Contemporary blockbuster filmmaking has largely concerned itself with images and narratives about the end of the world. This has not always been the case. From Jaws exploring its self-contained marine environ to Jurassic Park confining itself within an island, the real fear that these films provoked stemmed from a viewer’s interaction with the text: could one really go to the beach and not think of a shark at one point or another? The apocalypse wasn’t necessarily realized in these earlier blockbusters, but rather an implication of terror that served as the critical undercurrent to engage the viewer in thinking of the world they live in. But contemporary summer films have become inundated with images of destruction that the implication is no longer there - instead, oblivion is convincingly placed before you on the screen. These images lead you to vicariously engage with the text; it’s likely why so many of these films have such a limited shelf life.
2014 has rejected this notion. The destruction of the world is still there for the less engaged to marvel at, but there’s a more complicated subtext to be uncovered. Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla understood the narrative betrayal of zoning in on the plights of a single human perspective, opting instead to shape a film on the destruction of the world through a globalized eye. Elsewhere, Doug Liman’s Edge of Tomorrow pulled from multiple cinematic sources, particularly from Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, to realize one man’s repetitious journey to save the planet. It’s a benchmark blockbuster that underscores its thematic intent in a smart and concise way. Similarly, Matt Reeves’ Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is concise in its filmmaking that, while not quite the equal to Edwards or Liman’s film, serves as a critical reminder that commercial filmmaking need not be devoid of personality.
Reeves’ film picks up ten years after Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes. A simian flu has wiped out much of the population. Apes, following their Golden Gate siege from the first film, take refuge in the dense forestry outside of San Francisco. Ape civilization is on the rise, growing into a prosperous community developed on the ideals of loyalty and kinship. Caesar (Andy Serkis) is the civilization’s leader, as he boasts a particularly unique worldview. When a group of humans intervene with Caesar’s community, he offers to help at the price of being left alone; he understands the delicate social ecosystem in which he operates in. The human’s mirror the ape civilization (much of the film is an exercise in mirroring and doubling, more on that later), with a clear-headed leader (in this case, Jason Clarke as Malcolm) contending with the growing dissent of his followers.
While the film is a narrative byproduct of the Cain and Abel story intermingled with Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Reeves cushions that with an interesting infusion of Western iconography. Perhaps because the film is still fresh on my mind, but there are some compelling citations to Howard Hawks’ Red River that courses through Dawn, particularly in the way it establishes Caesar and Koba’s (Toby Kebbell) friendship and subsequent betrayal. Moreover, there are numerous visual and decorative allusions that call upon Sergio Leone’s Man With No Name trilogy. From the sight of seeing apes on horseback to Jason Clarke’s Blondie-inspired poncho and hat, Reeves makes some conscious choices to ground his film in a time period where the open terrain was much more volatile.
In implementing these gestures toward Western iconography, Reeves thankfully undercuts the gloominess of what is essentially a post-apocalyptic pastiche. And more importantly, it promotes the picture’s coupling aspects. The obvious light versus dark, war and peace, human versus ape, and Koba versus Caesar narratives are the clear narrative dichotomies, but there are some more subtle elements to the picture that may go unnoticed: militarism versus oligarchy and western tradition versus scientific nuance.
This is not to say that Dawn explores these ideas in a radical or particularly interesting way (this is a film that features machine-gun wielding apes riding on horseback after all). But these light touches allow the film to carry some measure of personality in what would otherwise be an exercise in mind-numbing blockbuster filmmaking. Reeves, who was responsible for the sometimes thoughtful but overall disappointing Let Me In, is serviceable for the most part, though he does surprise from time to time (a camera strapped onto a tank sequence demonstrates how he can viscerally connect with the audience, but also how fleeting the image can be when it demonstrates so little thematic or narrative consequence). There’s no escaping that Dawn is merely a piece of studio-driven franchising, meant to build sequel upon sequel. But thankfully, the talent involved elevates the material, effectively dulling away the insufferable studio sheen into something a little more interesting.