I can’t help but think back to that when it comes to Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. “Apes with machine guns” is, for me, the closest thing to a deal-breaker you can imagine. You can’t have something like that unless you play it as a farce, and certainly can’t work that into a serious story and expect to keep a straight face. So when I hear that the very same thing is in this latest movie, my hype meter pretty much hit the floor.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I find out for myself that the movie is irresponsibly fantastic. That probably has something to do with the movie keeping the simian gunslingers to a minimum…but you didn’t hear that from me.
GET READY FOR THE NEXT SPOILERS.
Ha. Bet you thought this spoiler warning would have something to do with apes, didn’t you? Well, too bad. Tekken 7’s been officially announced, so look forward to that Death Fist goodness.
Also, how ‘bout that EVO 2K14?
I should probably say right off the bat that I haven’t seen Rise of the Planet of the Apes, even if it is a prequel/reboot to the whole franchise (and more immediately, the setup for a new canon, i.e. Dawn). I have looked into the movie a bit via stuff like CinemaSins and The Editing Room, so I know most of the story beats. That said, I’ll go ahead and tell you right now that if you haven’t seen Rise, you’ll be fine jumping into Dawn. It’s true that certain apes were in both movies, but you can set that aside if need be. If the most you know is that James Franco was in the last one, you won’t have any problems understanding this movie.
Regardless, here’s the setup. In the last movie, some scientists tried to create a cure for Alzheimer’s, but in the process ended up creating a virus that would go on to systematically wipe out the human race. However, the apes -- specifically, the ones the scientists used as test subjects, like main monkey Caesar -- ended up becoming more intelligent because of it, and thus staged their takeover of San Francisco. Flash forward to ten years later, and Caesar is the leader of his merry band of apes, living in peace amidst the ruins of the world. But as it turns out, there’s a small pocket of survivors left, and…well, you can probably guess how it’s going to go from there.
There are at least two alternate titles that I could come up with for this movie. The first and most obvious is Who’s Gonna Fuck Everything Up? I’m not even joking. It’s pretty obvious from the outset that Dawn isn’t going to have a happy ending, because A) the essence of drama is conflict, B) apes + machine guns = COMPLETE DISASTER, and C) they can’t set up the third movie with everything being all honky-dory. And even if you set all of those things aside, you have to suspect that in a movie centered on the conflict between apes eager to defend their territory (and world, by extension) and humans desperate to find some means to rebuild society, one little push is all it takes to bring the whole thing crashing down. As these things tend to go.
The second possible title -- as I said last time -- is But They Didn’t. The moviemakers could have fallen on a lot of tired tricks and conventions just to get to “what matters”, or otherwise just used shorthand to maybe get some kind of message across (at the risk of distorting the message itself). But they didn’t. They took the time to develop as much as they could in the time they had, and it makes for a movie that’s as thematically dense as The Republic if it was written on a truckload of cinder blocks. So I suppose in a lot of ways, you could call this movie a “slow burn”. If you’re going in just for apes with machine guns, you’re going to be disappointed. If you’re willing to take in everything leading up to and after that, however, you’re going to walk away satisfied.
I’ll probably get to this in a later post, but right now I want to talk about the setting at least a little bit, because it’s part of what makes the movie work. To be more specific, it does what a lot of good stories do: it goes out of its way to establish and expand upon the setting, so that it ends up becoming a character in its own right. Dawn isn’t content to just say “AW, WHO CARES? IT’S A POST-APOCALYPTIC SETTING! YOU KNOW THE DRILL!” It shows us what the world is like when the apes are very nearly in full control. They go on hunts in the wilderness. They have homes amidst towns, themselves amidst the trees.
You can pretty much feel the culture of these apes start to shine through, along with their traditions and beliefs. It goes a long way to not just help you understand what the apes are all about, but why you should care about them and their world. And this is something that takes up the better part of the opening; frankly, I’d say that I was almost regretting the inevitable entrance of the humans. And beyond that, I’d argue that Dawn could have made an entire movie out of the ape half of the equation.
But they didn’t. And they didn’t just make one strong setting. THEY MADE TWO.
