The original Planet of the Apes film featured Oscar-winner Charlton Heston who brought Judah Ben-Hur and Moses to the big screen. He plays confident, charismatic astronaut George Taylor who lands on an upside-down world where intelligent apes rule over speechless, mute, feral humans.
In its famous ending, the Heston character, Taylor, encounters the partially destroyed remains of the Statue of Liberty–letting him know—and the audience—that the upside-down planet of the apes was not another planet, but was a future Earth.
While it never revealed the full story about how human civilization on Earth made a transition to ape rule, subsequent planet of the apes films played out the story from that point during the period 1970-1973.
Then in 2001, Tim Burton re-envisioned the “Planet of the Apes” series with his remake of the the film, called simply “Planet of the Apes.” According to the Wikipedia article on the series, Burton’s film “. . . received mixed reviews, with critics generally believing it failed to compare to the original. Much criticism focused on the confusing plot and twist ending, though many reviewers praised the special effects.The film succeeded in the box office, taking in a total of $362,211,740.”
This false start became the real thing in 2011 with the release of a new prequel reboot of the series starring James Franco. Called “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” it was written by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, and directed by Rupert Wyatt. This film finally tells the story of how of the transition to ape rule on Earth happened, from the beginning. Genetic experiments on apes in a laboratory leads them to a cognitive and behavioral transformation to a higher intelligence.
“Rise” ends with a global pandemic of a simian flu, which originated with the genetic experiments. It spreads across the world like a fungus on a rotten orange.
Then in 2014—the subject of this review—continues the great revival of the story and the series with the sequel to the prequel “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.” “Dawn” picks up a decade later after only one out of 500 hundred humans surviving he simian flu.
Not only does this latest “Apes” film offer superb, lively storytelling, it also blends a subtle emotional range on the part of the ape actors with a brand-new, high-tech computer graphics imagery (CGI), which transforms the facial expressions of human actors into realistic facial expressions by the apes. This was done by the New Zealand company Weta Digital and is out-of-this-world.
The wide and subtle expression of emotions, realistic ape body movements, and believable non-verbal facial expressions convey realistic depictions of the apes speaking, relating, living, as, well, human. Or very, very human-like. This combination of things raises the level of animals speaking realistically to an entirely new level.
The apes in “Dawn” live in a Bay Area redwood forest. They get smarter and pass on their intelligence and other genetic enhancements to their children.
The story focuses on them and their interactions with a remnant group of surviving humans who are immune to the simian flu that killed everyone else and collapsed civilization.
To prevent spoilers I won't tell the story beyond this set up – but I will say that the film gets high marks in every aspect of filmmaking – story; character development; music, special-effects; computer graphics magic; epic themes of war and peace; dialogue and comfort; and allegory on multiple levels for possible near future dystopian life on Earth as well as human origins from the beginning.
Andy Serkis as the founder chimpanzee Caesar captures the attention, and grabs the hearts, of the audience.
The ape-playing actor cast is made their athleticism and mimicry of apes work to create behavior so real-looking and authentic that I forgot I was looking at computer graphics, I forgot I was looking non-human characters.
What are the surprising messages of “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”?
Caesar and the other apes, with their family relationships, warm friendships, and competitive rivalries, led me to see characters in a story who were essentially human, only played by multiple types of apes – chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans, and human apes – us. Rather than humanizing the apes, the film ape-izes the humans, or both—giving us an allegorical depiction of an epic conflict.
This epic conflict is not only a drama of how wars start and might be prevented, but also shows a microcosm of the very real history between the first humans, and those they displaced and eradicated – their non-human predecessors, and their non-human competitors, the Neanderthals in Europe about 40,000 years ago.
Art mirrors life both actual and potential. Let us notice the recent proliferation of dystopian catastrophes in many films.
Think of the older films like “The Omega Man,” the 1968 version of “Planet of the Apes,” “On the Beach,” “The Day After.” Think of more recent dystopian films like “2012,” “Elysium,” “The Hunger Games” series, and “Divergent.”
“Dawn” shows us a collapse of civilization and constitutes a shocking warning about our civilization. It conveys the message that the civilization we have taken millennia to build, can fall in a virtual instant. It let’s us know this:
We the 21st-century are standing at the edge of a Y on the path on our journey of civilization. These films are the day-mares of a global society envisioning and fearing the catastrophe towards which we are traveling at an ever accelerating rate.
One way—our current trajectory—leads to war, pollution, excess growth, overshoot-and-collapse, and ultimately ecocide–Easter Island writ large, along with all the associated, unimaginable, catastrophic horrors that would go with such a singularity in human history as the global collapse of civilization.
The other way—an obvious sane path—leads to law, sustainable living, and a soft landing towards global prosperity and Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek-like prosperous future on Earth.
These are the choices. It's pass or fail. Do or die. As Klatuu warned in a previous film—the original, 1951 version of “The Day the Earth Stood Still” about the human propensity towards large-scale self-destruction:
“. . . this Earth of yours will be reduced to a burned-out cinder. Your choice is simple: join us and live in peace, or pursue your present course and face obliteration. We shall be waiting for your answer. The decision rests with you.”
“Dawn” gives us an epic dilemma drama which teaches us some of the lessons of thinking, behaving and living which we need to choose for taking the high road on the sane path to a viable, prosperous future.