“So, what is it that separates you and me from the goldfish, the butterfly, the flat billed platypus? Our minds? Our souls? That fact that we can get HBO? Well maybe it's that humans are the only species to put other animals in cages, put its own kind in cages.”
That quote from one of my favorite (and one of the most unsettling) television shows of the 1990’s kept reverberating through my mind as I watched “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” the sequel to the surprisingly well-received “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.” Animals do operate by their own set of rules and are not governed by the same ones we humans follow on a regular basis. But what if animals evolved to where they could cage us? Would they really be any different from us? Every creature on this planet yearns for independence from others, but what cost are we all willing to pay for it? That’s one of the many questions that this movie asks its viewers, and it’s particularly noteworthy to see in a summer movie with a very large budget.
“Dawn” takes place ten years after the events of “Rise,” and during that time the world has changed in a highly dramatic fashion. Much of human civilization has been wiped out by the ALZ-113 virus which Gen-Sys created with the hopes of curing Alzheimer’s disease, and the apes are now the dominant species on Earth. Caesar (Andy Serkis) is still the leader of the apes, and we see them in their natural habitat working to survive in a hostile world and educating their young. It’s been years since any of the apes have seen a human, but that changes when a couple of them end up running into Carver (Kirk Acevedo), an ape hating human who makes the mistake of shooting one of them.
From there, we come to see that there are still a number of human beings that have not succumbed to the virus, and among them is Malcolm (Jason Clarke) who is determined to reach out to the apes in a peaceful manner. The humans are running low on power and they need to gain access to a hydroelectric dam which is in the apes’ territory so that they can provide long term power to the rest of the survivors. Of course, that’s going to take a lot of trust between the different species for that to happen, and neither one is prepared to make easy for the other.
With Serkis returning as Caesar, all eyes are on him as he was so effing brilliant in “Rise,” and he knocks it out of the park once again in “Dawn.” Time has hardened Caesar and his trust in humans has all but disappeared, and his days are spent protecting his fellow apes and keeping them in line. Yes, all the apes you see here are CGI-created, but the great thing about actors like Serkis is that, after a while, they make you forget that you’re looking at a visual effect. Serkis invests Caesar with such a raw emotional power that you can’t help but feel for him when things go horribly wrong. Even when Caesar speaks, and it was a shock to hear him say “no” in the previous film, Serkis makes the character’s struggles all the more palpable to where you root for him to help ease the divisions between the humans and the apes.
But what makes “Dawn” especially effective is that, like the best science fiction stories, it reflects the struggles of the world today. The conflicts between the humans and the apes could easily be compared to those between Israel and Palestine, blacks and whites, the rich and the poor and perhaps even between Star Wars and Star Trek fans (let’s not leave anyone out here). Director Matt Reeves (“Cloverfield” and “Let Me In”) mines this material for all the emotional depth it has, and none of the characters, human or otherwise, can be boiled down to a one-dimensional cliché. If they can just get past their perceived differences, the world can become a peaceful place to live in.
Also, “Dawn” gets at the unavoidable truth of how the greatest threat to a group doesn’t come from its enemy, but instead from within. Caesar’s second in command, Koba (Toby Kebbell), can’t get himself to make peace with all the cruel animal testing he was forced to endure before the virus laid waste to the planet. Then, on the human side, you have Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), the leader of the remaining human survivors who is determined to protect them no matter what. There will always be change and there will always be resistance to change, and Koba and Dreyfus represent the greatest threat to any change that is to occur. If they could see that their differences are really only skin deep then maybe there would be a chance but, as Peter Gabriel once said, fear is the mother of violence.
Now a lot of people have said the human element in “Dawn” is lacking, but I’m not too sure about that. Granted, the CGI creation of the apes is amazing to look at and the actors who inhabit them deserve more recognition than they will probably get when awards season comes around, but “Dawn” has a good human cast as well. Jason Clarke, so good in “Zero Dark Thirty,” proves to be a human worth rooting for as Malcolm, a man who has shared about the same number of loses as Caesar has. Keri Russell, who is currently kicking ass on “The Americans,” reminds us of how lovely she can be playing such a tough woman devoted to her loves in her life as well as in science and facts. Oldman, who can be prone to overacting in movies like this, is fun to watch here as he gives us a character who is not quite a bad guy but not necessarily a good one either. It’s also great to see Kirk Acevedo, so great as Alvarez on the HBO series “Oz,” here as Carver, a former water worker who has trouble getting past his fear and misunderstanding of apes.
The rebooting of the “Planet of the Apes” franchise was not exactly met with open arms, and that was especially the case after we witnessed Tim Burton’s incredibly disappointing remake. But ever since “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” this has proved to be a franchise to really look forward to. Our expectations for it remain in check, and things get even better this time around with “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.” Even if this movie ends on a note of despair over what could have been, there is still an inkling of hope as we look into Caesar’s eyes. For once, we get the feeling that all of humanity might actually learn from its mistake. On top of that, maybe the apes can too.