The human half of the equation has a band of survivors coming to rest in the ruins of San Francisco, on the hunt for a dam in the apes’ territory and thus a means to restore power -- and with it, communications with the outside world. So the city itself is more of a pit stop, and it shows; there’s overgrowth and dilapidation no matter where you look, and the HUGE human party is constantly shown crowding into just-big-enough areas. Admittedly the human half isn’t nearly as interesting as the ape half (which extends to the movie at large, because the apes are just THAT compelling), but there are plenty of details that help flesh them out and make them enjoyable in their own right.
It helps immensely that these people actually have a goal in mind, but there plenty of minor things that stick out to me. Most notably, it’s heavily implied -- if not established outright -- that they’re survivors, not fighters. They aren’t armed to the teeth from the outset, but find guns in stockpiles left behind by long-extinct soldiers and members of FEMA. Here’s the thing, though: just because they stumble into an armory -- the size of which left me scratching my head, to be fair -- doesn’t make them instant experts. They have to spend days training, and preparing, and just plain learning how to aim. These people use guns as a last resort, not a first -- and even then, it’s something that carries a huge amount of weight. No perfect headshots against walking targets.
EVERYONE ELSE HAD BETTER BE TAKING NOTES.
The setting offers a lot, but in the end it’s the characters that make this movie. Okay, let’s not mince words here: Caesar makes this movie. It is, unquestionably, HIS MOVIE. He’s the “wise king” of sorts who carries -- and gets weighed down by -- all the responsibility that his title entails. In general, he’s a very calm and thoughtful character, who thinks about the far-reaching consequences so frequently you’d swear he had a copy of the script (or tried to preempt any nitpicks by intrepid internet critics). One wave of his hand is all it takes to get his fellow apes to shut the hell up…but when he yells -- and he DOES yell, make no mistake about that -- it was enough to make me want to drop to my knees.
Playing the red oni to Caesar’s blue (as one would do) is Koba, who’s something like the ape VP and general rolled into one. Over the course of the movie, Caesar goes from tolerant-yet-guarded around humans to being willing to trust them with his life and outright call them friends. Koba has no such faith. He’s loyal to Caesar, but he’s loyal to his fellow apes as well…and not a single human. It would have been easy to just make him a mindless, hateful tyrant, but the movie goes to great pains to try and establish that, yes, he’s got enough justification to do what he does. And he does some nasty stuff, no question. Otherwise, the main character wouldn’t be named Caesar, hint-hint-hint.
The human side has its dynamic duo as well (because hey, why not have a million billion parallels?). Regrettably, the human that gets the most face time isn’t Gary Oldman’s character, but Malcolm, one of the main guys trying to get the dam working. The simplest way to sum him up is that he’s a downright good guy, to the point where he feels like a transplant from a Pokémon episode. (Take that as positively or negatively as you want.)
There’s no human who goes farther and puts more at risk to trust the apes, whether it’s getting his face slammed in the mud, throwing up his hands while held at…monkey-point…or by movie’s end effectively becoming a race traitor on good faith. You’d think that he’s the sort of character whose idealism would get him scoffed at or killed by the halfway point, but lo and behold, he makes it through to the end. It probably has something to do with one of the movie’s main messages being that different races CAN come together and cooperate in peace, buuuuuuuuuut given the climax, that’s highly debatable.
But lest you think Gary Oldman is just making a cameo, make no mistake: as Dreyfus, he’s one of Team Human’s key players. He’s the blue oni to Malcolm’s red -- but much like Koba, he’s not an all-out villain. If anything, he’s more like Caesar minus the trust and character development; he doesn’t quite command as much respect, but his rhetoric is enough to pull the humans out of the action or push them toward it.
He’s the one who says “we’re survivors”, after all, and paints the humans as the defenders -- as the ones wronged, ultimately. It’s hard to fault him for making the decisions he does, and that really is the optimal state for both his character and the story at large. He really does believe that his actions -- however violent they ultimately turn out to be -- will save the human race, and in a lot of ways he’s pretty much right. It certainly helps that he gets fifteen billion bonus points for saying “Get me the rocket launcher.” And then uses it. Oh Gary Oldman, y u so Oldman?
