The plot of director Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes bore some striking similarities to the real-life story of Nim Chimpski, a chimpanzee who was raised in the 1970s by an American family and treated as if he were a person – from the clothes he wore to the reefers he smoked to the human breast he fed on as a baby.
Codenamed 6.001, and captured in the 2011 documentary Project Nim, the experiment cast Chimpski as the subject of an attempt to determine if apes could learn to communicate in a comparable way to human beings. In the 2009 movie, James Franco played a chimp-loving scientist who took a test subject named Caesar home and raised him as his own. Like Chimpski, the primate was soon speaking via sign language.
Both the true story and the fictionalised one ended grimly. Nim attacked his human family and was thrown into a laboratory where he was cruelly experimented on. He lived a sad lonely existence. Caesar, brought to life by a digitally altered performance from actor Andy Serkis, was also put behind lock and key in a gnarly animal lab. His story differed in a way Chimpski would presumably have liked: Caesar passed on his language skills to his simian brethren and went on to lead an ape uprising.
Humans paid their dues and then some. Much of the population got sick from a new kind of virus Franco’s character accidentally invented and became architects of their own fate, as Charlton Heston discovered on the beach (“you maniacs!”) at the end of 1968’s Planet of the Apes.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes picks up where Rise left off and adds some years, with the human race on the brink of extinction and apes in the early stages of colonisation under Caesar’s guidance. Having experienced varying degrees of humanity, Caesar has a soft spot for humans and hopes for peaceful coexistence. But when man and ape meet after many years estranged, things go badly. A frightened man shoots an ape and humans are banished from their territory.
Trouble is, the future of a community of struggling people trying to rebuild in a post-apocalyptic world has been pegged on generating power from a dam on the apes’ territory. The humans, led by Dreyfus (Gary Goldman), decide there are two options on the table: collaborate with the apes or go to war. The other side feel the same way. Ape and human characters of differing moral perspectives rally for their cause, either making trouble or trying to repair the damage.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a rare breed of blockbuster. Freed from the shackles of compulsory happy endings, the Apes movies are able to monkey around with heavy themes for the popcorn and coke Saturday night crowd, emphasizing audience gratification as an experience that lies in moments and scale rather than McHappy resolutions. The franchise has a rich history in toying with the high/low art divide and constructing intellectual playgrounds out of trashy environments.
Director Matt Reeves’ meticulously detailed set pieces, rousing action sequences and eye-widening special effects arouse spectacle from underneath a mushroom cloud of dystopian grimness. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the feel bad film of the year — not as anarchic as Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises (2012), given lines of warfare are more cleanly divided, but certainly bleaker. Batman flung himself on the altar to save Gotham City; in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes we understand no feat of self-sacrifice can right all the wrongs. A broad spoiler is even included in the title of the movie.
Caesar’s overarching dictum, that apes shall not kill apes, leads to one of the most interesting lines of dialogue from Hollywood in a long time: “you no ape.” Like many great small touches by screenwriters, it only makes sense in context.
If Reeves and the film’s writers had extended Caesar’s initial quasi Christ-like moral implacability into belief in a higher power, rather than fraying it with a Paradise Lost story of compromised ideals, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes could have been immensely brave and interesting, one-upping ideas explored in its film ancestry (such as a group of fanatically religious humans who worship a nuclear bomb in 1970’s Beneath the Planet of the Apes).
Instead, the film’s refusal to morph into a conventional archetype is offset by a certain kind of dramatic obviousness. Profundities are lathered with industrial strength multiplex sauce so the back rows can taste them like anyone else. Still, there’s no second-guessing the sensation that audiences have been delivered something darkly special.