Blake Backlash hates nearly every ape he sees. From chimpan-a to chimpan-z.
‘Spare us the hippy-dippy bullshit’, grumbles one monkey-sceptic early on in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. I wish the film had spared us that. It aims for conspicuous seriousness but I found it overly earnest. Not because it tries to give us science-fiction straight or because it wants to tackle big themes – I’m down with that. But it’s hard to get excited about a film that makes heroes out of not one but two pious do-gooders, one simian and one human. I got the giggles early on in Dawn. It wasn’t because a chimp was talking to an orang-utan using sign language. It was because the caption telling me what the chimp had just said read ‘It makes me think of how far we’ve come, Maurice’.
This reflective chimpanzee is the ape leader, Caesar. You’ll know him because he’s played by Andy Serkis and because back in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, he was the first son of the first beneficiary of the drug that made apes smart. I liked Rise a lot and remember it having flashes of wit and bite. I enjoyed the way it put Charlton Heston’s most famous line from the original film in the mouth of Tom Felton’s scumbag animal sanctuary guard. I wish Dawn had more moments like that. Instead we get two versions of the same over-familiar plot playing out at the same time. ‘I’ve come to realise how like them we are’, Caesar tells his son. A bit too bloody like us, if you ask me, I could have done with more variety. Jason Clark plays Malcolm, who becomes a kind of de-facto human ambassador, trying to forge links with the apes. He bonds with Caesar because both of them want to give peace a chance. But both of them are hindered by bloodthirsty and power-hungry former allies. Malcolm clashes with Dreyfuss, played by a twitchy but committed Gary Oldman. Caesar has to be wary of his second-in-command, Koba.
It is Koba who shines in the film’s best moment – the bit that provided the shot of something sour I missed so much. You maybe know it, it featured in the trailer and in a preview shown during the World Cup. Two dudes have their guns trained on him and, since we know he’s tough, we watch waiting for Koba to fight. Instead he blows them a big comic raspberry and starts to monkey around, letting them see the kind ape they remember from the circuses and Clint Eastwood movies of their youth. They let him go. And when Koba comes back, he lays even more of that shtick on them: giving them the full PG Tips experience, drinking their booze and spraying it out all over them in a blast of wheezy, chimpish chuckles. The gunmen are so ready to laugh at him that when he picks up one of their guns, they’ve hardly had time to get nervous before he has gunned them down. Both Koba and Toby Kebbel, who plays him, show some chops here. Koba is mentally and physically scarred by time in human captivity, he knows how to watch for the vulnerabilities of those in power. So, for all the scene zips by, it touches on on how the oppressed can exploit the prejudices of the oppressor to, literally, catch them off-guard.
And while I wanted more of that, I will admit that there are times when the film’s sincerity works. As he makes his case for peace, Caesar talks about what the apes have built, what might be lost if they get into a fight with an enemy that has more guns than they do. ‘Home. Family. Future’ he says. There is a stark power in hearing those words laid out together like that. It is probably crass to draw comparisons with historical or current conflicts. But I found myself thinking about how homes, families and futures are the things that are destroyed when bombs fall on a civilian population that can’t defend itself.
But I know what you’re thinking. Spare us the hippy-dippy bullshit, right? Well then, in mitigation, I will admit that my heart lifted during the latter stages of the film when we started to see apes with machine guns herding humans into cages. Call me a traitor to my species, but I loved seeing those men and women run around screaming like idiots. And I liked that this felt like the first glimpse of humans as the mute, loincloth wearing twits from the original that we are destined to devolve into.
The climax of the film seems stymied by that dramatically inert pattern of parallels between apes and humans. Malcolm confronts Dreyfuss at the same time as Koba and Caesar knock lumps out of one another. This chimpanzee fight would be more fun if it wasn’t punctuated by Koba and Caesar arguing with each other. The apes talk like Indians from an unenlightened Western. So Koba is all, ‘Caesar no fight for ape. Caesar fight for human!’ And Caesar is all, ‘Koba no fight for ape. Koba fight for Koba!’ And then it’s all something like, ‘Koba make prisoner ape who no follow Koba!’ and ‘Some ape prisoner today so all ape free tomorrow!’ Until I was all, shut yer stinkin’ banana-holes, you damned, dirty apes.
Reviewer want tomorrow ape film no so pompous. Reviewer miss Marky Mark! Tim Burton! No good sign.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is released today.