I started this expecting a mindless action flick. I was pleasantly surprised.

This is a sequel, and at the time of writing this review I have not seen the first movie. It stands alone comfortably – at no time did I find myself wondering what was happening. The preliminary rundown of the events leading up to the collapse of human civilization was brief, but informative enough that the viewer does not have to have watched the first movie.

The effects were completely believable. The ape characters were very realistic and it was simple to be immersed into the reality of the film and believe you were watching apes with this level of intelligence. I liked it that they mostly spoke in sign language (taught by human scientists, I assume) and I liked the lack of sub-titles, which were not necessary. While the viewer may not know exactly what is being said, context and body language gives enough information.

What I liked the most, however, was the fact that there are no black and white characters. When you have this kind of culture clash, them versus us, story, characters are often depicted in extremes. The good guys are often saintly, entirely reasonable and never prejudiced. The bad guys are just bad, unreasonable, and reject any compromise or discussion. I was very happy to see that this movie resisted that kind of unrealistic depiction.

There are four main characters here, a human and an ape protagonist, and a human and ape antagonist. Starting with the ‘good’ guys, the human Malcolm is not devoid of prejudice or fear. He is quite comfortable pointing a gun at the apes they first encounter. When his fellow humans insist they need access to the dam and start preparing to take it by force, he volunteers to go up there and try to talk to them first, but at no time does he try to talk the human leader out of his more violent plans. He is as fixated as the rest of the human group on the need for electric power and the need to return to how things used to be. He, like the rest of his group, does not attempt to look forward and find a new way of doing things. His understanding grows as he interacts more with the apes, until he does make a stand against a violent solution, and he can see beyond the ‘alien’ faces to the people underneath.

The ape protagonist is Caesar. Caesar is not very fond of humans, and he has good reason. His initial response on seeing the small group that has come into his territory is to tell them to go away. As many of his followers look quite happy to kill them he is showing some leniency even then. He also, quite wisely as it turns out, sends a small group to track the humans back to where they came from and find out what is going on. He is extremely suspicious of their motives, but he tries to give them the benefit of the doubt. Importantly, he believes that apes are better than humans. His interactions with the humans, particularly Malcolm, help him to understand that some humans can rise above their fear and prejudices. In the end he is something of a tragic figure, realizing that what he had been striving to avoid, war, was going to happen whether he wanted it to or not, and all he could do now was make sure his people survived.

The human antagonist, Dreyfus, is the leader of the humans, and he does not see the apes as having rights. He is quite happy to gather weapons to take the dam by force, having no compunctions about ape lives in the face of human ‘necessity’. Like Malcolm, he wants to return things to the way they were, and he does not consider finding other alternatives. Unlike Malcolm, he does not alter in this view. In the face of the ape attack, he confidently tells his followers that the apes aren’t men, so can’t possibly win. This is soon revealed to be sheer ignorance on his part. But Dreyfus is not a bad guy. The human survivors have seen the loss from sickness or violence family members and friends. The sickness was called the ‘simian’ flu, and while it was created in a lab and is squarely the fault of human beings many humans equate it with the apes. Dreyfus has stepped up to lead in this instance and is a very strong and brave figure. He is misguided because he believes that human rights prevail, but he unshakeably believes his actions to be correct. “I am saving the human race” he says at the end, sacrificing his own life.  He is a sympathetic figure in spite of his misconceptions. I can believe that many people would act in this way under similar circumstances.

The ape antagonist, Koba, has many reasons to hate humans. He is heavily scarred, and he points to each scar saying ‘human work’ over and over. Consequently he does not like Caesar’s actions in letting humans have access to the dam. He believes that destroying humans is the way to keep apes safe. I think Koba starts the movie as a quite unstable personality. His attempts to challenge Caesar which both end in his domination by Caesar, don’t improve things. Koba’s hate of humans turns into a hatred of Caesar himself and the rules he has tried to encourage in his people. Koba becomes in essence what he hates – it is ironic that he despises humans but his use of assassination to gain power is a very human thing to do. His successful grab for power seems to tip him right over the edge, as he imprisons apes who don’t agree with him and murders his subjects to cow the rest into obedience. He is a classic dictator. However, while his aggressive behaviour is a real threat to the other characters, he is understandable. He is a victim of violence who responds with violence.

This film is truly excellent, and leaves you with much to ponder. See it if you can.

Click the link to buy the DVD

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

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