The last few weeks of summer movie season have provided us with something of an accidental contrast in how violence is handled in your usual blockbuster. The weekend before Independence Day, there was the release of Transformers: Age of Extinction, which provides viewers with the usual heavy dose of constant mayhem, robot fights and boring/embarrassing human storylines. Like the previous Transformers films, along with most of Michael Bay’s oeuvre, it could not care less about what any of the carnage or violence means. On top of that, the scenes of hand-to-hand robot combat would be The Raid 2-level gruesome if they played out between human beings, and the series’ ostensible noble “hero” Optimus Prime is actually a super-violent psychopath who will quickly murder anyone that even looks at him funny. As much as I dislike the Transformers films, however, it is unfair to single them out. Most summer blockbusters and big-budget action films share this series’ bloodlust, and only when something like Dawn of the Planet of the Apes comes along do we realize that there’s actually another way to go about things.
Matt Reeves’ sequel to Rise of the Planet of the Apes has been met with great acclaim, and while I don’t love it to the degree that some do, I appreciated that it was actually trying to be a different kind of blockbuster. These aren’t particularly radical changes, and it all leads up to an action-packed climax featuring a great deal of gunfire and explosions. However, this climax is different from most in one crucial area: in the midst of all the chaos, the audience actually cares about what they are seeing. Reeves, along with screenwriters Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, carefully orchestrated all that had come before in order to provide these sequences with genuine emotional stakes. Plus, on top of that, they never truly allow the audiences to take sides, and therein lies the minor miracle. This is a film in which one of the last slivers of humanity is forced to fight for survival against a group of intelligent, gun-wielding apes, and when the battle begins the audience may not know who they want to win. Not only do we take the prospect of a CGI ape civilization seriously, but the film forces us to sympathize with them. When large-scale battles like the one at the end of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes come along, the audience usually knows who the good guys and bad guys are. Not so here, and that is part of what makes this the rare anti-violent blockbuster.
The film also accomplishes its anti-violent message without ever becoming too preachy about it, which would be the quickest way to make sure audiences disconnect from the story. We sympathize with both sides of the conflict not because the script tells us to, but because it teaches us to. The film’s time is split relatively evenly between the humans and the apes, and it portrays them both as small, vulnerable societies understandably worried for their own survival. The vast majority of movies would focus on one of these sides and make them the protagonists while vilifying the other group. Dawn chooses the path of greatest difficulty by exploring all the moral complexities of its central conflict, and forcing the audience into the rare position of not wanting any fighting to break out. Where we would normally be cheering for destruction, we actually want everyone to put the guns away and get along.
It all leads up to a thrilling, involving conclusion, but I do have some issues with how the film gets there. Most of them revolve around the character of Koba (Toby Kebbell), the ape second-in-command behind Andy Serkis’ now-iconic portrayal of Caesar. He’s played well enough by Kebbell, but the script calls for the character to make some drastic decisions that I’m not entirely sure I buy. The filmmakers knew where the story had to go, and they understandably used Koba as the way to get there, but ultimately his arc feels a bit too mechanical. Luckily, the way the film handles the little things far overshadows some of the contrivances. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is not just about what Koba does, but instead about the ape environment as a whole. We accept them not just as figures in the film, but characters on completely equal footing with their human counterparts. There may be plenty of nits you can pick, but the film is wonderfully effective on a macro level.
This isn’t uncharted cinematic territory, of course. On a thematic level, it touches on many things you see in most anti-war films, but it’s remarkable just because most blockbusters on this scale wouldn’t dare touch these ideas. There will always be a place for action films featuring endless carnage, and a good chunk of them will be well-liked and financially successful. However, the critical and financial success of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes shows that audiences are just as interested in movies that deliver the usual thrills, but in a more thoughtful manner. When the bullets start flying in this film, each one feels utterly purposeful, and ultimately tragic. Combat may be fun to see in movies, but Dawn shows that battles like the one depicted here can only result in destruction. There are no celebrations at the end of this fight, but instead a reflection on all the harm that cannot be undone.
All this aside, I suppose the highest compliment I can pay this film is that it features an ape with a machine gun riding a horse through an explosion, and yet I was still able to take it seriously. That may be the real triumph of this series. These are movies about a bunch of apes learning to talk and then taking over the world, and somehow it works. Out of nowhere, this has become one of the most interesting film franchises currently in existence. That is something I did not expect, but it is a wholly welcome surprise.