that slender premise, a classic example of the pathetic fallacy, that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is constructed.
It should constitute a plot spoiler to no one that the movie ends inconclusively. Sequels beget further sequels. Could the apes ever finally win and inherit the Earth? Not in Hollywood, not in the summertime. Meanwhile the battle scenes are suitably loud and busy; no one other than the CGI-shrouded Serkis really stands out in the cast; and the forest that's supposed to be in Marin is too wet and overgrown to be convincing — it was actually filmed in British Columbia. We'll have to wait for The Wit and Wisdom of Caesar of the Apes to find out what's finally in store for the human race and our disgusted cousins. Keep in touch.