Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is many things – a sci-fi movie about talking apes, a blockbuster spectacle with apes firing machine guns while riding horses, a cautionary tale about how untrustworthy apes are–but it is mainly a tragedy. And while I am using the word “tragedy” in its traditional sense (it’s a bummer of a movie where several of it’s lead characters die at the end) I also want to use that word in a more specific way. The senior paper I wrote to earn my philosophy degree concerned a precise type of tragedy where multiple ethically correct values come into conflict and lead to ethically wrong outcomes when they can’t be reconciled. When I was in college I was interested in a lot of facets of this idea, but the one that is here is political: it’s entirely possible for two sides with legitimate claims to clash in a way that destroys both of their legitimacy if neither side can back down or compromise.
The basic conflict of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a mirror of a lot of real world conflicts: there are factions in both the ape society and in the human society that want peace between the species and there are factions in both that want war. Koba, the most warlike of the Apes, keeps pointing to the stockpile of weapons that the humans have as proof that the humans are inherently violent, and Dreyfus, the most warlike of the humans, wants to have a stockpile of weapons so he can be prepared in case Koba leads a strike on the human’s compound. Neither Koba nor Dreyfus is wrong, exactly, because the fears they have are legitimate – they are correct that the other side doesn’t necessarily have good intentions. But it is obvious to an outside observer that if their people listen to them the only outcome will be disaster. And sure enough, disaster does strike once Koba becomes the leader of the Apes and he leads them into battle against Dreyfus, directly initiating the war he warned would happen if no one did anything.
If that sounds heavy for a film about mutant apes, well, it is. There is no trace of the campiness that made the original series of Planet movies so entertaining, and there were stretches of the film where I was desperate for any sort of a joke to relieve the relentless dourness. But while this movie might be a little too heavy for it’s own good, at least it’s a smart movie. Whereas Rise of the Planet of the Apes did a bad job of being ambiguous – it wanted to create a similar shades of gray tension between the humans and the apes but the humans were clearly in the wrong; the James Franco character was definitely playing Frankenstein, and thus was clearly responsible for the complications that followed – Dawn of the Planet of the Apes does a very good job of balancing both sides. Partly it does this with simple character parity – there’s an analogous hawk / dove in both camps – but partly it does this by methodically laying the ground work, showing how bloodshed is the only inevitable result from the starting conditions. Like the best tragedies there’s a clockwork rhythm to this movie’s plot progression, one with unassailable but depressing logic.
The reason why I was interested in writing about this type of tragedy when I was in college is because it’s something that I see around me all the time, in political disagreements, in foreign affairs, in the basic framework of capitalism. But I also moved away from thinking about this sort of stuff a long time ago, once it became clear to me that asking these sorts of questions never gets you any helpful answers. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes tries to end in a way that respects the parity that the movie kept going the whole way through, but of course that’s a lie, because the title of the movie tells us which side is going to win in the long run. Honestly, I don’t know which is more troubling – the eternal strife that comes from two warring sides where one will never win over the other, or the bleakness that comes with a final triumph. Either way, I’d probably prefer to think about apes with guns on horses in a more pleasant context.
Winner: Me (?)