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Great Apes!: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

In the eighth and final (for now) installment of Great Apes!, we look at the most recent film in the Planet of the Apes franchise, and find a pretty ripping wartime polemic, although one strangely devoid of levity.

I mentioned in the very first Great Apes! article that one of the central appealing factors of the 1968 original was its mixture of apocalyptic commentary and subtle absurdist humor. When the Apes franchise started a new continuity in 2011 – now being directly continued in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – I noted that the tone was much more stern than its predecessors. I wasn’t necessarily disturbed by the lack of levity, but I did note it as an interesting choice. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes takes the stern tone of Rise of the Planet of the Apes and expands it. The violence is more extensive, the tension much higher, and the conflicts much more dramatic. At 130 minutes, it’s also the longest film in the entire Apes series, turning it from a simple sci-fi yarn into a summertime Hollywood action epic. It’s also a pretty darn good movie.

I have to address the special effects right away. The previous film used the latest in CGI motion capture technology to make digital avatars of intelligent apes, avatars that were stirringly convincing. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is perhaps the first film I have seen to use extensive digital effects that, well, actually look real. I knew intellectually that I was looking at digital effects, but the technology has finally advanced to such a degree that I was wholly convinced of the reality of the digital imagery. Without hyperbole, I can say that this film has some of the best special effects I’ve ever seen. It perhaps helps that the digital apes and the live-action human actors do not touch one another, highlighting their on-camera differences. But looking at these apes, one can be almost 100% convinced that they are actual chimpanzees grunting English words at one another.


Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is essentially a mulligan for Battle for the Planet of the Apes. I think we can say that now all is forgiven. Indeed, I might even allow this film to act as penance for the much-hated 1996 version of The Island of Dr. Moreau, a enjoyably crazy but often maligned man vs. animal movie. Dawn takes place about a decade after Rise, in a near future wherein a few virus-resistant humans – the only ones left alive on a ruined Earth – live in protected cities with barely enough power to survive. The apes, including Caesar (motion capture by Andy Serkis) have formed their own rudimentary villages, complete with structures, schools, and a language that consists partly of sign language and partly of raspy English. They even have a primary law: Ape shall not kill ape, a law taken from Battle.

The story is a polemic about nonviolence vs. those who are interested in war. Caesar wants to live in peace, but is constantly butting heads with his ape lieutenant Koba (motion capture by rising star Toby Kebbell) who wants to kill all humans. Koba is clearly modeled after General Aldo from Battle. The humans, meanwhile are having a similar conflict. Peaceful engineer Malcolm (Jason Clarke) wants to trek into ape territory to fix a dam in order to power the nearby human village, whilst his violent lieutenant Carver (Kirk Acevedo) wants to kill all apes. The human characters all have direct ape analogues in the film. While the central battle will be between apes and humans, the thematic conflict will be between warmongers and peaceniks within their respective species. The themes don’t penetrate nearly as deeply as some of the previous ape movies, and they’re hardly subtle (Conquest and the original Planet were both richer and had more finesse about it), but I was relieved to see that they were present.


There is a primal, hilarious thrill to seeing an ape on horseback, firing two machine guns into the air, screaming in monkey rage, which is something that happens in the film’s climax. The film is shooting for a somber and serious tone, but at least throws me – admittedly a guy with a weird sense of humor – a few bones of fun weirdness. Or maybe I am personally too entertained by such imagery; I giggled a lot while watching the movie. Either way, it’s a good time. Dawn runs a bit too long, and some of the final act plot details seems tacked on; the final battle is actually only a penultimate battle. But overall, this is a gorgeous, fun, very entertaining movie. It’s not the best in the series (I am, for better or worse, ever a classicist who often prefers originals to remakes), but I would rank it higher than Rise. It’s a slick, fun, impeccably made action spectacular.

Where does the Apes series go from here? Dawn ends on an ambiguous note, implying that there will be future violence between ape and man. Perhaps the next film will deal more directly with the fall of humans. Is this new Ape continuity going to lead us to something like in the 1968 original, wherein apes are upright, well-dressed intellectuals, and humans are mute animals in cages? I hope so. But we’ll have to start skipping whole millennia for that, and I’m not entirely sure the filmmakers are yet ready to start this particular continuity with all new characters just yet.

If they continue to be successful, we’ll eventually find out. Thanks for reading Great Apes!, dear readers. This is your Lawgiver signing off.

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  1. Max Smart says:

    Did Anyone else go, “yeah, WTF?” when Malcolm is explaining to Gary Oldman’s character exactly why they are holding up with the explosives. It kind of pulled you out of the movie when you realize he has no idea what the heck Malcolm is talking about, nor should he.: “Look man, there’s this good ape and he’s going to stop the bad ape and you know.. just wait, you’ll see.” He’s like bump that I’m blowing this thing now.

    • Kim says:

      I think that was sort of the point, they were trying to make us feel that “I know you are going to think I’ve lost my damned mind, but please listen and please don’t do this” desperation.
      There is a huge gap between Malcolm’s understanding of how advanced the apes are and that of all the humans in San Francisco. 
      I found the power dynamic on display in this film very interesting. Although there are four seperate factions doing battle , everyone except Koba post-killing of Ash is acting out of pure survival instinct and with the intent of protecting their families. 
      Koba is the only “bad guy” in this film and for most of it he is acting in desperation. He *Really* believes that the humans are trying to screw Ceasar over, and that he is doing the only right thing in order to save the apes.

  2. Aryc says:

    Two particular references stood out to the three of us who saw it this weekend. In the very opening of the film they use a piece of Ligeti’s Requiem, famously used in the opening of 2001 when the apes discover the monolith. Also, Caesar’s son, Blue Eyes, just as Taylor was called in the original Planet of the Apes.

    • ScottAstraeus says:

      Sorry, little correction: Taylor’s nickname in the original was “Bright Eyes,” which was the name given to Caesar’s mother in Rise.

  3. jm5150 says:

    this film was phenomenal with one exception… its extremely predictable and cliche ending. not bad but its been done a thousand times (just not with apes). A-

  4. Jimbo Jones says:

    This is not the final installment. Another film has already been slated for release July 2016. 

  5. Todd Haney says:

    And the Astronauts are still out there…