Aaaaaargh! Where to start? I hate it when films make me want to tear my hair out in frustration (an experience I have had far too often in 2014), especially when in every case this year the problem can be summarized in one phrase: an awesome failure of imagination!
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the immediate sequel to 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which everyone (including me) agreed was better than expected. Dawn is getting the same responses and has received mostly excellent reviews, so my expectations were high. Given that I have condemned three critically-acclaimed films already this year, I should have known better.
Dawn begins in the near future, after an epidemic, caused by the same research (and retrovirus) which created intelligent apes, has decimated the world’s human population. Ten years after the plague began, the apes, who have built a village in the woods north of San Francisco (actually a park in B.C.), have decided that humans must have been wiped out altogether. So when a small group of humans, looking for a dam that will provide San Francisco with the power it so desperately needs (their generators have run out of fuel), bump into two young apes, both apes and humans are taken by surprise. It doesn’t take long for all hell to break loose.
The apes are led by Caesar, from Rise, who has many fond memories of humans, allowing him a small level of trust in the humans’ intentions, a trust not shared by Koba, his closest aide, who had been tortured repeatedly by humans before being released by Caesar near the end of Rise. Trust becomes a key word in Dawn, as it does not take long for humans to abuse and lose the trust which Caesar has placed in them. Of course, the distrust is caused by just one bad egg (Carver), who himself distrusts the apes. This theme is repeated with San Francisco’s leader, a military man who does not trust the apes and is ready to use the town’s vast arsenal against the apes if necessary. On the ape side, Koba has zero trust in the humans and goes behind Caesar’s back to check out what the humans are really up to. Will Caesar stop trusting Koba in time to avert disaster? And what does it mean when trust is lost?
I won’t give away more plot specifics here, though I will make some vague statements about what follows which might be considered spoilers by some (they would to me, but then even what I have written so far would be a spoiler to me). One of the biggest problems I had with Dawn is that I was able to predict virtually everything (in general, not specifics) which followed based on the first fifteen minutes of the film. No film that predictable should be universally praised for its writing and plot. I kept hoping I was wrong, and there were repeated hints that Dawn was trying to be morally nuanced and intelligent (i.e. the potential for a great film was certainly present), but the last half hour was a disaster that let me down time and time again.
In all fairness to Dawn, it must be stated that Dawn is a brilliantly-made film in many ways. The special effects and cinematography are amazing (I did not watch it in 3D, of course, but only rarely noticed I was watching a 3D film), the acting is strong by all involved (a special note of praise here for Andy Serkis as Caesar, as well as for Jason Clarke, Keri Russell and Gary Oldman as the prominent humans), the score by Michael Giacchino is good if sometimes overwhelming (i.e. the constant cuing of emotions, especially near the end, is distracting, to say the least), the direction by Matt Reeves is tight, and the final result is a very entertaining film. Leaving aside the question of morality, I can see why critics liked Dawn as much as they did. And just a couple of months ago, I gave ***+ to an entertaining morally-nuanced film (Maleficent) that let me down at the end. Unfortunately, Dawn, which was praised by critics for its humanistic statements, and its insightful social commentary on the conflicts which plague humans today, failed on far too many levels to get the same result.
As I said, Dawn did try. Both the ‘bad’ ape, Koba, and the misguided human leader, were ‘humanized’ with background stories. But the film’s awful ending undid much of this humanizing (literally so, in one case). In Dawn’s opening moments, we see young apes being taught that apes do not kill apes (unlike humans, who have no trouble killing apes and other humans). But the film’s final message seems to be that humans do not kill humans either. The humans killed by good humans are no longer human (i.e. they have been fully dehumanized – turned into monsters) and so they have become killable.
Dawn also positively shows us the role of leaders in inciting the masses to go to war, (spoiler alert) going so far as to suggest that some leaders are willing to manufacture a pretext for war, like killing their own leaders or burning down their own villages, and blaming it on the enemy. Yes, that’s provocative social commentary! Add to that the great job Dawn does of depicting the big battle scene, making it appear that war is incredibly stupid and evil (which it is), as well as the creation of an atmosphere that allows us to sympathize equally with both sides in the conflict and to highlight the power of cooperation, and the potential for meaningful humanizing filmmaking is all around us. That potential is wasted, however, by an ending which suggests that peaceful resolutions of inter-species (or international?) conflict are simply unrealistic. War is simply inevitable.
Then there is the way that certain people and apes are portrayed (and literally described) as particularly ‘good’, while others are portrayed as mixed or ‘bad’. And what about forgiveness? At one point in the film, Caesar says humans will not be able to forgive certain things, but just moments before he was also unable to forgive certain things. That about sums up the film’s attempts at moral engagement: endless mixed messages, which, like Dawn’s ending (such as it is), leave us worse off than when we started. I can’t imagine sitting through Dawn again, so I should be giving it **+, but I should be rewarding it for its overall quality and its obvious desire to say some good things, so I’ll say it’s verging on *** and I will leave my mug uncommitted at this point.