…This sounds like a lot of blind praise. So let’s move to the movie’s biggest problem.
Caesar, Koba, Malcolm, and Dreyfus are all well-rounded, well-intentioned characters who each have reasons for doing what they do. And the same goes for a number of other characters who orbit them -- young apes, Caesar’s advisor, the better part of Malcolm’s party, and even a couple of gunmen-in-training who bust out the drinks (and alongside an ape playing dumb, generate some genuine laughs in a couple of key scenes). But remember, one of the titles for this movie could have been Who’s Gonna Fuck Everything Up? And yeah, you could make an argument that the main characters contribute to it in their own ways, but you can’t blame them nearly as much as one character in particular: Carver.
Carver is a pure and unabashed asshole. That’s pretty much the extent of his character -- which would be fine if the movie didn’t go through great pains to make damn near everyone sympathetic. But Carver gets none of that; because of it, he sticks out from the others in the worst way possible. I get not being willing to trust the apes, but he takes it to extremes and lashes out at everyone who comes near him -- up to and including bringing up the dead daughter of a member of Malcolm’s party. He’s a necessary evil, yeah (in-universe as well, considering that he’s the only one with knowledge of the dam’s mechanics), but he’s saddled with being the trigger to the point where he stops being a character.
To wit: he’s the one that shoots one of the young apes in the beginning, because “he panicked”. That alone puts the apes on edge, and should tell him that he’s treading thin ice, but then he proceeds to sneak a gun into ape territory against their wishes, which gets found out by one of the baby apes, which makes Koba trust the humans even less, which drives him to spy even more on the humans and the arms they happen to be preparing just in case, which makes him decide to stage a coup and assassination against Caesar --
(Don’t worry, he lives)
-- Which leads to an ape assault on the humans, which escalates into an all-out battle that Dreyfus always suspected was coming, which escalates even further when the first contact the survivors make with the outside world is an SOS for more soldiers, which means that the peace damn near everyone tried to nurture throughout the entire movie ends up going straight to hell, which means that lots of humans and lots of apes are going to die in the long run. So, yeah, moral of the story? Don’t be an asshole, or you might doom yourself and everyone around you. Too bad not everyone could learn that lesson when it mattered. Like, you know, in first grade.
*sigh* You da man, Carver.
Like I said, a character like Carver is a necessary evil…to some extent, at least (and he does get what’s coming to him well before the end). Still, he leaves a bitter taste in my mouth, because it’s the one major instance in this movie where there’s some highly-noticeable shorthand. Everything else? Back in “But They Didn’t Mode” -- and that’s entirely the point.
At its core, Dawn isn’t exactly revolutionary. You can get a feel for this movie from the get-go, and if you’ve seen your fair share of stories, then you have the general road map pre-unrolled in your head. Even if you go in expecting more drama and talking than action, things should go exactly as you expect, give or take a couple of events that ultimately lead to the same conclusion.
So if you’re the critical sort, you could say that it’s a generally predictable movie. You know that the apes and humans are going to get along for a little while, you know that something’s going to go wrong, you know that tough decisions are going to be made, you know there’s going to be a big whompin’ battle (or two), and you know that everyone’s going to end up in a worse place than when they started…give or take a sliver of hope. That’s a guideline that can’t be too easily avoided -- not even in Dawn.
Here’s the thing, though. Dawn manages to go beyond that general guideline. Well beyond. It’s a movie that understands that it’s not about the big action scenes, or even the decisions that shape the course of the canon’s future. It’s about everything leading up to that. It’s about the understanding that the audience knows something bad is going to happen, and then doing everything in its power to make them feel the tension and uneasiness of that inevitable downturn. It’s about giving focus and context to the decisions made, not just treating decisions that we kinda-sorta expect going in like the main draw.
This is a movie that makes its world matter. And when it matters, you don’t want to see it fall apart.
