Planet of the Apes films have always been scary to audiences both young and old. Not the “boo” scary of a horror movie or even the “ewww” scary of a monster movie. Sure the makeup and effects have been consistently overwhelming and grotesque from the first incarnation in 1968 to Tim Burton’s brain dead “re-imagining” (whatever the hell that is) to the pumped up 3D version in theaters this week. But that’s not what continues to scare me about this franchise. It’s the sense of existential dread that man’s dominance on our planet is perilous and finite. That our own technology and hubris could pave the way for another intelligent and able-bodied species to take our place as the masters of the Earth. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is perhaps the most riveting exploration of those fears in the entire history of the long-running franchise.
The earlier films and their newer counterparts both express the fears and moral conundrums of their day. The films of the 60’s and 70’s were cautionary tales about the consequences of racial inequality and the palpable fear of worldwide nuclear annihilation. Charleton Heston’s beach-pounding “damn you all to hell” in front of the rusted and ruined Statue of Liberty rivals Doctor Strangelove as cinema’s greatest anti-war statement of the nuclear age. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and its immediate predecessor Rise are about anxieties over man’s increasing dependence on pharmaceuticals and the fear that a modern and insidious plague could bring our civilization to its knees. It’s no mistake that the post-apocalyptic society (and landscape) of the newest film resembles something out of Walking Dead or Contagion rather than The Omega Man.
But apes prove much livelier than zombies in the rousing spectacle of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. They growl and leap and pound on bears, humans and each other. They eventually steal our weapons and overtake our streets in the heart-pounding climactic battle — the best the series has ever seen and the all out ape war I’ve been waiting for since I was a boy. The image of the warmongering chimp Koba riding through a wall of fire on horseback, toting two machine guns and eventually overtaking a tank single-handed is the best thing to flicker on celluloid this summer season. The motion-capture performances are so compelling and the technology so near-perfect that the characters in this movie scratch and crawl and bite their way out of the so-called “uncanny valley” of computer characters. (Although the little boy inside of me still misses seeing actual actors clad in grotesque makeup appliances and weird, 70s leather jackets).
The production design of the film as also breathtaking. As a native Bay Area resident (recently transplanted to New York) seeing my home destroyed by the fall of man is at once heart-wrenching and terrifying. It is also a realization of something I have been asking of this series for years.
The earlier films provided amazing matte paintings of man’s fallen cities but aside from Beneath the Planet of the Apes (the first sequel) we didn’t get to spend enough time there. Dawn finally has the technology to let this destroyed landscape become a truly immersive environment rather than a static background. It makes the horror of this world gone made all the more real and frightening.
But the visual elements of this film are not really what continues to scare me the more I think about it. It’s how “believable” it all seems. The premise of the apes’ rise seems pulled out of the headlines and the dawn of the ape civilization realistically parallels the early villages and tribal customs of mankind’s ancestors. “Realistic” is a relative term of course, considering this series has always coasted on the nightmarish absurdity of its own higher-than-high concept. But there are a lot fewer questions than the earlier films had such as “Why do they all speak in British accents? How do they have guns and cameras but all their other technology seems rather stone age? Why do they have the same idiosyncratic idioms we do except modified for apes?” This is the Apes movie with the least eye-rolls in the history of the franchise. Of course it’s not WITHOUT those moments. After all, this is a movie about talking apes riding around on horses with machine guns.
But by the end of the film, it’s clear that this Apes installment is not about man versus ape. It’s about those who seek peace versus those who lust for war — be they ape or human. It’s a nuanced perspective that earlier films in the franchise have attempted to take but for the first time it’s not too on the nose. The fact that this movie paints with such compassionate shades of gray is a “twist” that rivals the Statue of Liberty denouement of the first film and it will serve to preserve the thoughtful and compassionate soul of this venerable franchise for a long time to come.