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'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes' makes a strong argument for humanity's extinction

Polygon's Culture section deals with the intersection of gaming, its audience and pop culture as a whole. This is where we'll put non-gaming stories we think are worth talking about. Warning: This article contains massive spoilers for all things Planet of the Apes.

The end of the world is caused by someone who wanted to cure their father.

There is no greater motivation or villain to be found in the Planet of the Apes franchise. It’s important to watch and remember the events of the first film if you want to understand the themes and ideas explored in the second. Conflict flows downhill, and one of the most interesting aspects of this series is that almost all of the violence starts with the best of intentions.

In Rise of the Planet of the Apes a scientist is working on a viral cure for Alzheimer’s that not only fixes damaged brain tissue but improves cognitive function in working tissue. The problem is that it may make the apes smart, but it kills humans. The first movie ended with an infected airline pilot spreading the virus, and the second movie picks up 10 years later, with the vast majority of the human race already destroyed.

The intelligent apes, chimps, gorillas and orangutans have created their own society in the trees. They are peaceful, self-sufficient and don’t want for much. Caesar, their leader, has troubles getting his son to listen, and he worries about his wife’s health after she gives birth to his second son. They have teachers, and stress that ape must never kill ape. They talk about the humans from time to time, but no one has seen a person for around 10 years. There is little to worry about except hunting, raising their children and maintaining order.

They have something to lose and a reason to be afraid

Caesar presents a nearly Christ-like figure in the movie. He orchestrated the apes’ exodus to the woods in the first film, and kept the human body count to a minimum. His counter-part is Koba, an ape who was tortured by the humans in the first film. "Human work," Koba says during one scene, pointing to his useless left eye. "Human work," he repeats, pointing to the scars that cover his body.

None of these characters, and the apes are all characters with their own outlook and motivations, learned about humans as we see ourselves. "You only saw their worst," one character signs. Caesar is one of the few apes taken in by a human and loved. The rest of them fear the needles, cages and experimentation of their captors. The apes have spears, organized hunting behavior and a large number of able fighters with which to defend themselves. They have something to lose and a reason to be afraid.

Later in the film, two young apes encounter a human, who is justifiably terrified, and one is shot. Before I get any further in discussing the story, I have a question for you: Do you think this movie is anti-human, or just anti-gun?

Jonathon Dornbush

I would be inclined to say Dawn makes a strong case against both humans and guns. Other than Jason Clarke’s Malcolm and Keri Russell’s Ellie, few non-ape characters are depicted as wanting peace. Humans have lost at the beginning of this film — there’s no doubt about that — and the small pockets that have survived are fighting against a ticking timer.

Dawn certainly falls on the side of the apes, but it’s not a clear black and white depiction of good apes versus bad humans, which is one of the film’s most appealing factors. Caesar believes all apes are better than humans, but his journey shows the flaws of that belief. He sees the kindness in Malcolm, and the trust he places in humans colors the film's latter half. Even Koba, who becomes the closest thing to a villain, is a character built upon human mistreatment.

Guns actually never seem to get anyone what they want in the film.

In terms of the film’s stance on guns? Look, things aren’t pretty for the humans, who think these weapons will keep them safe. Dawn turns their notion on its head, as the guns are used against them in the simian takeover of San Francisco. Koba and his fellow apes stumble across the human stockpile of ammunition and, simply by the possession of this firepower, Koba views the humans as aggressors to be killed before they attack the apes. It’s clear throughout the film both Koba and Caesar, who fall on different sides of the morality scale, fear guns.

In fact, guns actually never seem to get anyone what they want in the film. Malcolm makes his way to the hydroelectric dam not by using guns, but by sacrificing them so the apes will let his group pass through their territory. A hidden gun endangers the trust Caesar places in Malcolm, and the mere presence of guns reignites the war between humans and apes.

