Review by Gene
I was a big fan of Rupert Wyatt’s first installment to this rebooted series, Rise of the Planet of the Apes. I don’t know of many who were not pleased with it. I felt the story laid a very solid foundation for a larger project, the intellectual and emotional progression of Caesar was tastefully and realistically done, and the action sequences were satisfying as well. All that praise, plus the spectacular CGI which brought these apes to life. The CGI alone really made the 2001 reboot starring Mark Wahlberg, though sufficient for its time, look like child’s play.
Now three years later, Matt Reeves has picked up the directing scepter and impresses again with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Events set in motion in Rise lead to a virus of sorts, dubbed the “Simian flu”, which wipes out over 99% of the human population on the planet. Now a full 10 years after those events, the remaining humans have made it through some very difficult times and are finding themselves confronted with a previously unknown enemy while trying to grasp at vestiges of their past.
In that 10 years Caesar has led a flourishing ape community complete with education, language and infrastructure. All of these advances no doubt initiated by Caesar himself from what he learned while raised by Will Rodman (James Franco) in Rise. At the heart of their civilized society, and a theme which reappears throughout the film, is a simple command etched on a stone wall: “Ape No Kill Ape”. This is real basic Ten Commandments type stuff (c’mon, it’s even written on stone), but it’s really an expression of the trust shared between apes and their common allegiance to Caesar. They have stood witness for a decade of what humans do to one another when confronted with dire circumstances. Apes don’t treat each other that way. They believe themselves to be better than that. And they are. For a while.
Though satisfied with their flourishing ape family, the curiosity as to the whereabouts of any remaining humans persists. That curiosity is satisfied when a small group of humans encounters the apes while searching for a dam which can produce electricity for them. The humans need for the power provided by the dam, and the ape’s mistrust of humans in general, sets the stage for some highly tense moments. This is where the film shines, in my opinion. In all instances of human engagement with apes I saw genuine and believable fear in their eyes. Whether it was Malcolm (Jason Clarke) and his small posse starring in amazement at 80-some apes, or Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) looking fearfully from behind the city walls at hundreds of armed apes. In reality they are just looking at men with silly looking, meticulously placed dots on their body. Andy Serkis (playing Caesar) in many cases. That is a testament to the direction and acting in this film.
The tension between humans and apes quickly turns into tension between ape and ape, which necessitates a choice that causes tension between human and human. We just have all sorts of inter-species tension going on! In one such scene an ape leader, Koba, asks a younger ape, Ash, to do something unthinkable. Ash says, “Caesar wouldn’t want this”. The film does a terrific job of conjuring feelings of empathy in the audience for many of the situations these apes find themselves in, and this is one of them. I immediately thought of the popular phrase, “What would Jesus do?” That is basically what Ash was saying. He knew what Caesar would do and it wasn’t what he was being asked to do. We’re often confronted with similar, though perhaps less dire circumstances. We know the right thing to do, we know what the Lord would have us do. Do we have the courage to follow through with that? As James 4:17 says, “Therefore, to one who knows the right thing to do and does not do it, to him it is sin.”
There is one final point in the film I’d like to focus on. I’ll try to do it without giving too much away, but it really is a perfect synopsis of the main confrontation in the film. It occurs in a conversation between Caesar and his eldest son, Blue eyes. Blue eyes says, “Koba say apes should hate humans.” To which Caesar replies, “From humans Koba learned hate, nothing else.” If you recall, Koba is the scarred ape from Rise which the trainers are instinctually afraid of. He was experimented on and tortured his entire life by humans. That’s all he knew of them. He interpreted that as hatred for him, so he developed a hatred of them. In one scene he points to his various scars and explains how that is what “human work” actually is. He learned how they behaved and he was eager to repay them just as violently. Caesar on the other hand was raised by humans with love, kindness and compassion. He was taught to be kind to others and so he has a tendency for compassion in most cases, even despite others pleading against that. This really got me thinking about how we as Christians impact the attitudes of those around us based on how we treat them.
I performed an in-depth, scientific study (i.e., Yahoo search) on what is the general perception of Christians. I typed in “Christians are”, and let the auto fill do its thing. The most popular results were: hypocrites, like pumpkins, stupid, annoying, the light of the world, crazy, not perfect, terrorists, and insane. That’s quite a list. This is what the general public, or at least as far as Yahoo can discern, thinks of Christians. You have to go 5 deep before you get to a favorable description. 1 Peter 3:15 encourages us to always give a defense for the hope that lies within us, “yet with gentleness and meekness”. If we, as a worldwide group of believers, were speaking with gentleness and meekness, do you think we would be described as annoying, crazy, insane or like pumpkins? Actually, not sure on that pumpkins one… hmmm. Anyway, my point is to encourage you to be mindful, not just of what you say to the world (non-believers), but also how you say it. Caesar could’ve been taught to read and sign by the end of a whip, but he was taught with love and it took root in his heart. This doesn’t mean we’re soft on important matters, but we can show our heart and love for others while we speak the truth.
The movie concludes where we probably all should have assumed it would. A bit of a cliffhanger alluding the future films. And indeed the third, yet to be named installment in this series, directed again by Reeves, is set to release in July 2016!
My Rating: 4/5
I know my high praise throughout this review might be cause for a bit higher rating, but there are a couple of points of critique I have. At the end of Rise, Koba seemed to still be very angry, menacing, and even conspiring. At his introduction in Dawn he is wholeheartedly loyal to Caesar, even expressing relief when he finds him to be safe after a close encounter with a bear. There is little explanation as to this apparent change so it seems this loyal Koba is a bit shoe-horned in to have some believable conflict later. The CGI is absolutely splendid, equally as good as or better than in Rise if you can believe it, but there was a short scene with an infant ape in which eye-lines didn’t match up and parts seemed visually fake. That’s very picky, but it’s there. Finally, for a film which pins two sentient, communicating species against one another with glaringly clear moral controversy, it certainly kept its distance from tackling those issues head on. Perhaps they’re building up to do so in later films. As Logan described, the original 1968 film is rife with debate surrounding religion, science, morals, ethics, etc. and we haven’t yet reached a true reboot of that film yet in this series. Also, and this may just be me, but I would’ve liked a wrap up of some sort regarding Will Rodman, the man who rescued and raised Caesar. We’re left to assume he died of the Simian flu. That’s probably the story, and it’s not as if Caesar would have any way of finding out. I just find it hard to believe that after raising Caesar, then this virus breaking out, there was apparently no interaction between them after they departed in the forest. Be that as it may, this film is as good as I hoped it would be. It doesn’t break any new ground or deliver any shockers, but it is a very solid film and has me waiting eagerly for the next!