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They’ve evolved.

I don’t think most people expected Rise of the Planet of the Apes to be as good as it was. It did have some rough spots, but all in all it’s a great counterexample for arguments, and there are a lot of them, that remakes are bullshit. Rise was a banner remake, changing the original lore in accessible ways and exploring an entirely different set of themes inspired by the original work.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, a sequel I think we’re generally all very happy to receive, does the same. Not that I think anyone needs to worry themselves being concerned about the continuity and lore of a 40 year old film franchise, but I think these movies are respectful, even reverent, of their source material. This is a rare quality and you can feel it, it’s palpable, when watching these movies. Makes for a different sort of reaction from the audience when they’re not strip-mining an old IP for shallow goo-gaws.

Getting past the fact that it’s both a great remake and a great sequel, Dawn‘s attention to detail, characterization, and themes are what makes it a great movie regardless of its context and pedigree. Somewhat contrary to how it was marketed, Dawn is less a “humans vs. apes” movie and more a complex, serious “first contact” story.

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The hunting sequence, with its insider music cue, is stellar.

Ten years after Rise, the virus that Gen-Sys accidentally unleashed has wiped out most of humanity. It’s been years since Caesar’s colony of apes have seen any humans. While they’ve been in seclusion they’ve become a nation with sophistication around what we would consider Neolithic. They’ve created a settlement, mastered horseback riding, and become a society of hunters all in a way (depicted in an amazing, eerie scene) that is very reminiscent of what we think our own ancestors were like.

Caesar (Andy Serkis) remains the leader of the apes and his rule is a happy one. However, the “human question” remains unsolved. When they appear again, looking for a way to restore power to their own colony in San Fransisco, the question becomes the catalyst for the end of the apes’ idyllic innocence as a culture.

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Caesar’s motivations are echoed by the primary human characters.

One of the best things about this movie is that it cares so much about all its characters, and has such great sympathy for all sides of the conflict, that no one really feels like a “bad guy”. Even Koba (Toby Kebbell), the de facto villain, only grows to that role over time as his fear and hate carry him past the point of no return, to a kind of madness that is at once horrifying and sympathetic. Likewise, Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) the human leader is like the opposite end of that coin. He’s afraid and ignorant, unable to accept the situation in front of him. He isn’t in the movie much, and way less a villain than the marketing may have suggested, but he similarly goes to desperate lengths out of very “human” motivations.

Koba starts off mistrusting the humans and worrying about Caesar because of his past hatred of them. When Caesar shames him for his rashness and hate, Koba recoils into those very emotions and twists his motives toward any justification, any act, to have an outlet for that fear and hatred. Koba therefore systematically becomes a villain and we watch it happen, step by step. It’s brilliantly done and keeps him sympathetic and understandable. Dawn is as much a tragedy as it is anything else, and its tragic elements are firmly rooted in character.

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If only Malcolm had more time and influence, things could have gone a very different way.

On the other end of what is really an ideological conflict being expressed by this movie, Malcolm (Jason Clarke) and Caesar forge a friendship out of mutual respect. They have a certain kinship as both are man trying to protect their families and both have a commitment to survival, peace, and prosperity. Malcolm doesn’t see the apes as enemies or rivals, but as a potentially friendly tribe of fellow survivors. The trouble is, both of these guys are do-gooders and sometimes there’s a blindness in that. People who trust can be betrayed by those who are too afraid or hateful to do the same, and that’s essential here because if you could boil this down to any one core theme, it’s that very loss of innocence that comes with realizing how vulnerable you are to others who might harm you for simply not seeing the world the same way.

All this argues for the complexity of this movie, where there are no moral absolutes, not even “Ape not kill ape”. This makes the story feel more genuine, more human, and more thoughtful than if it had adopted an “adventure epic” feel. It’s a “thinking person’s” genre movie, they’ll say.

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There’s a lot of heart and humanity in this movie.

