Dawn of Time: Why the Planet of the Apes Story Has Endured

A summer blockbuster with a smart screenplay and thrilling visual design, 'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes' offers a grim view of life today.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes Directed by Matt Reeves; written by Rick Jaffe, Amanda Silver, Mark Bomback; with Jason Clarke, Andy Serkis, Keri Russell, Gary Oldman, Toby Kebbell, Kodi Smit-McPhee, 
Kirk Acevedo

War or peace? Coexistence or permanent conflict? Accepting the “other” or succumbing to primal fear and hatred that can only lead to apocalypse? Agreeing to share a piece of territory and its limited resources among rivals, or staunchly rejecting such a possibility? These questions – which seem to determine human destiny pretty much everywhere on our beleaguered planet – are explored in an intelligent yet popular way in Matt Reeves’ “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” the best summer movie – meaning, high-budget action fantasy full of special effects – since Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” from 2008 (the same year as Reeve’s original monster movie “Cloverfield”).

It is not surprising that the “Planet of the Apes” myth, first invented by French writer Pierre Boulle (who also wrote the book that inspired “The Bridge on the River Kwai”), has proved so enduring. Its original screen incarnation, Franklin J. Schaffner’s 1968 movie, appeared at the height of the Vietnam War and the protests against it, providing the precedent for turning Boulle’s invention into an apocalyptic allegory that is always open to reinterpretation. But the reinterpretations have not always been effective or wise. The first movie was followed by four inferior sequels; then, in 2001, after a long break, Tim Burton 
directed a lusterless remake of the original hit; and in 2011 Rupert Wyatt made “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.” The latter was an enormous hit, but it lacked the momentum needed for it to become a work of depth.

Now, however, Reeves’ movie has come along. “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” takes the 
allegorical elements of the myth and, using a smart screenplay and thrilling visual design of unusual quality for a summer blockbuster, offers us an apocalyptic vision that is perhaps the darkest we have seen yet in this age of filmmaking.

The plot is set in San Francisco, about a decade after the end of “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.” The epidemic that broke out at the end of Wyatt’s film, and which the apes are 
accused of spreading, has wiped out most of the world’s population (as shown in the 
visually impressive prologue). The handful of immunized 
survivors left behind are in desperate need of electricity, which can only be manufactured using a dam in the woods outside San Francisco.

These woods are now the province of the apes, who have not seen people in decades and are not even sure that the human race – which they despise – still exists. Holed up in the wreckage of San Francisco, the surviving humans have stockpiled a massive store of weapons. They know the apes are out there and are afraid of venturing into their territory. But times are desperate, and a volunteer eventually turns up: Malcolm (Jason Clarke), a widower and former architect. He is joined by Ellie (Keri Russell), a nurse who also lost her family to the plague; Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee), Malcolm’s teenage son; and a small group of others, including hotheaded Carver (Kirk Acevedo).

The humans and the apes – whose negotiations and relationships form the heart of the movie – each have their leader. On the human side we have Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), perhaps the most enigmatic character in the film. Though he has no shortage of good intentions, he lacks the experience and knowledge needed to manage a situation that becomes increasingly violent. The apes, meanwhile, have Casear (Andy Serkis, who despite being trapped in a monkey outfit gives an impressive, touching performance that may well land him an Oscar nomination), whom we first met as a baby in the previous film. He has grown into a pragmatic, peace-seeking leader who is willing to give cooperation with humans a chance. The movie pits those who want peace against those who incite war, and Caesar finds his adversary in Koba (Toby Kebbell), who accuses him of collaboration, challenges his authority and wants to eradicate humans entirely.

The apocalyptic vision that Reeves and his writing team give us is a bold one. I have no doubt that “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” will be a major hit; it is also impressive, however, that this summer blockbuster presents its audience with a rather harsh view of life on earth today. The story occasionally lapses into cliché – for example, the presentation of the family unit, which is comprised of Malcolm, his son and the new woman in his life, whose training as a nurse is sure to come in handy at some point. But Reeves uses formulas with such restraint that they do not damage the ultimate result; it is as though he recognizes that formulas are needed, but tries to push them to the sidelines of what he wants to accomplish.

Above all, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” offers a forceful flow of images in which violence combines with gentleness and even a certain lyrical quality. The movie is beautifully directed – not only compared to the usual mechanical products of the season, but as a work of contemporary American cinema in general. A sequel is bound to be in the works, and if Matt Reeves directs that, too, I will be looking forward to the result.