The summer movie season is well known for its commercial, not its artistic or subversive, value. Director Matt Reeves knows this well, and he’s set out to follow the tried and true money-making formula of past summer blockbusters with his newest film Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Like most summer releases, it favors a predictable plot, gimmicky special effects, sparse and poorly written dialogue, and plenty of violent action. Even more importantly, it tries hard not to be in any significant way controversial. Its aim is to reach a mainstream audience, after all, and any overt politicking is bound to alienate certain viewers thus diminishing profits. Reeves is no artistic genius, but he knows how to make a buck, and in the case of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, he’s done just that. But he’s also done a bit more, without really trying. The film both is and isn’t your typical summer action-adventure film.
The selling point in the film is the brilliant special effects, masterminded by Peter Jackson’s WETA team under Joe Letteri and Dan Lemmon. Effects are a major characteristic of almost all summer films, but in this case it doesn’t distract from the drama of the story or the character development (the heavy reliance on battle scenes does, however); it enhances them. The effects are used to humanize the apes, thereby increasing the drama and minimizing the spectacle. Much like Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, it doesn’t feel like you’re watching a 3-D film; it feels like you’re watching a film whose effects add to the naturalism.
As expected, Reeves goes out of his way in the film not to offend anyone. The film’s villain, Koba, is a direct reference to Joseph Stalin, who adopted the nickname of Koba from one of his literary heroes. The film also references the Reichstag Fire, the Nazi destruction of the German Parliament building which Hitler blamed on his enemies and used to suspend civil rights and consolidate power. So Reeves does flirt with political ideology, but nervously so, balancing a villain from the left with one from the right and, further, giving the viewers a sympathetic justification for the villain’s actions, in this case his mistreatment by humans prior to the ape rebellion. In interviews, Reeves said that he “wanted there to be no real villains.” That’s one way not to alienate viewers, the other being to create simplistically evil characters that no one could possibly identify with.
In spite of the director’s best efforts, this film retains much of the subversive qualities of the original 68 film, which also used a commercial plot to undermine societal values. There’s simply no way to depict intelligent apes without undermining mainstream ideology, but the challenge is problematic. What does it say when the most effective means of shocking society’s elite is to show the riff-raff behaving just like them? Moreover, it’s the human-like traits of the apes that incite the war with humans, as if to champion a jaundiced view of nature itself, thus promoting an anti-democratic position: things might be bad, but without strong leadership, they could be a whole lot worse. In other words, people don’t create villainy, nature does. And we need artificial constructs of power to prevent that villainy from reigning supreme. Just looking at an ape on a horse is enough to challenge mainstream thought, but any subversive energy the film might have transmitted is cancelled out by the reification of evil and the glorification of Caesar, the elite, charismatic, wise, Platonic King that we all need to survive rationally and peacefully. The cult of individuality is well intact.
So while the film has more artistic merit than you’d ordinarily expect from a summer blockbuster, it falls way short of telling us something we haven’t heard before. Like its summer competitors, it doesn’t make us want to revolt or risk our lives to end racism, speciesism, exploitation, or corruption, but it does make us a little more content with our flawed lives. It teaches that power will always be with us, since the democratic alternative is far more troubling, and that revolution is way less fun than going to the movies.
Review By D Shane Petersen