I think the film, more than being anti-gun, is using guns and this weakened state of humanity to demonstrate the follies of mankind while the apes work through similar issues. There are clear threads of trust and family running through the film, both on the human and ape sides of the conflict. Caesar’s arc throughout the film is built primarily on his sense of trust in apes above humans and the desire to protect the mother of his children. I won't say wife since we haven’t yet seen an ape marriage ceremony in the franchise.

Caesar’s concerns are not unlike Malcolm’s, who seeks to salvage humanity while also protecting the family he’s made with his son and Ellie. Dawn does some incredible work in establishing foils for its central characters, and I’m curious to hear what you thought about the relationships the film establishes throughout the narrative.

Ben Kuchera

Both sides are trying to do the best things for those under their care, but again I find myself sympathetic to the apes way over the people. There are good people in the movie, but the humans are doing what humans do: Striving for technology, spreading their power and trying to grow their numbers. The first attack happens because the people are trying to get to a dam that can be used as a power supply, but just happens to be on ape territory.

As one of the characters in the movie points out, the apes don't need power. They don't need lights, or ice cubes in their soda. People do, or at least they think they do. The ape civilization is infinitely sustainable and at peace with itself. The human settlement is pushing outwards for more power. Koba sees the collection of weapons as escalation in the conflict, but is that belief flawed?

Gary Oldman's character only begins to unpack the warehouse full of armaments, up to and including a tank that's shown off to stunning effect in the movies penultimate scene, after the apes show their power to the humans. Caesar wanted to make it clear that the apes would win in open battle, but it can be avoided by both sides steering clear of the other. The humans aren't happy with that arrangement, and increase their firepower in a matter of days. Koba may not be sympathetic, but he's not wrong. The humans take every opportunity to increase aggressions in the film.

Caesar is practicing appeasement, and we know how that strategy worked in human history. The humans meet apes and shoot a child. Caesar shows force and warns them to stay away. The humans return and ask to fix the power plant. Caesar says they can do so, and then go away. Another child finds a shotgun, and Caesar ultimately decides to give them one more day to finish work with the help of the apes. It keeps going wrong, and Caesar keeps hoping that by giving the humans what they want, the apes will be left alone. Koba knows better.

The death toll in the film could have been lessened, or removed entirely, if one side or the other had moved instantly to wipe the other out upon learning of their existence. Both sides discuss it. Or they could have worked together and kept their word, but mistrust and escalating aggressions prevent that from being a working strategy. The best villains in any work of fiction are the ones that half-convince you that they're right, which is why Magneto makes such a powerful presence in pop culture. Koba is in a similar boat: He's a victim of the worst, most brutal side of humanity, and he's willing to fight first to make sure it doesn't happen again.

Relationships fuel the film, because they give each side something to lose. There isn't a single character who hasn't suffered unimaginable things before the first scene even begins, which makes much of their behavior at least understandable. These are characters who have been hurt, and just want to keep what they have safe. They have families, and they know how bad things were in the years between the beginning of the plague to the settlements they now protect. Malcolm says that his son has seen things no child can see, and the fear of that anarchy happening again is what causes this new war.

There is no reason that both sides couldn't have gotten what they want, but having enough and living in peace has never been a part of humanity. Here's a thought experiment for you, Jonathon: If the dam was fixed, and the humans had power, and they left the apes alone but made contact with the military or other settlements, do you think the humans would be comfortable with a peaceful civilization of intelligent apes sharing the world with them? My guess is the apes will always be seen as the enemy, no matter their actions.

Jonathon Dornbush

I definitely agree, peaceful co-existence of the humans and apes would never have lasted for long, even if, in this theoretical Planet of the Apes and Humans, Malcolm and Caesar led their respective camps. Tensions would eventually bubble over, and it would more than likely come from the human side of the conflict.

My sympathies for the humans really begin and end with Malcolm, he’s fighting a losing battle both for and against his own people. I merely wanted to point out that the film does a tremendous job of, as you acknowledge, making you understand the motivations of every major character. In the end, my sympathies also lie more so with the apes, particularly as the human actions in the film's climactic battle seek to only find resolution through more devastation.

