"War has begun"

“War has begun”

What does it mean to evolve? Is it strictly about what we are physically capable of – standing upright and having opposable thumbs? Is it only about being able to speak and be understood? Or is it perhaps what we do with that increased dexterity and what we say in our speaking voices?

DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES begins ten years after the conclusion of its predecessor (RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES). As that film ended, a virus was accidentally unleashed into the world from a genetics lab, a virus now dubbed “The Simian Flu” has wiped out much of Earth’s human population and most of its technological infrastructure. In that time, the apes who evolved thanks to the same genetic engineering have flourished and live in great numbers in the redwood forests outside of San Francisco.

When a small team of surviving humans are sent into the woods to see about restoring a source of electricity, one team member happens upon two apes and shoots one in a panic. Cries for help rally the entire troop of apes to the scene, led by Caesar (voiced and mo-cap performed by Andy Serkis). Rather than kill the humans, Caesar orders them out of the forest in no uncertain terms. The humans – who have never heard an ape speak before – don’t argue, and head on their way.

When the matter is pressed back in the apes camp – specifically by a violent ape named Koba (Toby Kebbell) who was once a human test-subject – Caesar presses that apes are better than humans and will not be drawn into war. To prove his point and assert his command, he leads the apes into San Francisco proper. Walking right up to the gates of the human stronghold, Caesar lays down the law to the humans gathered, and especially their leaders Malcolm and Dreyfus (Jason Clarke and Gary Oldman): The next human found in the forest will be killed.

In the wake of this moment, Malcolm recognizes something in Caesar – perhaps the leadership that humanity used to be able to turn to. Or perhaps a brain that will listen to reason. Inspired by it, he brings his team right back into the forest and appeals to Caesar to allow them to work on the dam, after which they will leave.

But the die is cast.

The appearance of the apes spooked the humans back in the city into arming themselves to the teeth. Likewise, it sparks insubordinate members of Malcom’s team to disobey orders and carry concealed weapons that break the fragile trust between the species. Meanwhile, up in the primate camp, Caesar’s show of clemency has Koba sensing weakness and remembering what happened the last time humans were able to “do their work”.

With the darkness of all this violence and mistrust at hand, one wonders just what sort of day awaits when the dawn finally breaks.

Caesar and Koba
When the film begins and skips through that bleak decade worth of events, ones first inclination is to think about what happened to humanity in those ten bleak years, and whether there might have perhaps been a movie to be told. While there may have been merit in seeing the fall of western civilization, we realize that we’ve seen that movie several times. It’s been told many different ways on many different days, always involving violence, deceit, famine, selfishness, ruthlessness, and death. It is sparked by someone doing something self-serving and stupid, and made infinitely worse when the rest of us submit to panic. In this movie, one by one, society becomes less human than human, and makes a terrible situation infinitely worse.

In short – in every version of that story, Earth falls into chaos because humanity is too damned weak and dumb to rise above.

The irony in that – and in the events we watch unfold in DAWN, is that it flies in the face of the theory of evolution. Humans are supposed to be descended from apes – the next step up the evolutionary ladder. Yet when the chips are down, its the apes that manage to rise above. They are the species that is able to keep a sharper eye on the greater good, and the ones that are able to come together.

After Malcolm’s team member shoots Ash, one would think that the apes would do what’s in their nature to do and protect their own. Considering their vastly superior numbers and advantage in strength, this should be curtains for this particular gang of humans. However, since Caesar understands the greater implications, he displays mercy and lets the humans go. Later, when the apes march into San Francisco and catch the gathered humans unaware, he speaks his warning and leaves turns his battalions around. Later still, when Malcolm’s man is found to have a gun in the apes’ camp – clearly violating Caesar’s rules, clemency is granted. Is it because Caesar is just that enlightened a simian? Or is it perhaps that he sees what humans have forgotten – that killing only begets more killing?

This contrast makes us feel lousy about ourselves as we watch this movie unfold. We think about how far we’ve come as a society and how fragile it all really is (think about the fits you go through when you can’t get online these days). You would think that it would be instilled into us that in order to protect what we’ve been blessed with and what we’ve built, that we have to evolve, be better people, and be better to one-another. Unfortunately, it’s the opposite. What’s worse, nothing brings that side of us out faster than times of crisis.

So maybe we didn’t really evolve from animals. Maybe the better posture and ability to speak are just bonus features on the dvd of life. Perhaps the animal instinct – to gather in packs, protect each other, and take care of our own is the way to go. Perhaps instead of the apes looking to become more human, the humans should try to be more ape-like.

After all, it’s the ape that decides to emulate the humans most that causes most of the problems. It’s Koba’s desire for vengeance that sends things downhill. Things get infinitely worse when he submits to the very human emotions of jealousy, rage, wrath, disloyalty, and manipulation. In these ways Koba embodies the sorts of humans we are, standing in stark contrast to Caesar’s embodiment of the sorts of humans we should be.

Maybe we’re doomed. Maybe when shit inevitably gets real, we will devolve, give in to our animal instincts, play our part as maniacs and blow it all up. Or maybe there’s hope. Maybe gorillas in our midst will rise above and show just how far evolution has taken us and show us how to come together. If such a person exists, that person should most definitely be listened to. Hell, that person should be hailed.

Matineescore: ★ ★ ★ out of ★ ★ ★ ★
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