Monday, March 14, 2016

Scars make you strong: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Of the Apes movies made this millennium, this one is the closest to being a remake--of Battle for the Planet of the Apes.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, 2014, directed by Matt Reeves.

 It starts with apes fighting a bear and hunting deer. It's been ten years since the battle on the Golden Gate Bridge, and the apes are doing well in their new Redwood home. They haven't seen humans in a couple of years, so they get kind of disturbed when a few show up in their park. Caesar (Serkis again) leads a party to the human stronghold in the city and tells them to stay away. Of course the humans don't--they went into the forest in the first place to try to get a dam working so they can maintain their electricity. See, civilization sort of fell apart after Rise, what with the super-virus killing ninety-some percent of humanity.

Caesar lets the humans get at the dam, but one chimpanzee in particular--Koba (Toby Kebble)--isn't happy with it. Koba was mistreated, scarred, and experimented on by humans, so he's more than a little bit angry at the whole species. He goes to the city and finds out that humans are stockpiling their weaponry. He then steals some guns, and shoots Caesar. But nobody sees him do it, so the rest of the apes are convinced when Koba says that a human did it. Based on that, Koba is able to lead the apes in an attack on the humans, using the guns they stole and a bunch of horses that they got from who knows where. Lots of dudes and apes die.

But Caesar isn't dead, and the humans who were with the apes take him back to the house where Rodman raised him. There they fix him up, and he goes to confront Koba. The two fight, and Caesar lets Koba fall to his apparent doom. That last bit is important, because one of the ape rules is "Ape Not Kill Ape." Koba recites this to Caesar at the end, but Caesar replies, "You are not ape" before dropping him.

It's pretty grim stuff, but compelling. It's more or less a meditation on the origins and necessities of civilization. Caesar begins the movie with a scowl, which lasts until he's shot. Not even the birth of his second son cheers him up. Once he's revived by the humans, his scowl becomes a frown and he spends the rest of the movie being sad.

Caesar's a great character, but even so when I was watching this movie the first time I was disappointed by it. The whole plot with the dam felt a little light-weight for a movie about revolution and apocalypse. But this time I saw it for what it was--an excuse to throw the humans into conflict with the apes. That's why it doesn't matter that they get the dam going almost immediately. This movie borrows quite a bit from the end of the earlier apes franchise, Battle for the Planet of the Apes, in which Caesar goes into the ruins of the city to find some old recordings of his parents. It doesn't so much matter there, either, why the two groups come into conflict--though in that film the humans attack the apes' settlement. Dawn reverses that.

Battle and Dawn both highlight the ambivalence of civilization. Neither side can claim to be wholly good. Caesar's decision to drop Koba at the end highlights this. In Battle, the conflict among the apes is also inter-species; Koba's role is filled by a gorilla general named Aldo, and Aldo falls to his death through no action of Caesar's. Chimps dominate Dawn. One orangutan, Maurice from the previous film, gets some screen time, and there are gorillas, but not named or given anything to do but be intimidating.

Where Battle felt unnecessary to me because Caesar had rejected violence at the end of Conquest, this one isn't about rejecting violence. It's about, in some ways, purging the violent or undesirable element...through violence. That's the bleak part about it. It seems to be saying that civilization will always have that element, no matter how you try to eradicate it. Even redefining the problem doesn't get rid of it; it's merely rationalization. Once the apes have language, what do they do with it?

I've been interested in these movies partly because of the potential to explore a culture of another species. It's one thing that speculative fiction can do really well when it wants to--show us how someone other than us solves the same problems we encounter. Speculative ethnography. In the apes movies, we get very little culture (movies really aren't suitable to any sort of deep depiction). So we see that the female chimps attending Cornelia's labor are wearing weird face veils, which they may or may not wear during other times (not all of them wear the veils, which seem to be made of shells or something, can't really tell). The standard is to show viewers an education scene, in which kids are being taught something. Battle did that, making it fit into the conflict between the gorilla and chimpanzee ways of doing things, and showing us the second-class (or maybe fourth-class) status humans endured so soon after the revolution. Dawn gives us one such scene, during which apes are being taught by Maurice. That's where we first see the "Ape Not Kill Ape" rule. We also see their sign language, since even the best of them can speak only haltingly, with great difficulty. I'm no expert on sign language, but it looks like they've developed their own based on what Maurice and Caesar knew before their escape. I like that about the film.

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