Apocalyptic movies have a certain undying appeal. We like to see ourselves ripped away from our technology and tools while keeping just enough knowledge intact to know that we had them. It’s a take on the old humans against nature trope where nature, in this case, exists in opposition to humanity because of some previous accident or mistake; the recent spate of zombie-centered entertainment in the last few years is the most obvious example. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes adopts this zombie aesthetic with an interesting twist. The threat of nature doesn’t come from former humans, it comes from, in a way, proto-humans: apes.
Like zombie movies, our supremacy is destroyed by a virus. Ten years after Caesar (Andy Serkis) led his ape-kin to freedom in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the simian virus that gave apes their intelligence has wrecked human civilization. Most of humanity is dead; the survivors work to rebuild their cities. A colony of human survivors in former San Francisco, led by Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), desperately needs power. Salvation rests in a decrepit hydroelectric dam but Caesar’s hostile colony of apes stands in the way. Just as the two groups reach a tenuous peace, distrust on both sides splinters diplomatic solutions into the kindlings of a minor war. Presumably, whoever wins takes the throne of the dominant species.
This film could not exist without the use of visual effects. Rise of the Planet of the Apes suffered from inconsistent effects where the realism of the apes varied given the shot. This time around, the effects maintain an impressive level of quality. They have a weight and a history; they’ve cut the world we know down to a haunting shadow. When characters are effects as in the case of this series (no, Mr. Serkis, I’m not endorsing your comments on digital makeup), the caliber and quality of effects the film boasts are crucial. And the effort does pay off for the apes. But the human performances are stale and lackluster in comparison. None of the characters have compelling reasons for their choices. They tell us of course why they do what they do, but it’s obvious the actors (with the possible exception of Oldman) don’t believe what they’re saying. When the first half of the movie uses characters to set the stage for the second half, this is a problem.
Just as with the characters themselves, the human side of the story is not terribly complex: “humans are against apes in some form or another.” The conflict between Caesar and his lieutenant Koba (Toby Kebbell) provides a solid counterpoint to this homogeneity but it’s just not enough. Even if the characters were more dynamic, even if the conflict was more nuanced, the lingering questions about the nature of this post-apocalyptic world are never answered. In other words, the humans and the apes don’t feel like they’re part of the world revealed through the spectacular effects. They don’t really answer why war was inevitable. How the simians and humans diverged to be virtually unknown to each other in ten years is a mystery given their proximity. How the apes managed to build a city, to use guns, and to develop husbandry is equally confusing: after all, a capacity for intelligence isn’t a command of a given knowledge, especially when the undirected whims of curiosity haven’t realized that the knowledge exists to be discovered.
Now, for a movie dramatizing a struggle between humans and apes, you might say I’m being a bit picky. Maybe I am. But the accumulation of all these little cracks in the foundations of this silver screen universe is all the more necessary if such a fantastical situation is to be believed as fundamentally human. We can forgive errors in logic in our world because we rarely question the world’s premise; errors in an unfamiliar world’s premise source a much more acute pain. And this pain keeps Dawn of the Planet of the Apes from truly shining as anything more than a fun summer movie.