Film View: “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”

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I’ve been a fan of The Planet of the Apes films since I was a kid. Starting with what is now the classic movie starring Charlton Heston as George Taylor — an astronaut whose ship crash lands on a planet that’s ruled by apes. Later, of course, it’s revealed that the planet is Earth that was destroyed by a nuclear holocaust. It’s a different story than the one Pierre Boulle wrote in 1963 called “Monkey Planet” or “Planet of the Apes” (depending on the translation). In that story, there was a not-so-thinly veiled tale about colonialism and how the former colonized become the colonizer — except instead of people of colour, they are apes. Some of the characters are the same in the book, and there is a discovery of an ancient city were humans were the masters and the apes were the slaves, until a slave rebellion occurs. One of the differences in the story is that the main character, Ulysse Mérou, travels to another planet (Soror) as part of an exploration mission. The other planet is not Earth, but its own world with a history that’s similar to Earth’s.

The 1968 film penned by Michael Wilson and Rod Serling adapts some of the novel’s plot, but adds its own twist at the end. The film version is less about colonization than it is about ’60s rebellion against the status quo and a cautionary tale about the misuse of nuclear weapons and technology in general. Flash forward past the abomination of Tim Burton’s remake of The Planet of the Apes, to Rise of the Planet of the Apes, where the focus is on the development of the first ape who could speak, Caesar. That movie was about his development with his human teachers, animal cruelty, the excesses of scientific research into curing diseases, the eventual rise of more intelligent apes through wholly chemical means, and the downfall of humankind through a super flu that wipes out almost all us.

Now we have arrived at the “dawn.” The story picks up 10 to 12 years after the super flu left only pockets of human communities. Caesar has a fully developed (or rapidly developing) ape society living in Muir Woods where they hunt, build structures to live in, teach their children how to read, and are just trying to live in peace so their families can thrive. And then the pesky humans arrive (accidentally). There’s one hair-trigger happy guy who shoots one of the apes he happens upon, and that starts the conflict between the two camps. There’s a human colony living in San Francisco, and they are trying to find a power plant to turn the lights back on, connect with other humans and rebuild the society that was decimated by the flu. The source of the power supply is an old hydroelectric dam that’s, you guessed it, near ape city. There are the good humans who just want the same things as Caesar and his ilk, and there are bad humans (and apes) who want to go to war with each other. Caesar is a smart tactician and doesn’t want to risk a war because he doesn’t want to see apes die and their community suffer losses. He’s a family/community guy who wants things to be stable. There are some humans who want the same thing, but they are outnumbered by others who will go to war to “reclaim” what is there’s. Well, you probably see where this is headed. And since it’s about the “dawn” of ape civilization, things do not bode well for the humans. In a review by my Popdose colleague, Bob Cashill, who noted the threat of gun violence in the film made the viewer really feel the threat. It’s not that this is an anti-gun screed, but it does show how the use of a gun to quickly and easily kill an opponent can escalate warfare.

Overall, I really enjoyed “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.” It’s slow pace, economical use of violence (except toward the end), character development, and explication of the philosophies of apes and humans made it a better summer movie than the usual ones that assault your senses with explosions, fights, dare-devil stunts and the like. Instead, the film leaves audiences speculating about the progression of the story and where the filmmakers can take it.

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