"Home. Family. Future." These are the things apes and humans struggle for in the film which could challenge for the title as this summer's - this year's - cinematic champion. That film is Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, directed by Matt Reeves. It has been a dreadfully long time - a winter of cold patience - since I've experienced a film that can boast the awesome ability, that this movie has, to toy and tangle with our emotions and sensations. Few films that I've seen can hoist us up and plunge us down the way Dawn does. As the moviegoer - casual or not - will nearly instantaneously discover, this is a pleasant, crazy, harrowing, and amazing leap from the high shoulders of it's blockbuster prequel, Rise of the Planet of the Apes.
When we first met Caesar (Andy Serkis), the main ape protagonist, in the first installment of the reboot series, he was a young, intelligent yet still-developing chimpanzee, learning to manage in a human-dominated world that is still, buy-n-large, indifferent to the mistreatment of animals. In his youth, Caesar realized some harsh realities through difficult circumstances, namely Man's hubris and power-craving. After being separated from his adopted caretaker (James Franco) - this caretaker being a scientist responsible for a gene therapy medication which caused the apes' heightened intelligence and the unfortunate, ensuing outbreak of a Simian flu - Caesar realized that not all humans are good, and that recognizing your friends from your foes is as much a grey area as it is certainly a necessary element of his struggle for personal influence and resolution to the overarching conflict between humans and an insurgent ape culture.
These themes, and their inevitable implications, spill over into the plot of the July, 2014 flick. In the opening sequence of Dawn, across the map we see the Simian flu decimate the human population, while the humans themselves turn on each other in the craze. Ten years after the events of the first film, we are reconnected to the ape group which has settled down in the redwood forest near San Francisco, California. We are also abruptly acquainted with the humans who have survived and settled in the ruinous San Francisco city, itself. The audience, just by observation, can deduce three things from the early encounters between the apes and humans.
One, the apes have sophisticated and become more civilized after ten years. In a scene following the opening credits, the ape tribe commences a hunting campaign, lead by Caesar and fellow ape, Koba (Toby Kebbell). They set up the attack with stealth, they communicate in silence, until Caesar gives the terrorizing call for onslaught against a fleeing herd of what looks like caribou or deer. The successful horde of ape hunters return to their tight-nit community - a vast multitude of families and elders, finding their refuge in closely connected, earnest, woody homes. They educate each other. They speak to each other. They embrace each other. They hold each other accountable. And it can be seen that Caesar has matured into a fully grown, eloquent, and powerful leader of the colony, to whom his companions willingly surrender their allegiance. There is almost a hierarchy dominating over the apes, but there is a moral code embedded into it, and them, which Caesar consistently adheres to.
Secondly, the apes have the survival edge on humans. Of course, to Caesar and company, it is initially uncertain whether humans even exist still, after they were ravaged by the Simian flu. This is clear in an early conversation between Orangutan Maurice and Caesar. But as a couple of Apes were strolling through the forest unsuspectingly, everything was changed as they were rudely but unintentionally run into by a small group of travelling humans. Of course, both the apes and the humans were startled by suddenness as well as the significance of the encounter, and the initial human present, in his fear and confusion, dared to fire his gun and shoot one ape (probably more of a warning shot than an action to kill). Alarmed by the blast, the rest of the apes in the tribe scurried to rescue the two distressed apes, and surrounded the small group of humans. Caesar, upright with bravado (and some contempt?), commands the humans to “go”. In this scene, we meet Malcolm (Jason Clarke), who leads the humans and does not view the apes as a necessary threat to existence (nor does he blame them for the Simian flu). Eventually, the audience discovers that the humans were looking for a hydroelectric dam to generate power. The humans find out, to their misfortune, that the dam is situated in the apes’ domain. So there is an interesting contrast one can draw between the two species. The humans, who survived the flu contagion, though existing across the globe, are few in the San Fran residence. The apes appear to have been unscathed by the epidemic and have indeed multiplied over ten years. The apes live in peace, in community. They have all that they need: resource, security, and each other. Humans, on the other hand, struggle for much more. They struggle for fuel and power for communication with the outside world. Humans fear returning to their primitive origins, "back to the way things were". They are desperate, apes are not.
Thirdly, both the ape and human settlements are populated by saints and sinners. In the human camp, Malcolm understands the history between the apes and the humans and thus harbors no disdain for them. He is, in a sense, the personification of empathy and understanding and demonstrates a positive response to a grievous, tragic past (he lost his family) which almost all humans, at this point, share. Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) is also a human leader, but has a different point of view. To him, apes are still only animals, untrustworthy and expendable. Another human, named Carver (Kirk Acevedo), who aids Malcolm in repairing the dam, outright blames the apes for the Simian flu. In the ape camp, obviously we have Caesar who always seeks to do what is right. Caesar and Malcolm are almost mirror reflections of each other, in this respect. But there is an interesting character in Koba. Koba, similar to Carver, despises the opposite species because of the perceived harm (imprisonment, torture) they caused. So he is immediately skeptical of the humans’ motives, not unlike Caesar or any other ape, but the bias is heavily against them. (The character foils detailed in this paragraph do develop tremendously throughout the film as this is only an early portrait. The character development in this story truly astonishes me.)
After the initial conflict, the plot takes off at a pretty rapid pace. The characters quickly establish their role to play and the game-board is set with haste. Fearing the intrusion of the humans into their homeland, Caesar gives them the ultimatum: keep to yourselves, or we’ll defend ourselves if need be. "Apes do not want war." His voice blankets the air and swallows our harrowed attention, and though it’s terrifying to hear, it also has some warmth that makes you want hear more from Caesar, our primate hero. Just hearing Caesar’s speech – it would make sense for the humans to want to stay put. But for some, namely the humans’ primary leader, Dreyfus, the dam is too critical to simply give up. Pursuing the extraction of electrical energy from the dam, by Caesar’s terms, could mean war. Some humans believe the apes could instigate a war as a means of eliminating a threat. So the game becomes one of chicken – who strikes first? Malcolm, however, isn't ready to give up and believes he can peacefully regenerate the dam’s power flux and negotiate with Caesar. He’s given three days to do so, by Dreyfus, before the humans would attack the apes first and seize the dam. This is the tipsy pendulum upon which the balance rests. Malcolm, with the help of some trustworthy friends and engineers, goes into the woods and confronts the apes in their own territory. Though an uneasy meet at the start, Malcolm eventually convinces Caesar that his motives are sincere. Though Caesar is still somewhat skeptical, he allows Malcolm to stay and get the dam going again but on terms that they give up their firearms. Koba is, in his mind, certain that the humans are just setting up an assault. We see him on multiple occasions quarreling, especially with Caesar, on the matter, fearing for the survival of the apes. Over the three days, the small band of humans work away and gradually earn the trust of Caesar and the pressure to wage war lessens. But it’s just when the situation seems contained that the fuse ignites. Basically, it’s only a matter of one unfortunate occurrence after another until the game comes to its furious end, its tumultuous climax, where love and fear coil and swirl as an agitated solution reacts into violent spark. Camps divide against themselves. Modest characters become heroes. The once loyal good guys become rebellious villains, and the dark side of the apes crawls out from the shade as the intrigue reaches overwhelming levels. "War has already begun."