by Evan Hernandez
We’ve all seen movies that make us feel uncomfortable with the darkness of Human Nature. As the story progresses and the character’s flaws reveal themselves you begin to feel a little sick. You probably feel a twinge to escape the theater, but also to stay until the end to find out if there will be, or can be, any redemption. Consider: Schindler’s List, The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile… You stay to the end and feel both ill and exhilarated. As the credits roll there is a catharsis that sticks with you, perhaps for years to come. Dawn of The Planet of The Apes strives to be one of those movies, to reveal the inherent darkness in human… I’m sorry… Ape Nature.
The film begins a decade after Rise of the Planet of The Apes. In an opening montage of news clips and “documentary” footage (including a repurposed news clip of President Obama) we learn that a deadly virus has decimated the human population, resulting in years of war and famine and all but ending human civilization. The ape Caesar (Andy Serkis), now the undisputed ruler of a well-established colony in the forests outside San Francisco, muses about the possibility that all human life has been wiped out. We quickly learn that humanity is not quite gone yet, however desperate and hungry for (electrical) power they may be.
Thus begins a series of inter-species misunderstandings so predictable they hardly merit listing. Those apes who survived medical testing refuse to trust the humans. Humans all but refuse to believe the apes can speak. There is also a token asshole character, Carver (played on a single, repetitive note by Kirk Acevedo), who shoots one ape and then, just as it seems like the breach between species can be healed, sneaks a gun into the Caesar’s camp and gets caught. He whines and jaws and serves no purpose in the plot except to ruin everything. Our compassionate human hero Malcolm (Jason Clark) also manages little more than slack-jawed stuttering any time an ape is in the same scene.
The acting however, is punctuated with some very bright spots. Gary Oldman is characteristically effective as Dreyfus. Toby Kebbell’s performance as the ape Koba, especially coming through motion-capture, is the highlight of the movie. He even provides us with the film’s only comedy in a series of moments where he pretends to be a “dumb ape,” who does goofy tricks for alcohol. The humor turns foul when he kills his human audience.
FAIR WARNING: Below Be Spoilers
Once the movie kicks in to high gear, it immediately takes a brutal shot at the heartstrings. During one of the climactic battle scenes, we are subjected to the kind of brutality that, in a summer action film, is normally inflicted on mindless, bloodthirsty monsters. Explosions and bullets tear through apes, while the humans manning the defenses mow down their simian foes in a desperate fight to the death. But the creatures being mowed down are not monsters: they are the characters we have been growing attached to for the last hour and a half. It is heart-wrenching. It is as if we spent an hour and a half meeting the doomed German machine gunners at the beginning of Saving Private Ryan. It was so disturbing I almost left the theater, but I didn’t. I stayed and hoped for the redemption the film seemed to promise. I was ready to applaud the brilliance of a movie that can bring such heart and dramatic irony to a battle scene.
But… nope. The rest is just ridiculous. Caesar is shot in the chest but miraculously recovers within a matter of days, climbs the outside of a skyscraper and defeats his uninjured rival in hand to hand combat, swinging and tear about like they’re in Disney’s Tarzan. At the same time a series of plastic explosives are set off in the foundations of the skyscraper, which remains standing against all reason or rules of physics. This is the action sequence of a standard summer blockbuster and refutes the movie’s earlier passages.
There is a complete lack of redemption at the end of the film and that, above all, is where Dawn falls short. The heroes do not undergo any discernible change or find any meaningful freedom from fear, or from their circumstances. The movie simply ends. With a sense of humor about itself and a few well-placed homages to the original Planet of the Apes films, this could have been a fulfilling thrill ride of a movie. Alternately, with a little more script discipline and a more cohesive tone, it could have been a classic that left me teary eyed all the way to the subway. Instead, this heavy, ludicrous, self-serious film left me wishing I had stayed at home to watch Andy Dufresne get beaten on DVD. At least he rises from the ashes, clean and free.