Pierre Boulle’s 1963 novel, La Planete des Singes, has quite a grip on our collective imagination. Since the late 1960s, it’s been adapted for screen and television in several separate tranches: the five film sequence starting with Charlton Heston’s bewildered – and unwitting – time traveler in Planet of the Apes; a television series, then an animated television series in the mid-70s, after the cinematic adaptation ran out of steam; a muddled remake of the original in 2001, directed by Tim Burton; and now, a second attempt at a reboot, starting with the 2011 prequel Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and succeeded by this summer’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.
Why the fascination with apes taking over the Earth? Financial considerations aside (Hollywood, then as now, likes nothing as much as a reliable cash cow), the central conceit – man regressing to primitive state, our simian cousins leapfrogging us on the evolutionary scale – is the stuff of our worst nightmares. The new sequence of films, quite understandably, taps into contemporary concerns about anthropogenic action and anthropomorphism: it’s bad enough that we’re pissing away our environmental legacy, but why drag the apes into it too?
Dawn…opens ten years after the cataclysmic conclusion of Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Human civilisation has been largely laid to waste, partially by a man-made virus and partially by panicked – failed – attempts to restrict its spread . A pocket of survivors, genetically immune to the virus, remain in San Francisco, where it all began (some knowledge of 2011’s prequel is helpful, but not essential). They presume, but can’t prove, that life exists elsewhere on the planet. Power supplies are critically low, so the opportunities to reach out beyond their enclave are non-existent.
But let’s concentrate on the apes for a moment. At the end of Rise…, Caesar (Andy Serkis, human shape-shifter extraordinaire), the charismatic young chimpanzee endowed with the capacity, exclusively human hitherto, for rational thought (this capacity in humans is always questionable, of course. But we’ll let it ride) has led his people out of captivity – labs, zoos and so on – and they up a colony amidst the Redwood forests of the SF Bay area. They’ve organised along hierarchal lines, and have developed a social ideology to match their new-found independent status. “An Ape will never kill another Ape.” Humans, whom they trust not a jot, are another matter altogether. Not that they’re sure that there are any left over from their own folly.
The problem is that the forest also houses an old dam, which may be the answer to the human colony’s power needs. An advance party – not really sure what they are about to find – stumble across a couple of sentient apes, get the shock of their lives and shoot one. Bad move. They barely escape with their lives; Caesar, with mixed memories about his time with the humans, lets them go with the stern warning never to return. Fat chance. Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), leader of the human colony, wants control of the dam at all costs. All costs. Cue the fun and games.
The first problem with Dawn…is it’s predictability. Amidst the mutual distrust, it’s obvious that there are thoughtful types who think it is possible to reach an accommodation with the apes; likewise, distrustful types who think ape genocide the wiser course of action. That both are part of the same advance party trying to recommission the dam seems inevitable. Not that the apes are immune to acts of human folly. Caesar is skeptical, but may just be won over; Koba, a Bonobo in the ape colony with homicidal tendencies (to be fair, he got it pretty bad as a lab ape, back in the first film), favours the shoot first, ask questions later approach.
The subsequent series of agreement and setbacks are visible from a long way off. Malcolm (Jason Clarke), the designated Good Human, establishes a tenuous bond of trust with Caesar; Ellie (Keri Russell), Malcolm’s wife and once a nurse, saves the life of Caesar’s wife after a difficult birth. Carver (Kirk Avecedo), has a visceral hatred of apes. But he has to be a part of the advance party because he knows something indeterminate about the working of the moribund dam which no one else understands. How convenient.
Much more interesting are the power dynamics in the ape colony. Caesar, despite a harsh visage and unsympathetic demeanour – especially towards his headstrong first born Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston) –does try to be a just and fair ruler. Apes will not kill other Apes, he continually insists. Apes strong together. Koba thinks otherwise, and sees in the humans the pretext for premeditated mayhem. The apes favour the firm physical hand, both on themselves and to other animals. Given that animal cruelty is no longer the done thing on film sets, one is obliged to acknowledge that the CGI effects are both inventive and effective.
Dawn…, in the tradition of most summer movies, is first and foremost a visual spectacle. And herein lies the second problem with the film. As man and ape, both distrustful and both afraid, line up against one another, the scene is set for some spectacular battle scenes. But in a way, these are just the smoke and mirrors that disguise the formulaic plot development. The first set of Planet of the Ape films tapped – perhaps consciously, perhaps not – into the Great American Neurosis of race and racial superiority. Alongside the obvious issues about tampering with nature, there’s an echo of the same theme in the new set of films. The apes of Dawn… aspire to hold themselves to a higher standard of behaviour in comparison to what preceded them. But is this an impossible ideal? Is community, social interaction doomed to be poisoned by the very need that makes these things necessary? The emotional and philosophical questions that plead to be explored are lost within a welter of plot distractions. Storytelling is sacrificed for the spectacular set up and the promise of a million squealing sequels.
I am being unfair, of course. Tent pole film-making has no choice but to play it safe; no doubt, in another couple of years, the next installment will arrive as by clockwork, and there’s a fair-to-middling chance I’ll watch it too. But after the promise of its predecessor, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes does very little, narrative continuity aside, to recommend what will come in its wake. Which is a bit of a shame.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)
Directed by Matt Reeves
Starring Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Keri Russell and Gary Oldman
131 minutes, English w. Hebrew subtitles
(n.b. Several scenes feature the apes conversing with each other in a rudimentary sign language, probably Makaton. It’ll be useful to check that your screening has English subtitles if you aren’t comfortable with reading Hebrew subtitles.)