If Rise of the Planet of the Apes was about the hubris of man bringing on its own self-destruction, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes switches the gears to focus much more heavily on ape society, and how unwitting leader of their new civilisation Caesar can rule and govern a world alongside what’s left of humanity.
Following the critical and commercial success of Rise in 2011, it was expected that Rupert Wyatt would continue and develop the story of Caesar (Andy Serkis) and the rising planet of the apes into the almost inevitable sequel. The plan between he and producer Rick Jaffa was to build back toward the story of the 1968 original Charlton Heston movie, in which his lone surviving astronaut ultimately finds himself on a future, post-apocalyptic Earth which apekind have inherited; indeed in Rise we see the launch of the Icarus, the very same space mission to Mars, more than suggesting we were heading back to a probable remake of Planet of the Apes – ignoring Tim Burton’s poor 2001 attempt.
Suddenly, Wyatt left the project late in 2012 when 20th Century Fox’s planned release date of May 2014 was deemed far too close to write, produce and direct what was already announced as Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, especially considering the sheer amount of CGI work needed to put Caesar and his world on screen. Matt Reeves, still riding the success of sort-of indie, sort-of found footage, sort-of blockbuster Cloverfield in 2008 and at that point developing a Twilight Zone feature remake, was drafted in as his replacement. Reeves very much took the ideas Wyatt laid down in Rise and evolved them in a way one suspects differently from how Wyatt himself would have gone.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes feels weightier and gloomier. Set ten years after the end of Rise, in which a deadly human virus born out of James Franco’s scientist’s attempts to cure Alzheimer’s Disease has spread across the globe and wiped out a vast population of humanity; the very same drug tested on apes, tested on Caesar’s mother, which created the conditions for a super-intelligent ape society to capitalise on humanity’s downfall. As the descendants of apekind fell, so did apes begin to rise, immune to the same disease. Dawn intentionally doesn’t pitch, however, a world dominated by apes. Caesar is not an ape Alexander the Great. This isn’t a society working to control and subdue the planet.
Reeves creates an ape world where the collection of apes who stormed the Golden Gate Bridge at the end of Rise have developed their own colony in the forests north of San Francisco. They live in peace, teaching each other sign language (thanks heavily to the kindly, wise Maurice (Karin Konoval)), teaching each other human words, and living off their surroundings. Caesar has no interest in conquest – all he wants for his people is freedom, the kind of freedom denied them by the now-destroyed corporations such as Gen-Sys or the petting zoo’s apes were kept on display. Inevitably such a liberal, peaceful ape world cannot exist forever.
Two elements are introduced which are the main drivers of Reeves’ plot. Firstly, the human element. Humanity is now living in a post-apocalyptic scenario where natural resources are scarce and in particular for the group here living in downtown San Francisco, a city nature has almost entirely reclaimed over the last decade. They are only a cluster, a few thousand humans of however many survivors exist, kept together by Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), a man who lost his family to the plague and now sees their survival as his reason to exist, despite being something of a nihilist. This group’s dwindling resources push them out to the forests, push them to encroach on nature in order to reclaim a dam, one of humanity’s many man-made resources, in order to survive.
Nature, in this case, are the apes. We have two distinct colonies, each with their own means of survival, but once again it’s humanity’s entitlement and superiority complex which leads again to their own downfall. Kirk Acevedo’s Carver shooting the son of one of the apes came about only because of his trigger-happy fear. Guns and a strong anti-gun message carries through Dawn. While some of the apes end up claiming this weaponry and turning it on humanity, those apes are considered extremes; at many points the humans controlling and holding the weaponry are depicted as bullish, ignorant and foolish. Once again, hubris leading to their own self-destruction.
While Dreyfus pushes an aggressive agenda to get the resources needed for human survival, considering the apes as “animals” and nothing more, Caesar’s own pacifism comes as a natural challenge from within from Koba (Toby Kebbell), who represents the logical extension of separatism in the face of a stronger opponent. Koba becomes ultimately a one-dimensional caricature of a villain, more interested in his own ego and claim for power over his kind, but his rationale for attacking the human colony comes from a place that makes sense; he was scarred and brutalised by human captivity in a zoo before Caesar liberated them and believes any pact with humanity will once again lead to their enslavement and domination as a species.
Koba doesn’t believe in apekind when it comes down to it. He believes that humanity will naturally overcome them, despite these apes being a genetically superior strain than their forebears who ended up evolving into humans. His fear drives his antagonism and the paranoia and distrust that courses through Dawn, from both sides. Dreyfus fears what he doesn’t understand and considers primal and savage, while Koba fears history repeating itself and believes they should strike first – plus he’s driven by his own anger and thirst for vengeance. Caught in the middle is Caesar and it’s explored mainly through his relationship with Jason Clarke’s human protagonist Malcolm.
Admittedly, Malcolm is quite a milquetoast, earnest character (as are his wife played by Keri Russell and son played by Kobi Smit-McPhee), but he comes from a place akin to Caesar, hence why they steadily construct a level of trust and friendship. Caesar wants to believe in humanity, wants to believe they can share a world nature has reclaimed, mainly because of his treatment from the now presumed dead Will (James Franco in Rise). Caesar took the symbol for his people from the window he looked out of as an ape being reared by his human ‘father’ and after being injured, revisiting his old home, now overgrown and abandoned, provides necessary catharsis.
Caesar’s journey becomes increasingly mythic through Reeves’ direction. It was already heading that way in Rise, with his charisma and natural intelligence making him a figurehead for apes seeking freedom from human captivity, but he’s now a stalwart leader and father to an eager young son, Blue Eyes, seeking to chart his own course. Koba provides that necessary hawkish, extremist challenge to the wise solidity of his rule and his ‘rise’ from almost being killed continues Caesar’s journey as an ape who wants an idealist, liberal world of peace and co-operation, but knows full well too much mistrust and fear exists between apes and humans by the end to prevent inevitable war.
War is very much where Reeves is heading with Dawn, and the ominous spectre of it hangs over his film like a blanket. Two civilisations, both needing to survive, both battling the natural world as it seeks to reclaim its territory, both striving to be the dominant, evolutionary species. Again, the human characters are more mouthpieces for conceptual ideas driving the story than interesting people as such, and Dreyfus like Koba descends into villainous melodrama to an extent by the climax, but Caesar continues to remain an intriguing, superbly drawn protagonist in his movement, character and speech. Reeves understands the need to continue pivoting the franchise around him.
From a production standpoint, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes also eschews its predecessor, building numerous expansive sets for the human base, the more natural ape colony, and the metallic machine of the dam which provides that tether and context to a world now destroyed. Deeper themes cover over the problem of weaker and less interesting characters and the race toward the conclusion, War for the Planet of the Apes, is apparent across what will end up being a middle point developing this franchise and story as we continue building to a point where the original Planet of the Apes could become a reality.
The bookending shots pulling away from Caesar’s eyes and then back are almost a mission statement. He begins an ape of peace. He ends an ape of war.