I found Caesar’s attempts at appeasement fascinating, however, because even though they fail, these actions shape the ape he transforms into by the film’s end. Caesar becomes a stronger leader because of the knowledge that blind trust in his own species is a fallible stance.

His belief is of course wavered in seeing how Koba behaves throughout the film, and I agree the film does a remarkable job of making him a villain with sensible convictions. One of the film’s most powerful moments for me is when Koba throws one of his fellow apes over the wall of a second story staircase. The horrific moment is punctuated by the ape’s thud of a crash, and yet Koba’s behavior is in no way unexpected. He refuses to let any man or ape stand in his way of destroying the force that caused him and his fellow apes so much pain.

Caesar becomes a stronger leader because of the knowledge that blind trust in his own species is a fallible stance

The film does a fantastic job of making every one of its primary apes characters we can understand, though. Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa and Amada’s Silver’s script establishes each ape as unique and well-rounded. We’ve talked about Caesar and Koba plenty — though there’s certainly more to discuss — but the film fills out their civilization with other endearing apes. Whether it’s Maurice, the third in command, Blue Eyes, Caesar’s son, or Blue Eyes’ mother Cornelia, the film quickly depicts who these characters are and why we should care about them.

But the way the apes are written on the page would be nothing without the work of the actors behind them. Andy Serkis' role was revolutionary to much of the film industry in Rise, but I think his and his fellow motion capture actors’ work, makes another major leap in this film. Caesar, Koba, Maurice — they all feel unique, and not just because of the gorgeous effects of Weta Digital, which minimize the uncanny valley's presence, but because the actor behind each of them brings such, for lack of a better word, humanity, to the apes.

Director Matt Reeves spends long stretches of the film without human characters, a sign of his brilliant direction but also a mark of confidence in the actors who bring these apes to life. For all the talk that is made of how beautiful Optimus Prime looks in Transformers or how impressive Tony Stark's suit is in Iron Man, more should be said about the work of Serkis and Weta’s advancements in this film. Without them, I don’t think we’d have nearly as much to say about Dawn’s success in giving us so much to analyze.

Ben Kuchera

He doesn't just throw an ape over the balcony, he throws his son over because the younger ape refused to beat a human to death! [Update: Sorry for the mistake, this was actually Ash, Rocket's son that was killed. My overall point still stands.] This is the moment where the character became a bit of a mustache-twirling villain, but it also shows how quickly power corrupted his ideals. He's not leading the apes to destroy the humans to keep the apes safe, he's consolidating his own power.

I'm glad you brought up the technical aspects of the movie though, because it's one of the most beautiful and confident summer blockbusters in a long time. The spinning shot on top of the tank, where the worst violence happens offscreen, is just one example. There's another tracking shot where Malcolm tries to escape capture that works perfectly to increase the tension in the scene without seeming like the director was showing off.

The film sometimes feels like a documentary, but there are no moments where a shaking camera or too-fast cuts obscure the action. You can see everything perfectly, and it's possible to follow the action without getting a headache. The special effects fade away until they're invisible, which is remarkable in a movie were so many scenes are simply intelligent apes communicating with each other through sign language. You believe that these are real characters, shooting the shit with each other the way two people would on a coffee break.

It's possible to follow the action without getting a headache

The apes were created because of human greed and hubris in the first movie, and the violence in this story is also caused by our escalation of power and need for technology. As Oldman's character states, he can't give orders without the bullhorn, so they need that electricity before the settlement devolves into chaos. The apes have no such troubles listening to each other and making decisions.

Look at how happy the humans are at hearing music again once the power is back on, and look at how the apes respond. They know that technology leads to one place: Their own destruction.

"Humans won't forgive," Caesar says in one of the final scenes, even though he exists and his family is put in jeopardy because of our weakness. The movie ends the same way it begins, with the eyes of a non-human character open wide, looking straight ahead. Waiting for whatever comes next.

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