No CG creation has ever felt as lifelike as the apes in Dawn. It’s not just the quality of the mocap, or the verisimilitude of the effects, it’s that these characters are treated as people. That’s something you never get out of Tranformers, which doesn’t need it to quite this degree obviously, but could really stand to humanize the giant robots we’re supposed to care about. Anyway, this rather obvious approach to the apes means that they can fully occupy center stage of a movie like this and it works gangbusters.

I mean, more people applauded Dawn of the Planet of the Apes than did Transformers: Age of Extinction. There’s hope!

In some ways, it feels like Dawn is a proof of concept that not only can realistic CG characters carry a movie, but so can their culture, politics, and lore. This feels like a confident example of how hey, this can work, bring on the next movie where it’ll go even further. I know we’ll get that next movie. Dawn is going to not only be a financial success, but a critical one.

That’s awesome because it really feels like they’re building something here. And they’re getting there with ape politics, rudimentary though they may be. You just know there was push back on this, that someone somewhere tried to make sure the focus on the apes was minimized out of fear that audiences would not take this movie seriously. The approach Dawn ends up having is the only one that matters: make us care. This movie makes us care. It earned it on the back of Rise, and re-ups in the first five minutes. It earns that fucking applause.

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Even though everything is Koba’s fault and terribly tragic, you can’t help but root for him just a tiny bit sometimes.

In case anyone is thinking this movie is all ape politics, don’t worry. There are two very awesome scenes of the apes laying a smackdown on humans. The first is symbolic, after one of Malcolm’s people shoots an ape out of fear. Caesar mounts a display of strength, letting the humans know who he and his people are and what they can do. They weren’t expecting armed, horse riding apes in warpaint. They weren’t expecting apes who can tell them off, either.

The second is the one in the trailers, where Koba manufactures a battle with the humans. This battle scene is incredible, showing in real time how the apes are both advantaged and disadvantaged when fighting experienced, armed humans. Even with guns, the apes do not know how to fight and have to learn literally on the spot. Koba’s ferocity is something else here, even though at this point he’s done enough bad things to be a bad guy. There’s this intense sequence where he’s riding a tank as the turret swivels, showing muralistic swaths of the battle as he becomes a source of inspiration and strength to the apes. This one scene is enough to justify all the apes who follow him even after he murders one, even after he goes full despot. On a purely cinematic level, this sequence stands out in an exceptionally well made movie, but it’s also the storytelling significance of it that sets it up as a wonderful example of why Dawn is so very good.

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Maurice remains the best. The book they’re reading?Black Hole of all fucking things.

Like I said before, Dawn is more of a first contact story. It treats the tense, painful collision of ape and human cultures in much the same way as we might treat a story about European colonists having a confrontation with an indigenous tribe. We understand now that fear, mistrust, and past hatred have never served those encounters well and, despite the best efforts of some, drove serious and damaging conflict. It’s the same here. It’s not “humans are bad and apes are good”.

More than that, it ends with Caesar and Malcolm’s sad resignation that war is inevitable. Koba went too far, hurt the humans and apes (through the humans) too much for there to be any way back. That’s a pretty bold place to end things, but it also sets up the way the apes have to adapt from their innocence and try to become both mighty enough to survive and responsible enough to make survival worth it. In some ways, this feels like a retelling of our own origins, where perhaps our ancestors had similar chances to do things right and failed. The apes have the benefit of the human example, and watching too many humans not really committing to starting over and trying to do things better is a sobering aspect of the movie for audiences and is meant to show why the apes always choose their own way.

If Rise was the birth and Dawn is the childhood of their culture, I think we can expect the next film to focus on the trials and maturation of adolescence. Expect it to be rough. It’s interesting to point out that Caesar, as a character, is always a step or two ahead of that journey to maturity. This speaks to why the others follow him, why he commands respect and even deference even from humans. Caesar is a great character, full stop, and I could easily write at this length just about him.

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Awww yeah.

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