They may not have the iambic pentameter down yet – they’re still largely using sign language – but the chimpanzees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes sure have a handle on some of Shakespeare’s central themes.
Personal ambition. Familial loyalty. Political betrayal. The burden of leadership. It’s all here in this sequel to Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the 2011 reboot of the science-fiction franchise. The lab chimp turned ape leader of that film was named Caesar, after Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, for reasons that became clear as Rise reached its climax. Here, 10 years later and after a virus has wiped out most of the human population, we might as well be in the midst of one of the Bard’s plays. Having established an ape colony in Muir Woods National Monument, Caesar (the brilliant Andy Serkis) must contend with threats from the conniving humans outside and the restless apes within.
The nods to Julius Caesar, Henry V and other Shakespearean histories and tragedies aren’t only shallow references, a way to give sci-fi a literary sheen. Because Dawn, like Rise, has envisioned its simian characters so fully, developed their world so intricately and told their story so deftly, the classic themes are given room to live and breathe. As a result, they’re as integral to the film’s tapestry as the stunning special effects.
There is even some grand visual poetry to make up for the loss of Shakespeare’s words. Director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield) manages some rip-roaring action sequences (always bet on apes over bears), yet some of Dawn’s most indelible shots are the quieter ones: Caesar bringing the head of a trustworthy human toward his own so that their foreheads lightly touch; a menacing ape perched on a broken pole holding a tattered American flag; a vengeful chimp pointing to his many laboratory scars and grunting, each time, “Human work.”
The nods to Julius Caesar and Henry V aren’t only shallow references, a way to give sci-fi a literary sheen.
That ape is Koba, rescued by Caesar in Rise and now a lead hunter for the colony. Played in one of the film’s handful of motion-capture performances by Toby Kebbell, Koba is the most riveting figure in the picture, a fully formed villain because you can always understand, and even sympathize with, his treacherous ways. As Caesar contemplates cooperating with a handful of humans who hope to restart a nearby hydroelectric dam, Koba sees an opportunity for vengeance and domination. But he’s no mere brute. Exploiting the anxiousness of Caesar’s son, Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston), Koba sows the seeds of revolt among the colony. He’s equally devious with the humans; a scene in which he plays “circus chimp” to trick two soldiers out of their guns percolates with humor and horror.
Like Serkis, Kebbell gives a performance largely made of poetic pantomime (and greatly aided, of course, by a team of special-effects artists). While always appearing fully ape – that is, animal – Kebbell also expresses a rich array of human emotions via gestures. Consider the differing ways he approaches Caesar and offers his hand in a supplicant manner: early on, it’s outstretched in true submission; later, he gives it just enough of a twinge to suggest simmering resentment.
As treachery also unfolds in the human camp (Gary Oldman and Jason Clarke play the opposing figures there), Dawn becomes an enthralling portrait – at once intimate and epic – of two civilizations on the brink. The movie’s central tension comes in discovering if the survival of one necessitates the destruction of the other. And so when chaos erupts, it’s not only the action that engrosses us (including Koba’s vicious takeover of a tank), but also what is at risk for everyone involved. The humans – including Keri Russell and Kodi Smith-McPhee – are drawn with just enough detail to engender some sympathy, but I realized how much more attached I had become to the talking chimps during the climax. When a tower collapsed at one point, I instantly thought of at least four of them – by name – whom I feared may have died.
And so Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ biggest achievement may be that it continued to make me care about these decidedly unreal creatures. And – through them – to reconsider themes that art has explored even before Shakespeare, all the way back to the Greek tragedies. Now, I’m not saying Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is equivalent to Julius Caesar. But they’re both artfully rattling the same cage.