Political Consensus and Conformity in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – An Essay / Review

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Director: Matt Reeves
Screenwriters: Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver
Cast: Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, Kodi Smit-McPhee & Kirk Acevedo, with motion-capture performances from Andy Serkis, Toby Kebbell, Nick Thurston, Karin Konoval & Judy Greer
Runtime: 130 min // Certificate: 12a

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DpSaTrW4leg]

One of the great contradictions of our time is that as consensus politics drives discourse and debate further towards the common “centre ground”, so too do we find ourselves living in an increasingly fractured and uncertain World. Rapid globalisation and the gentrification of the planet’s major population areas have brought many benefits – exposure to new cultures, new concepts and new experiences – but they’ve also helped to harbour resentment, fear and, at the height of their worst excesses, war. When cultures collide the results are always unpredictable, yet as the population exceeds the 7 billion mark and as technology evolves at an exponential rate, these collisions become all the more common.

It is therefore somewhat peculiar that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is, with the obvious exception of Tim Burton’s dreadful remake, perhaps the most apolitical entry in this rich franchise to date. There is an element of socio-political commentary, which I’ll explore in greater depth in a moment, but the film is so sure of its sporadic but dogmatic ideals that it feels distinctly out of sync with the modern World. Following on from 2011’s unexpectedly adept franchise “reboot”, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Dawn… exists in a World in which humanity has been reduced to a rump since the outbreak of a “simian flu” ten years prior while the apes, led by Caesar (Serkis, who reprises his role from the previous film), have flourished in the wilderness, establishing a communal society with a hierarchal power structure that bears a more than passing resemblance to the one humanity left behind.

What’s immediately notable is that it is disease, not conflict or division, which is responsible for the miserable state of humanity in Dawn…’s near-apocalyptic setting. In this respect Dawn… is worlds apart from its predecessor, for where Rise… was preoccupied with the conflict between the humans and the apes, Reeves’ film is far more concerned with the inherent conflicts within each individual group. The battle for survival between the two different species is much less important than the battles for control within each particular society. In this respect the film harks back to both the original movie and, more pointedly, to Battle for the Planet of the Apes, not least in the manner in which it pits the pacifists against the aggressors and examines what can happen when communication between opponents breaks down irreparably.

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At face value then, Dawn… is full of the same socio-political commentary that made the original pentology so rewarding. The apes in particular are governed, quite literally, by the same political divisions that define almost all human conflict (at its crudest level, the left-right dichotomy), with Caesar and Koba (Kebbell; RocknRolla) representing two opposing ends of the spectrum. Nonetheless, if you scratch beneath the surface even a little you begin to uncover a film that doesn’t really have all that much to say about anything. The presence of recognisable politics does not necessarily mean that the film has a political message, and though Dawn… entertains the consequences of class division, cultural divide and political disagreement, these things are so entrenched in the make-up of our society that their presence is driven almost wholly by inevitability. Reeves (Cloverfield) strives for greatness and profundity, clearly hoping to ape (geddit?) the original film, yet thanks to a distinct absence of satire and, more importantly, radicalism, his film lacks any real coherent political message or purpose.

The reasons for this manifest themselves almost exclusively in the characters, with the humans in particular proving to be quite limp and crudely sketched. Malcolm (Clarke; Zero Dark Thirty), this film’s answer to James Franco, is a likable but wholly forgettable protagonist, while the sole purpose of his partner Ellie (Russell; Dark Skies) and his son Alexander (Smit-McPhee; ParaNorman) is to provide a loose but obvious connection between the apes and the humans, with Malcolm’s nuclear family effectively mirroring Caesar’s. Similarly, Oldman’s (Léon: The Professional) character, the apparent leader of the human survivors, is little more than Koba’s opposite number. It’s worth stressing that none of the characters are purely evil or purely good – indeed, they all make mistakes and they are all motivated by what they believe to be the most effective path to survival – but at the same time, none of them are anywhere near as complex (neither personally nor politically) as they need to be.

You see, for all its posturing and its grandstanding, Dawn… is a classic conformist’s film. The radical spirit of the original 1968 masterpiece is here replaced by empty platitudes about peace and about tolerating your oppressor, which feel anachronistic in this day and age. The mantle of progressive revolutionary claimed by Caesar in the previous film here passes down to Koba who – though nominally the film’s primary antagonist – is the only character with whom any independently and radically-minded audience member can empathise. He is fierce, unsympathetic and battle-worn, and he holds all humans responsible for the oppression and torment he once suffered. Caesar, by contrast, strives to avoid conflict and, if possible, work alongside the humans in his quest for peace and prosperity. Though both characters are blinded by their own self-righteousness and their own fatal adherence to their principles (or lack thereof), it is only Koba who displays even a semblance of a progressive ideology, a crime for which he must be punished in the distinctly anti-revolutionary industry that is contemporary Hollywood.

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To put this into context, let’s take a look at the film’s final act, when Caesar’s and Koba’s conflicting ideologies come to a devastating head. In the midst of all the carnage and the bloodshed, Reeves goes to great lengths to ensure that the audience sides not with the revolutionary Koba but with Caesar the conformist. One of the final exchanges between the two characters is particularly telling;

“Ape not kill ape.”
“You are not ape”

In refusing to conform, Koba thus rescinds the right to even call himself an ape. The implication seems to be that Koba, in turning on both his fellow apes and the humans, is now more human than ape (a concept which feels like a throwback to Orwell’s Animal Farm more than anything else), though there’s something a lot more surreptitious than that at play here. Dawn… is a moderate film, shrouded in the costumes, the camouflage and the CGI of something altogether more radical which, in turn, makes it at best apolitical and at worst politically backwards. It is a film that appears to abhor even the vaguest attempt to oppose social hierarchies or power structures, which is quite frankly baffling in the post-crash era. It’s a small-c conservative film that strives towards the moderate centre, thus mirroring contemporary political discourse perfectly but failing categorically to reflect political reality in the way the original pentology did.

So, what does all of this mean? Is Dawn of the Planet of the Apes a bad film? Absolutely not; it’s a very solid action blockbuster that boasts some great performances, particularly from Serkis and Kebbell, and it is an impressive visual feast. The action sequences are dizzying and thrilling, the set design and the cinematography are resplendent and though the film lacks any real political conviction, it’s still far more intelligent than most blockbusters of the past twelve months. Alas, it’s also strikingly empty in comparison to what went before it.

Dawn… is a decent film sprinkled with a few moments of brilliance. The final shot, for example, is exquisite, and might well be the best final shot of the year so far. However, as a huge fan of the original series, I just felt like there was something missing. Despite this however, it’s still hugely entertaining and well worth a watch. I just wish it had the courage to take a stand now and then, instead of resorting to simplistic platitudes and easy conformity.