Moving Pictures Friday | Dawn of the Planet of the Apes: Heartfelt, Visually Stunning, Not Enough Sex
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is an entertaining, surprisingly compassionate, visually stunning film that suffers from a couple serious problems. Many spoilers to follow; you are warned.
The film is a direct sequel to Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), which followed the often tragic story of Caesar, a hyper-intelligent genetically altered chimpanzee who leads his fellow apes in a revolt against their human oppressors. The movie involves a synthetic virus (originally intended as an Alzheimer cure) that enhances the intelligence of most apes but is lethal to humans, and ends with the spread of said virus across the globe, spelling the doom of humanity and the rise of… well, you know.
By the time “Dawn” opens, ten years after the events of “Rise”, humans are an endangered species (poetic justice!), with a colony of survivors eking out a meager existence in the ruins of San Francisco, while the apes, lead by Caesar, thrive in the nearby redwood forest. Much of the story concerns the efforts of of individuals on both sides to preserve the fragile peace and prevent war between human and ape. Caesar wants peace. For all the suffering he endured in the last movie, he grew up with humans, lovingly raised by neuroscientist James Franco, sad/sweet Alzheimer patient John Lithgow, and primatologist/perfunctory-love-interest Freida Pinto (none of whom appear in this film presumably they all died in the plague; oh well.)
The strongest thing about DotPotA is how it makes the audience root for the peace process. The scenes in which humans and apes interact, struggling to trust one another, are simultaneously hopeful and wonderfully suspenseful, with the threat of violence always bubbling beneath the surface. And it is a threat; we want the two species to overcome their suspicions and work together. All of this is shattered by the actions of a single ape named Koba, on whom more later.
This being a big-budget sci-fi flick, things inevitably go horribly wrong, leading to a series of violent action sequences that encompass the last third of the movie. In most summer blockbusters, the inevitable Final Battle comes with the sense that things will be resolved and we will see who wins. Here, however, the outbreak of hostilities feels like an immediate loss for everyone. The moment the fighting starts, we know that things have been resolved and it doesn’t matter who “wins”.
This leads to my first criticism of DotPotA: despite all the simmering inter-species tension, the violent, tragic ending is ultimately the work of one unambiguously evil ape. Fellow chimp Koba (Psycho Murder Ape hereafter) is Caesar’s Trusted Adviser, and as every movie ever has taught us, Trusted Advisers are not to be trusted. Psycho Murder Ape is so obviously a villain it hurts. He is demonically ugly, has a jagged facial scar and a milky dead eye. He hates humans of course, but also has no regard for the lives of his fellow apes. At the moment when human/ape peace seems most likely, he stages a coup and leads the apes in a bloody attack on the human stronghold. So in summary, war occurs not because of nuanced historical/psychological forces, but because of this one really evil dude. (Movie trivia, btw: Koba’s name is a reference to Josef Stalin, just in case there was any question about his evilness. He’s…he’s really pretty evil.)
Of course, one could argue that there will always be a Psycho Murder Ape someone whose cruelty and hunger for power will lead them to seize control and destroy any hope for peace. Perhaps DotPotA’s violent ending was inevitable after all…
Long before Psycho Murder Ape took over, long before the tensions with the human colony, at the very beginning of the Glorious Ape Revolution, there was one easily avoidable mistake that the apes made: they put the chimpanzees in charge. Ask any primatologist — scientifically speaking, chimps are the worst apes. They are violently territorial, they commit murder and intertribal warfare. In short, they are just like humans in all the worst ways. The moment the chimps took a leadership role, the revolution was doomed. There was, however, an alternative…
Put the bonobos in charge.
Reader, the bonobo (Pan paniscus) is a fascinating species. They are our second closest relative in the animal kingdom (chimps are our first, obvs). Here are some bonobo facts, courtesy of Wikipedia:
“The bonobo is popularly known for its high levels of sexual behavior. Sex functions in conflict appeasement, affection, social status, excitement, and stress reduction. It occurs in virtually all partner combinations and in a variety of positions. This is a factor in the lower levels of aggression seen in the bonobo when compared to the common chimpanzee and other apes.”
“When bonobos come upon a new food source or feeding ground, the increased excitement will usually lead to communal sexual activity, presumably decreasing tension and encouraging peaceful feeding.”
“In one form, two bonobo males hang from a tree limb face-to-face while penis fencing.”
In short, in bonobo society, sex is the primary means of conflict resolution, social currency, and even communication. In DotPotA, the chimp leadership communicates through grunts, sign language, and clumsy efforts at speech. A bonobo leadership, by contrast, would have communicated via lengthy sex scenes with subtitles. If a bonobo rides a horse while armed with an assault rifle, it is only to pose for a kinky centerfold. With bonobos in charge, the scene with the grizzly bear early in the movie would have gone very differently. Bonobos like bears.
In conclusion, an ape revolution led by bonobos would have been destined for success. Would the movie have been as good? Maybe not. Would it have gotten away with a PG13 rating? Probably not. Would the story have ended in tragedy? Certainly not.
Postscript: While doing research for this article, I happened to stumble upon the track listing for the DotPotA soundtrack. I would like to share a short list of track titles with you. I would also like to remind you that this is a very serious movie:
Past Their Primates
Close Encounters of the Furred Kind
Monkey See, Monkey Coup
The [… oh god…] The Apes of Wrath
Robin Latkovich lives in Cleveland, in a squalid den full of sinister esoteric artifacts and deadly traps. He would like to assure readers that he is not 100% obsessed with bonobos. Cuttlefish are pretty cool too.