This is going to get spoileriffic. Strap yourselves in.
Actually, wait. If you don’t like spoilers because you’re all namby pamby and want culture itself to crumble into degeneracy, allow me to at least say this: go see this film. If you haven’t seen 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, go see that first and then see Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. The film is rich, deep, and complex, and yet manages to pack it all into an easy-to-digest action film.
It’s been a decade since the virus released at the end of Rise of the Planet of the Apes wiped out most of humankind and enhanced the other great apes. With humankind on the brink of extinction, the world has devolved into libertarian enclaves where property is determined by who has enough social violence to enforce property rights. Meanwhile, the apes have been enjoying a pre-agricultural existence in a sharply hierarchical society led by Caesar, the first genetically-enhanced ape.
This set up brings us quickly to the first interaction between the apes and humans in several years. The forest inhabited by the apes includes an old hydroelectric generator which has fallen into disrepair. The humans in a nearby city have been relying on fuel generators, but their supplies are running low. In order to survive, they need to reclaim the hydroelectric generator. As a small group of humans go into the forest, one of them comes across two young apes. Both sides exhibit fear and confusion, and the result is the human shooting one of the apes.
It’s this act that drives the rest of the movie as the two groups struggle to negotiate just terms with each other. The crime of shooting the ape can never be resolved: some of the older apes remember the brutality of the humans. One in particular, Koba, was used in scientific experiments that has left him scarred and disfigured. These apes demand retribution — vengeance, retaliation, justice — for the shooting of the young ape. The humans, on the other hand, can’t overcome their superior attitude towards the apes, whom they identify only as animals. The guy who shot the ape is never punished because they don’t recognise that any kind of crime took place.
The film depicts the perfect tragedy of engagement between the apes and the humans, with each act leading inevitably towards an all out confrontation and war. The calmer heads — Caesar, for example, who wants a sort of peaceful separatism, and Malcolm (Jason Clarke), who wants both sides to engage constructively with each other — can never get ahead of the actions of their less tempered colleagues.
As Malcolm is sent to negotiate with the apes after they told all the humans to stay away, it’s suggested by Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) that the humans will resort to culling the ape population if negotiations are unsuccessful. The apes might have the resources, but the humans have brute force to get what they want. But the apes are also seeking recompense for an unpunished crime, and the humans continue to treat the apes like an inferior caste.
Playing out these issues, the film could easily have taken the easy ‘Humans are bad because they want to control nature; but the apes live in commune with their world’ line (cf Avatar, Pocahontas, The Smurfs 3D). Instead, the film shows us two complex societies where radicalisation and extremism arise as a direct result from a lack of more palatable options. Koba can’t accept a compromise position with the humans because of what they did to him. To entertain the idea of a peaceful coexistence with the humans is to deny the suffering he continues to experience that humans inflicted upon him. Similarly, Dreyfus has no ability to relate to the apes because he sees them and their needs as a lower order issue. They’re not humans. Humans need to survive. They have dominion over the other creatures. Wiping them out is no different to wiping out any other natural threat.
Caesar and Malcolm lack the tools needed to avert the inevitable conflict. Despite Malcolm’s assurances that the group coming to fix the power generator won’t be armed, the apes find a gun on one of the people in his group. Instead of handing the offending gun owner over to the apes for justice, the humans place him in some kind of rudimentary ‘time out’ spot.
Koba eventually decides upon an end justifies the means approach. The humans can’t be trusted and they’re preparing to wipe out the apes if Malcolm isn’t successful. What is fascinating — borderline genius — in this film is that Koba can go fairly much undetected in sensitive areas (the armory, for example) simply by acting like a ‘dumb ape’. Because the humans do not take the apes seriously, nor consider them to be equals of moral worth, Koba plays dumb and panders to the prejudice of the humans. To be invisible among the humans, Koba need only act in the way they expect him to act.
But this in turn feeds Koba’s prejudices about the humans, and he is completely blind to the possibility that he’s wrong about peaceful coexistence. But with Caesar occupying a position of absolute authority within their ape society, Koba’s only option is to eliminate Caesar and those who oppose all out war with the humans.
There are a few times when the script plays a bit too much into cliche: Caesar discovering that apes and humans are more alike than he’d like to admit, for example; Caesar also seems to think that the apes caused the war. The better interpretation of these cliches is that even Caesar himself does not fully understand the situation in which he has found himself. Sure, Koba betrays him, but Koba was also correct about the human threat. Koba might have instigated this particular battle, but if he hadn’t, the humans would have.
The film also deals gently with the issue of self sacrifice, with a few characters even blowing themselves up for their cause. Within the confines of the character’s knowledge, they act entirely rationally. ‘I set off the bomb and sacrifice myself so that my group can continue to prosper.’ With the omniscient perspective of the audience, it is easier to see how these characters have such limited perspectives. Although there’s a simple and obvious solution to their problems, it’s only achievable through collective will. No individual can unilaterally effect their desired outcome, even though many think that they can.
This is a fabulous film. The first half can seem a bit long and laborious, but every part of it pays off in the end. It’s crafted excellently and doesn’t shy away from really uncomfortable questions about morality, justice, and ius ad bellum.