(Rated PG-13; directed by Matt Reeves; stars Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, Toby Kebbell, Nick Thurston, Judy Greer, Kirk Acevedo, Karin Konoval; run time: 130 minutes.)
Though not God-motivated, film stresses need to care for one’s ‘neighbor’
By Ted Giese
“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” picks up about 10 years after the events of “Rise of the Planet of The Apes” (2011). In that earlier film, which rebooted “The Planet of the Apes” franchise, researchers seeking cures for human diseases found a potential cure for Alzheimer’s and, while testing the drug on chimpanzees, discovered a side effect: The mental capacities of the test chimpanzees began increasing. By the end of the film, a young chimpanzee named Caesar (Andy Serkis) escaped from captivity and freed a number of apes and other simians from the lab and from the San Francisco Zoo.
Caesar was raised by one of the scientists (James Franco). As a result, he experienced good and loving interactions with humans. But one of the apes Caesar rescued was a laboratory chimpanzee named Koba (Toby Kebbell), who had been maltreated in the worst way by the researchers. “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” ended with the apes slipping away into the woods near San Francisco, while an additional adverse side effect to the Alzheimer vaccination — simian flu — began affecting humans.
When “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” begins, almost all of humanity has been wiped out by the flu strain, and Caesar, Koba and the other apes have built a harmonious colony near a waterfall in the woods not far from San Francisco.
The drama in this new film centers around a group of humans, led by a man named Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) and his lieutenant, Malcolm (Jason Clarke), who have begun re-inhabiting San Francisco. The humans are running out of fuel and in desperation look to a local hydro power plant as their last hope to generate electrical power, both for personal survival and to power a radio transmitter that could potentially contact other human survivors if there are any.
The hydro power plant also happens to be right where Caesar has put down roots with his ape colony. Caesar, who in the first film was part of a human family, now has an ape mate and family. He’s become the king of the apes, with Koba as his lieutenant and the orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval) as his adviser. The film details the interactions — both peaceful and combative — between the apes and humans as they struggle for survival.
The ape community embraces three laws, or principles, to live by: 1) “Ape Not Kill Ape,” 2) “Apes Together Strong,” and 3) “Knowledge Is Power.” These laws are the engine that drives the film’s plot. In an interview with ShortList,Andy Serkis (Caesar) comments that the idea of “‘Knowledge Is Power’ is the belief Caesar tries to instill in the ape community. [Caesar] knows language is the tool to make that happen. The ability to communicate logic without being over-emotional is important.”
While living with humans, Caesar had learned sign language and eventually even began to speak. This knowledge is shared among the apes and provides opportunity to be more ambitious in their community endeavours, which leads to the second law, “Apes Together Strong.” Trust in this philosophy and a deep mistrust and hatred for humanity leads the tortured Koba to plot a war against the humans in opposition to Caesar’s wishes. Caesar uses “Apes Together Strong” as a call to peace, while Koba uses it as a call to war.
The first law of the apes, “Ape Not Kill Ape,” is the one that will stick out the most for Christian viewers because it lines up with the Fifth Commandment, “You shall not murder.”
In his Small Catechism, Martin Luther asks, “What does this mean?” The answer is given: “We should fear and love God so that we do not hurt or harm our neighbor in his body, but help and support him in every physical need.” The apes have no fear or love of God and no knowledge of Him. Nor does God enter into the thoughts or concerns of the humans in the film. But what is apparent is the struggle to look after one’s “neighbor.” While Caesar is concerned greatly for his growing family and is shown fulfilling this commandment in his interactions with the humans, Koba puts the ape community first and disregards the idea that humans could be neighbors worthy of care.
There is a parallel struggle within the human community. The lieutenant, Malcolm, is concerned with fulfilling this commandment by working toward peaceful coexistence with the apes, while Dreyfus disregards the idea that apes could be neighbors worthy of his care. The film is at its best when it explores the Fifth Commandment at the intersection of prejudice and empathy, at the crossroads of selfishness and selflessness.
Better and more consistent than its predecessor film, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is a major achievement in motion-capture performances. Andy Serkis, who played both Gollum in Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” (2012) and King Kong in “King Kong” (2005), has distinguished himself as the premier performer in this style of acting and brings an amazing range of emotions and subtlety to Caesar’s character.
The writing in some spots can be a bit predictable and simple, and the film doesn’t have well-written female characters. (It was a surprise to discover that Judy Greer plays Cornelia, Caesar’s mate in the film, as she was given practically nothing to do in this movie.) That being said, the film again provides a strong, positive father role model in Caesar, with an emphasis on family, continuing this surprising new trend of the positive father-figure in recent blockbuster Hollywood films.
“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”puts this franchise on solid footing for future installments both technically, with its well-crafted CGI (computer-generated imagery), and emotionally, as it delves into some of the big questions in life revolving around caring for others in their daily needs.
The Rev. Ted Giese is associate pastor of Mount Olive Lutheran Church, Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada; a contributor to The Canadian Lutheran and Reporter; and movie reviewer for the “Issues, Etc.” radio program.
Posted July 17, 2014