Human or ape, everyone’s trying to do two things: keep the peace, and make a better world for their people. Caesar wants to keep ape territory pure (at least until he realizes that humans have a lot to offer, like…well, medicine), and wants his people to improve themselves through proper teaching. Dreyfus -- and Malcolm, by extension -- wants to reconnect with the rest of the world; it’s true that he’s got the survivors training in warfare, but that’s only as a last resort. As a defensive measure. Given that the apes start the big brouhaha of a battle (albeit thanks to jackass Carver screwing everything up), they’re entirely justified.
No matter the species, everyone is just doing their best to make it in the brave new world. There’s something to respect in Dawn, seeing the separate peoples define themselves and their world through myriad interactions -- but what really sells it is when the two camps come together. Time and time and time again they show that, yes, humans and apes can work as one, and live as one. They can talk, and reminisce, and help, and build, and cure, and lead, and pal around over drinks. It doesn’t have to be ALL WAR ALL THE TIME. There can be peace. And there IS peace, frequently, thanks to the efforts of guys like Malcolm and Caesar. It’s to a point where the sheer number of heartwarming moments in this movie is staggering.
Or to be more precise, it’s to a point where when the movie’s wrapping up and the humans and apes split up, amidst burning wreckage and dead bodies, I was legitimately misty-eyed.
This is not a movie about action -- doubly so, because there aren’t really that many action scenes in the movie (though there is a one-on-one battle between Caesar and Koba at the climax that wouldn’t be out of place in Metal Gear Rising). The reason for that is because this is a movie that makes you dread action. You know it’s coming, but when it does -- when there’s a fight, large or small -- it reinforces a fact that a lot of summer blockbusters, and stories in general, tend to glance over: fighting is not something to be celebrated. It’s a violent, brutal, costly affair that ruins just as many lives as it takes, if not more.
That’s not to say that all fights in all stories are automatically bad (setting aside the fact that it would make hundreds of video games worthless, there’s always a level of catharsis in a well-made, well-earned battle). But a fight that gets the audience excited would just plain cripple Dawn -- and thankfully, fights like those are nowhere in sight. Even if you don’t know the name of every human that gets shot, or every ape that gets blown up, you know them as living beings that did their very best to live as they wanted, undisturbed by outside forces. You know that if a couple of things had gone differently, they could have lived lives as good as, or even better than the ones they had. But they didn’t. All the tension, all the negative sentiments, and all the distrust blooming under the surface made the struggle for peace useless. In the end, there could only be war. There could only be suffering.
*sniff* Seriously, Carver, fuck you. Just…just fuck you…
It would have been easy for Dawn to cut out every last bit context -- to tell us “we should care” instead of going to incredible lengths to show us why we should care. In a sense, you could consider that the best, most covert method of emotional manipulation you could ever imagine. But as the Eternal Optimist -- a guy who would at least want to try and follow Malcolm’s example -- I believe in what the movie was going for. I understand that they could have given the audience what they wanted. But they didn’t. There was a vision here, a set of ideas that mean something in-universe and out of it. They weren’t willing to compromise. They weren’t willing to settle.
They put in the effort.
They did their best with the characters. They did their best with the setting. They did their best with the ideas. They did their best with the visuals, the story at large, and yes, even the action. They didn’t take the easy way out; they trusted the audience to learn lessons simple and difficult, and came out stronger because of it. It’s a movie that, in my eyes, is top-notch in execution. And I think there’s only one way to honor that effort: with a place right around HERE on my SmartChart™:
So I guess by that measure, it’s a better movie than Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Damn it.
I guess it can’t be helped, though. When it comes down to it, it is a bit more ambitious, even if Cap was well-executed and pretty intelligent in its own right. But yeah, this movie edges that one out, however slightly, on an objective level…relatively speaking. But if we’re speaking subjectively? I still think Cap is the cooler movie. Again, I suppose it comes down to whether you want a passionate, red-hot movie, or an intelligent, cool-blue movie. Either way, I’m content with naming both as the unofficial Twin Extreme Lords of 2014…So Far. Take that as you will.
So I guess that’ll do it for now. But don’t stray too far, true believers; you know how I feel about the movie and why it works, but there are still lessons we can take away from it. MORE lessons. And I intend to do that as best as I can…soon. Ish. Get hyped, if you dare.