In the arena of topical summer blockbusters, it’s inevitable that Bong Joon-Ho’s Snowpiercer will garner far greater critical acclaim than Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. There are plenty of legitimate reasons for this: Snowpiercer is certainly more clever, stylish, and pointed than the latest installment in this reboot-of-a-reboot-that-probably-never-needed-to-exist-in-the-first-place series (incidentally, I just rewatched Tim Burton’s 2001 version of the franchise, and personally think that you’re all being too hard on it, superfluousness notwithstanding). For the most part, Snowpiercer’s special effects seem only necessary, where Dawn’s seem like excessive spectacle; Snowpiercer is ostensibly an auteur’s vision, where Dawn is classic too-many-cooks committee filmmaking.
With all this in mind, it stands to reason that Snowpiercer’s social and political subtexts, and indeed the film itself, would be taken a little more seriously. Still, Dawn says as much about imperialism and the futility of war as Snowpiercer says about capitalism and global warming, and with as much nuance and subtlety (read: not very much). One must also give Dawn credit for casting its critical net wide: as with any Planet of the Apes movie, the latest installment is more about man’s inhumanity to man than its overt “what if?” scenario. The former is, obviously, an umbrella that shades a lot of ground, invoking everything from the inhumane treatment of Native Americans to the horrors of fascist suppression, the violence/non-violence tension of the Civil Rights movement to… um, James Franco (who appears in a brief uncredited cameo to refresh us on the ape leader Caesar’s backstory, but also to remind us that Franco is contractually obligated to appear in every major Hollywood movie for at least a few seconds). It may not say anything terrifically revelatory about any of its important subjects, but it also doesn’t fumble in its handling of them.
This social consciousness is all icing on the cake, anyway, since Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a popcorn movie first and foremost. To that end, it has everything you’d want: grandiose set design, lots of action, characters worthy of your sympathy and/or derision, and most importantly, super-smart apes shooting double machine guns while riding a horse through fire. Yes, there are moments aimed squarely at the lowest common denominator (both kinds: violence AND treacle!) and plenty of the kind of dialogue that American Movie’s Mark Borchardt once said would “make the pope weep,” yet none of this is out of place in its mise-en-scène. Dawn also makes up for its concessions to dopiness with a thought-provoking, multi-level moral that dodges simple conclusions (well, except for maybe the part about how we’re all ruthless animals, regardless of our species; that’s pretty cut and dry).
In case you can’t suss out the plot from the trailers, it goes a little something like this: in the future, super-intelligent apes have wreaked havoc on humanity, to the point where the apes aren’t even sure that any humans are left. The apes live rustically, albeit with some remarkable primitive architecture, just outside of San Francisco in a utopian commune (living the dream, right?). After a run-in with a team of humans trying to reach a hydroelectric dam that is their only hope of regaining power, the apes find out there are actually quite a few of the hairless interlopers left alive, at least in San Francisco.
The humans are led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke) and Dreyfus (Gary Oldman, whose publicist is probably sweating the implications of his character’s hate speech in this film right about now), playing out something of an MLK/Malcolm X archetype for the humans; the apes’ leader Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his more militant enforcer Koba (Toby Kebbell) provide a similar dyad for team ape. Tension starts between the two groups after a human murders an ape, and it continues to ratchet up until miscommunication, violence, and finally war ensue, fueled by their mutual mistrust and hatred.
Sparing you spoilers, it must be said that a surprising amount of allegorical ground gets covered throughout this film, and what’s more surprising is that most of it works. Imperialist aggression gets the shakedown; pre-emptive strikes and governmental deceit are touched upon effectively. Despite its capitulating to blockbuster tropes, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes nonetheless manages to retain and update the radical ideology of its source material, reflecting the time in which it was made almost as effectively as the original films.
When I told some of my hip, blockbuster-wary friends that I was reviewing this movie, I got my fair share of eye-rolling. That’s fine. Only Lovers Left Alive is still in theaters here, and it’s plenty happy to give them what they want. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, meanwhile, subverts from well within the belly of the beast, a summer blockbuster that rubs humanity’s face in its own shit while disguising it as a fun time. Lay back and enjoy it, but you might not want to breathe in too deep.