Sunday, July 13, 2014

An Alternate Reality #2: I saw the Apes at Dawn...

By its very nature, "Planet of the Apes" has always offered parallel possibilities to our own known reality and even from out its own initial five-movie mythology. 

When Cornelius and Zira (along with the tragic Milo) traveled back in time, their offspring (ultimately to adopt the name Caesar) rose to power in the alternate '90s, the implication was that he'd not only plant the seeds of ape dominance, but was possibly altering events to create a future unlike what we see in the '68 classic. The original series' "final chapter", "Battle for..." certainly insinuates this notion, and the acclaimed, but short-lived '74 television series further solidifies the idea (along with an animated counterpart which premiered roughly a year later).

Tim Burton's 2001 reboot also offers an alternate origin, but it was 2011's "Rise of..." (a loose retelling of the fourth film, "Conquest of...") that carried the concept through a steadier course. Now a sequel to that venture, "Dawn of..." has emerged, further enhancing the alternate track of possibilities. 

Directed by Matt ("Let Me In") Reeves, "Dawn" is in many respects derivative of "Battle", with apes and humans facing off to determine who will reign supreme. "Battle", however, deals with burgeoning human mutants (forerunners to those seen in "Beneath") and ultimately, calculated, militaristic maneuvers. "Dawn" is far more subtle, playing upon a genetic fluke (as outlined in "Rise") which has perpetuated the species divide, and despite valiant efforts from both sides, the situation nonetheless results in "Fort Apache" type bloodshed. 

Andy Serkis again portrays Roddy McDowall's legendary Caesar, and just as McDowall's version led a major simian mount in "Battle", so does Serkis', though from a slightly different vantage. Also, in "Dawn'"s case, the apes are considerably less evolved than those in the original movies, and in computerized form, often realistically bestial. Nevertheless, like their earlier incarnations, they are capable of keen thought, riding horses, and of course, speech.

That apes and humans can readily communicate naturally leads to interaction, but not all humans are inclined to believe that apes can reason. Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) sees them as a threat if crossed: his character subtly reminiscent of "Conquest/Battle'"s Governor Kolp (Severn Darden) and "Escape'"s Dr. Hasslein (Eric Braeden). In other respects, he's essentially a good man, whose stance is really forced upon him, for he can't help but sense the inevitability of ape control.

On the other hand, humans like Malcolm (Jason Clarke) and Ellie (Keri Russell) fully subscribe to species coexistence (and see no viable way around such if they want to access electricity for their camp), but how can they initiate a peaceful outcome when certain apes not only mirror, but accentuate Dreyfus' view? Caesar's "general", Koba (Toby Kebbell), for example, has no empathy for humans, due to the scientific torture they forced upon him and from this, becomes a chimpanzee counterpart to Claude Akins' Aldo ("Battle'"s most abrasive gorilla), and therefore, more friend than foe to Caesar.

Beyond this mounting friction, much of "Dawn" concentrates on Caesar's compassion for humans and his need to nurture his spouse, (Judy Greer), son (Nick Thurston) and cutely CGI'd newborn. He also furthers his position as leader by reinforcing bonds among trusted friends, such as the faithful orangutan, Maurice (Karin Konoval): an equivalent to Paul Williams' Virgil from "Battle". Such relationships let Serkis mold Caesar into a well rounded character, arguably on a par with McDowall's complex interpretation. 

Like its predecessors (or as evidenced in some of the finest "Alien Nation", "Star Trek" and "Twilight Zone" efforts), "Dawn'"s script (by Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffe and Amanda Silver) ripples of sociology and loads of irony. It doesn't parallel our existing society in the way the '68 film so deftly did in its time frame (due mainly to Rod Serling's insightful take on Pierre Boulle's text), but still manages to make us ponder our own current state of affairs and the ultimate shape of things to come. It also simultaneously suggests how we might interact with others on a global scale (an easier-said-than-done prospect), but also how we might survive within our more immediate confines (an admirable start, at the very least). 

"Dawn", however, unlike "Battle", doesn't insinuate a harmonious horizon, but at least implies a continuation of concern. For those of us who've followed the original series and its various offshoots over the decades, nothing could be more provocatively finer. Like that which has come before, let the alternate variations morph, circle, overlap and perpetually stimulate. That's the wonder of "Planet of the Apes", and it's most reassuring to know there are filmmakers yet bold enough to perpetuate the tradition. 


  1. Interesting thoughts. I am curious to know if you think "Dawn of the Apes" could possibly be constued as a western?

  2. I think it's due to the way the sides confront each other and try (albeit often with dire results) to pacify their differences. Also, I see an enormity of the cowboy/settlers and Native American influence in a particular scene where Caesar travels on horseback with his fellow simians to warn Dreyfus to keep his people away from their habitat. For all intents and purposes, Caesar behaves like an Indian chief, looking out for his people, startling the opposition by speaking in English, no less. Other scenes in the film also play upon such uneasy confrontations and alliances: very similar to what one finds in many westerns, particularly "Dances with Wolves".

    In the same vein, I do believe many action/adventure films (even those of science-fiction content) are, in fact, disguised westerns. Part of "Return of the Jedi" is influenced by "The Searchers". John Carpenter even admits that some of his films are, in truth, embellished westerns: "Assault on Precinct 13", "Ghosts of Mars", "Escape from NY/LA".

    Actually, one would be surprised by how many western trimmings one will find in any number of different genres, especially now that the actual western scene isn't as frequently offered as it once was.