|Andy? Are you in there?|
But Apes has great characters. I find myself absolutely loving the main chimp, Caesar, and I am totally invested in all of his struggles and abilities. It is to the film's credit that scenes with Caesar and his mate or Caesar and his son are taken completely seriously and are also seriously compelling. I am always interested in what Caesar will decide to do, how he will handle his son's rebellion, how he will deal with the other apes in his clan, etc. These things are fascinating – and not just because he is a talking chimpanzee, but because this "animal" is a person, a character struggling with ethical dilemmas and important decisions about the lives of the other persons around him. And he is just so cool.
The other thing that is awesome about this is how stunning visually it is. Dawn is filled with surprising images: the chimpanzees riding horses on the poster are the least of it. Because we are dealing with apes, this is an action movie that is able to move off of the ground in ways that many action movies (even ones with flying robot suits) cannot even manage. It is a movie where the perspective of the fights, attack sequences, and camera angles has literally been rethought from the ground up. This is almost always intriguing.
More importantly, this is also a thinking-man's action movie. It is a film that really deals with ethical questions – xenophobia, violence, nationalism, and civilization in particular. And I want to spend a little time thinking about the film's perspective on these right now. See, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is about nationalism and the value of identity. The film asks the questions: Is it more important to be true to the group with whom you have a genetic identity or to be open to the possibilities of coalition across genetic and other differences? Ought there to be an ultimate prohibition on murder? Or perhaps simply a prohibition on murder within one's chosen identity group? When does war become acceptable? What makes a being in the world worthy of personhood? Who grants or ought to grant this personhood?
Don't read any further if you don't want some of the plot spoiled for you.
What is fascinating about Dawn to me is the stance it takes on this question of the prohibition on murder. Throughout the film, the apes live by the rule Ape not kill ape. Koba, of course, does attempt to murder Caesar, and Koba also kills Rocket's son, Ash. So perhaps all bets are off, but Caesar does still hold to the prohibition on murder for his own ethics. (There is no prohibition against killing humans or other creatures who are not apes, bears, elk, etc.) So when, at the end of the movie, when we have all collectively decided that it is too dangerous a risk for Koba to continue to live, Koba reminds Caesar that ape not kill ape. Yet Caesar will kill Koba, and his justification is (and this is what troubles me) that Koba is no longer an ape. What I find so difficult about this is that this is the kind of racist justification for murder that everyone else uses, as well. It has been much easier, historically, for us to kill those who are not part of our perceived identity group, and many, many violence theorists have noted the ease with which we remove those outside of our own identity group from the very category of the human.
For the most part, the humans, we should note, are no better. Gary Oldman's character would kill the apes simply because they are not humans and he would rather humans live than apes live. What I think is so fascinating here is the way Dawn of the Planet of the Apes makes so colorable the ways that violence is justified through the simple exclusion of a person from the identity category in which he or she was initially included. Ape not kill ape. But who is allowed to be an ape? And who does the allowing? For that matter: Who is allowed to be included in the category of human? And who decides this?
If Koba is able to be removed from the category of ape it is because he has, in fact, been tortured by humans. He has lost his ape-ness (simianity? oh, let's just say his humanity) because of the behavior of the humans who enacted repeated violence on both his body and his psyche. It is not Koba's fault if he is no longer an ape. Koba's tragedy is that he never even had a chance to be an ape.
The film hasn't thought these things through completely, but I think this is perhaps ok. Dawn asks more questions than it can answer, and this is not a problem at all. Meditations on xenophobia and jingoism, even when coupled with an action-movie plot and computer-generated chimpanzees, are still valuable when done thoughtfully and intelligently. In short, this is a big-budget Hollywood picture worth seeing. And Caesar is as compelling an action-movie hero as you will find at the cineplex this summer.