Dawn of the Planet of the Apes picks up with a new director, Matt Reeves, ten years after the apes rebelled in Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), the previous film in the franchise. Since then, the retrovirus that made the apes strong has decimated the human population. In between the old world—which contained speeches by President Obama and an overpopulation problem–and what is to become of the new, survivors in the Bay area live in a makeshift camp without a permanent source of electricity. Their leader is Dreyfus, a war mongering and megaphone touting military man played by Gary Oldman. Meanwhile, the apes are building a harmonious society in the Muir woods outside of San Francisco. Under the sage leadership of Caesar, a noble savage type, “Ape no kill ape” is the law of the land.
Conflict arises because the humans need a source of electricity and the apes live near an inactive hydroelectric dam. If the humans don’t find a source of power soon, who knows what may happen. All faith in the renewal of the human race may be lost! Anarchy may break out! But Dreyfus is not eager to extend diplomatic efforts—“THEY’RE ANIMALS!” he reminds Malcolm, Dawn’s humanitarian hero and man of family. Malcolm convinces Dreyfus to give him three days to get the dam working with the apes’ blessing.
Having recently watched the abominable World War Z (2013), last summer’s apocalyptic sci-fi blockbuster, I couldn’t help but see in Dawn some of the same tired clichés that surfaced in that film. A big government institution–the CDC–is invoked almost immediately to lend credibility to a survivor—the medicine woman Ellie (Keri Russell) who is also our hero’s girlfriend. We learn that, for those who have suffered brutal loss and live in a state of uncertainty about the future—their own and mankind’s—the family unit is all that is left to hold onto.
Dawn is not below stooping to gross sentimentality to emphasize its heroes’ family values. There is the potentially painful separation of father from son, boyfriend from girlfriend: Malcolm insists on leaving Ellie and his son Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee) behind as he readies himself for the dangerous journey into ape-land. Alexander resists–he’ll be safer with Dad than in San Francisco, with Dreyfus in charge. This small family may share laundry lines with their fellow survivors, but we are assured that no one outside the family is to be trusted. Mid-film, Malcolm tells Ellie that everything he does, he does for his son. All this to say: Malcolm wants peace, but mostly for his family.
More emotionally engaging are the developments of unlikely relationships across the species divide. Malcolm and Caesar eventually become bros—Caesar eventually tells Malcolm that he’s a good man and they stand forehead to forehead. It’s an intense moment! But in Caesar’s eagerness to express admiration for Malcolm, he seems to have forgotten that it was Ellie who saved his and his wife’s lives—a reminder that Dawn is entirely about men and the patriarchies they build. Short shrift goes to both Keri Russell and Judi Greer as Caesar’s childbearing wife. Their characters serve primarily to develop the emotional lives of the men who love them. Dawn may carry political overtones, but they are not feminist ones.
The spirit of Dawn is at its fullest when Caesar realizes that it was a mistake to believe that apes are better than humans. It took a betrayal from Koba, his second in command, for this epiphany to come, but better late than never. Caesar has learned to see beyond false barriers and his new understanding feels like a release of all the tension that was brewing during the diplomatic process. Until Caesar’s late admission of fault, trust between human and ape, and vise-versa, is extended uncertainly and with great risk. Watching Dawn, I had the nagging feeling that things were not going to work out—either Caesar was going to turn up as a fool for allowing the humans to work the hydroelectric dam or Malcolm was going to be the fool for having entered the apes’ lair in the first place.
Both species must take substantial risks for peace but the apes, because they lack the humans’ capacity for easy violence, risk more by extending their trust. If this sounds a lot like a colonization narrative, it is. The first gunshot of the film is fired when a hiker—Dawn’s token asshole–is so baffled to encounter an ape in the woods that he shoots him dead. He acts as insensibly as the mariner who shot the Albatross in Coleridge’s “Rhyme.” Compare this scene to the one right before it where an ape uses a spear to kill a bear that threatens the life of Caesar’s young son. Caesar doesn’t need to exclaim that apes learned hate from humans for us to know that humans and, more specifically, their guns, are at the root of violence in this movie.
What makes Dawn more than just another technically impressive action film made for a male audience is its careful complication of gun violence. Dawn posits that an armory of weapons, more than the individual choices of people or apes, makes war unavoidable: there is a direct correlation between the visibility of arms and the escalation of violence. This is a message that America, certainly, cannot but hear too much.
In a media atmosphere where premium cable networks like HBO are becoming bigger and bigger business, demonstrative violence on the moving screen has become standard fare. HBO’s Game of Thrones and True Detective, FX’s The Americans and Fargo all revel in showing us one bloody murder after the next. As they uncover the psychological or political underpinnings of the violence that unfolds, each of these shows assumes that brutality is an inexorable symptom of the human condition. The universe is irreparably fallen from the start–violence is engendered in these shows, variously, by the threat of war, escalating nationalist tensions, a devilish serial killer or an underworld of child molesters on the loose. A peaceable state of things is never really a possibility; the best anyone can do in the face of these crises is to deploy violence to destroy the worst perpetrators of it.
When the KGB agent Phillip Jennings (Matthew Rhys) of The Americans must kill a cook who is merely in the wrong place at the wrong time, it’s too bad because it makes Jennings feel worse about himself and his work. But, ultimately, that cook’s death is just unfortunate. In a hostile universe, a single violent act—even a murder—doesn’t necessarily return to impact the plot or its living characters. But in Dawn, violence and the presence of guns unavoidably makes things worse. Aggressive acts, which culminate in all-out war between the humans and apes, are situated along a chain of cause and effect. Because the peacekeepers want to put the guns away completely, the mere discovery of a gun threatens the peace that the film’s most likeable characters are working to build. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is an anti-gun film because, until war begins and weapons are everywhere, every time a gun is exposed, the strain it places on everyone’s safety—those present and absent alike–is felt.
Dawn assumes that though hatred may be an especially powerful human emotion and violence a human art, if it weren’t for all the guns, it might not be so. Dawn’s form serves its focus—as a feature length film, it can weave a tighter narrative, one with fewer sub-plots and filler material than a television show could. The thought experiment at Dawn’s center creates the space for utopian possibility—in a nascent social order of intelligent and empathetic apes, the law against killing one’s own kind may stand, believably, unbroken. Until the apes get ahold of the humans’ guns, they are innocents. In the mythic universe that Dawn constructs, placing oneself or one’s species above another may be, with guns around a violent act — the sin that causes the fall.