Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is out in theaters this weekend (click here to see our site’s coverage of it thus far), and you should go see it. It’s a tense, action-packed meditation on the intractability of tribalism, a summer blockbuster that actually has characters you care about and a story that will make you think. Beyond this, there were countless epic, transcendent moments throughout. Dawn may have been my favorite film of 2014 thus far.

But one moment in the film struck me as particularly powerful. Find out what it was after the jump. Very minor spoilers follow.

Dawn has a real economy and deftness when it comes to setting up the “ape culture.” From the opening 15 minutes, which take place pretty much entirely in subtitled ape sign language, to the design of the ape home base, the film immerses you in this idea that Caesar’s society has evolved and has its own functional set of rules and customs. It extends the concepts that Rupert Wyatt’s 2011 film Rise of the Planet of the Apes set up in a way that I found to be really satisfying.

But it’s one thing to create a world that’s fully realized. It’s another thing to actually use it in ways that make the film better.

There’s this moment in the film when Caesar’s lieutenant Koba is getting extremely irritated at Caesar for not being more belligerent towards humans. Caesar, ever the peacekeeper, just wants to let the humans finish their dam work (that’s dam, not damn) and be on their way. But Koba starts pointing at the scars that mark his face and body, bellowing, “Human! Work! HUMAN! WORK! HUMAN! WORK!”, indicating that humans have fucked him over time and time again.

Wow. Incredible. Why?

Firstly, it pays off plot elements brought up in Rise. We’ve already met Koba there and he presumably hasn’t had a great time in his dealings with humans. It makes sense that he would be hellbent on revenge.

But more importantly, this was a scene that played out more impressively and tragically because these creatures were apes. If a human was just pointing at himself and saying “Look at all these scars, dude!” it would be 100% less effective than an ape pointing at test lab scars and yelling out these almost mono-syllabic statements. Reeves uses the ape culture and language to make points more effectively than humans ever could.

There’s a magic to these creatures. The CG and performance capture used to bring them to life is nothing short of extraordinary, but what’s more fascinating to me is the strange world they habit between man and beast. They’re powerful yet also easily swayed. They’re hyper-intelligent, yet prone to misunderstanding. They demonstrate their alpha nature with a lot of noise and bluster, but they also have the same hopes and dreams that humans do.

They’re like an extreme version of humanity, a reflection of our potential for greatness and strength, but also for evil. And when the film plays with this tension, it becomes more than just a summer blockbuster: it becomes a tour de force.

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