In a pivotal but understated scene in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes , a grievously betrayed (and near-fatally wounded) Caesar, the leader of a colony of evolved super-simians living in a forest in post-apocalyptic California, reflects on the horrors of the ape-versus-man war he tried so hard — and so futilely — to avert.
“I always think ape better than human,” he says, his droopy eyes reflecting the sadness in his heart. “I see now how like them we are.” There’s a haunting poignancy to the scene: Caesar puts you in mind of a contemplative Emperor Ashoka after the bloody Battle of Kalinga — or a Gandhi whose soul was seared by the communal riots that raged despite his pacifist philosophy.
But in a film that is otherwise characterised by an overwhelmingly grim narrative tone, that’s the only concession that the gifted screenplay writers make towards chuckle-inducing wryness. An ape regrets that his species is, well, too ‘human’…
And yet that deliberate inversion of the Darwinian theory of evolution goes to the core of director Matt Reeve’s philosophical exploration that underlies this breathtakingly brilliant science-fiction action thriller. Beneath all the pulsating drama of talking apes that ride horses and fire Uzi machine-guns with felicitous digital dexterity, Dawn is a powerful morality play that compels us to reflect on the nature of the ‘evolutionary process’, what it means to be ‘human’, and whether ‘beasts’— such as they are — are really a few rungs lower on the ladder of evolution.
Dawn ’s storyline is geared for just such an exploration of the mind. Ten years from where the story ended in Rise of the Planet of the Apes , the human race is on the edge of extinction, decimated by a simian flu that is the result of a pharmacological experiment gone horribly wrong. The survival of the species hinges on peace with the genetically evolved super-apes who now have the upper hand. But a history of animosity — and the desperation that comes from near-extinction — feeds primal warring instincts.
To Reeve’s credit, he doesn’t trot out a simplistic ‘All apes good, all humans bad’ narrative. Fear and paranoia about the ‘other’ stokes base passions on both sides: the alpha male chimp Koba (played brilliantly by Toby Kebbell) plots a Brutus-ian backstabbing of Caesar, just as trigger-happy humans are stocking up on ammunitions. But there are also rational, peaceable beings on both sides. Andy Serkis essays the role of his life as Caesar, the benevolent leader bound by a strong moral suasion and capable of endearing empathy for humans because of his previous association with them. Every twitch of Caesar’s facial muscles, every frown, every scowl — reproduced by superlative motion-capture technology — amplifies the bandwidth of his emotions and blurs the line that separates ‘man’ from ‘beast’.
It isn’t often that an enormously entertaining film also gives you cause to reflect. Dawn does it in spades. In the final analysis, despite its somewhat bleak ending, Dawn represents the evolution of splendid storytelling and superior film-making.