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My 12 for ’14: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and Talkin’ ‘Bout a Revolution…

With 2014 coming to a close, we’re counting down our top twelve films of the year. Check back daily for the latest featured film.

The world has always seemed like it was on the cusp of something – like there was a powder keg ready to errupt. The infamous “doomsday clock” has never been further than seventeen minutes from midnight, and – outside of that brief moment of post-Cold War euphoria – mankind has always been living within a quarter-of-an-hour from the end of existence as we know it. Nuclear weapons. Global warming. Biological warfare. Economic collapse. All possible world-enders.

The new millennium has been dominated by the threats of terrorism and of global warming, unconventional opponents that can difficult to engage. However, 2014 brought its own particular brand of uncertainties and discomforts. In February, a revolution in the Ukraine sparked a political crisis in Europe, pushing Russia to loggerheads with Europe and the United States. Since August, Ferguson has been simmering away, the imagery of the protests burnt into the collective unconscious. The Syrian Civil War has faded from the front pages.

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The word “revolution” seemed to simmer away in the background, with certain young activists actively travelling to Ferguson in search of their own revolution. Writing in Time magazine, Darlena Cunha compared the trouble in Ferguson to the civil unrest which gave rise to the American Revolution. Demonstrating no shortage of self-importance, actor and comedian Russell Brand published his own manifesto – helpfully titled Revolution – in whish he pledged to lead a global revolution.

“The revolution can not be boring,” Brand advised readers. They seldom are. Revolutions are typically bloody, brutal, violent, horrific. There is a reason that wars of independence tend to be followed by civil wars and internal strife. Although the idea of revolution holds a romantic allure, history demonstrates that revolutions seldom help those most in need of assistance. “Meet the new boss,” the Who teased on Won’t Get Fooled Again, “same as the old boss.” Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a harrowing and compelling exploration of revolutionary bloodshed.

dawnoftheplanetoftheapes3There is a grim and unrelenting cynicism to Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. After all, cinema – and virtually every other artform – has spent generations assuring us that mankind possesses an almost limitless capacity for horrific brutality. Rise of the Planet of the Apes documented just a few small facets of humanity’s potential for evil, making a compelling case for Caesar’s ape revolution. Could anybody blame Caesar for harbouring resentment and anger towards the people who had abused and mistreated him so cruelly?

It would be easy to get swept up in the romance of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. In January, True Detective gave a platform to Thomas Ligotti’s nihilistic philosophy – suggesting that mankind was a blight upon the planet and had fallen out of touch with the world around them. “Maybe the honorable thing for our species to do is deny our programming, stop reproducing, walk hand in hand into extinction, one last midnight,” Rust Cohle reflected. “Brothers and sisters opting out of a raw deal.”

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Of course, True Detective ultimately rejected Cohle’s nihilism. However, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes seems even more cynical. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes might easily have blamed mankind for their own extinction; certainly, humanity is responsible for a number of foolish mistakes that pushed them to the brink. Watching the film, the first act seems to set up a rather obvious tragedy – humanity sabotages any chance of peace with the emerging ape civilisation. Certainly, the humans do not acquit themselves particularly well.

However, the movie takes a bit of a sharp swerve. Actually, the movie takes several sharp swerves. The movie’s biggest conflict between mankind and the apes is not reserved for the climax; it comes about half-way through the film. Despite the fact that mankind set all this in motion, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes treats its human characters as victims shuffling towards extinction. The movie is more interested in the ascendant monkey civilisation than it is in the dying human world.

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Despite Caesar’s attempts to build a utopia for his family, a world populated by apes existing in harmony separate from the world of man, the real world inevitably ensues. Conflicts develop; resentments foster. Eventually, words are not enough. Caesar finds himself supplanted by Koba. Koba is also a victim of abuse and neglect, a character who has never seen mankind’s kindness in the same way that Caesar has. Reluctant to allow mankind a foothold to reestablish themselves, Koba stages a bloody coup and wages war against mankind.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is delightfully ambiguous in its treatment of Caesar and Koba. Caesar is clearly the good guy and Koba is clearly the bad guy, but the movie affords both characters a measure of complexity. Koba’sn facial scars are more than the generic markers of a “scarred bad guy.” Instead, the are a constant reminder that Koba comes from a different place than Caesar. Koba might be angry and resentful, but those emotions are largely justified by how he has been treated. He is not starting a cycle of violence, but perpetuating it.

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Koba claims to be acting in the best interests of his people. He claims that mankind murdered Caesar, stoking the flames and leading the community into conflict with humans living in San Francisco. However, it very quickly becomes clear that Koba is just using these justifications to suit his own purposes. He quickly imposes himself as dictator in the midst of all this confusion. He murders those apes who disagree with him or question him. While Koba is riding a very understandable popular sentiment to power, he is not acting in the best interests of his community.

That said, the movie suggests that Caesar is himself out of touch with his own people. Having grown up among human beings, can Caesar legitimately lead an ape community? Is his judgement coloured by his own experiences, experiences shared by none of his fellow monkeys? Is Caesar complacent? Is he making the best decisions for his people, or the easiest decisions for himself? Dawn of the Planet of the Apes might cast Koba as the villain, but it seems to broadly subscribe to his worldview; maybe peaceful coexistence is just an idle dream.

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After all, the climax puts significant blood on Caesar’s hands. The leader has built a community around the sacred rule that “apes not kill apes.” It seems like a pretty solid basis for a utopian community. However, Caesar cannot allow Koba to live. As Koba holds on for dear life, he appeals to his former leader. “Apes not kill apes,” he repeats, begging. Caesar responds, simply, “You are no ape.” Caesar then allows Koba to fall to his death. Caesar does not kill Koba directly, and denies Koba’s identity before condemning him to death.

However, it is clear that Caesar has broken the spirit of his golden rule, if not the letter. More than that, Caesar is using the sort of justifications that enable brutality and slaughter in human communities. If Caesar gets to decides that Koba is “no ape”, surely he could make the same decision about any other member of the community? If this act of cold-blooded murder can be excused through stretching and distorting the meaning of words, it sets a dangeorus precedent. Indeed, it seems to suggest Caesar’s utopia is nothing more than a fantasy.

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Dawn of the Planet of the Apes seems to suggest that any sufficiently advanced civilisation will inevitably become corrupt; that warfare and conflict are inescapable consequences of consciousness. Certainly, chimpanzees are capable of waging war and committing genocide in the world as it is; one suspects that increasing their awareness and intelligence also deepens their capacity for such cruelty and brutality. Perhaps such barbarism comes naturally, and humanity’s violence is not an abherration so much as a logical inevitability.

All beings are capable of cruelty; humanity just has the intelligence and skill to manufacture it on an industrial scale. That is a truly terrifying thought, because it carries with it horrific implications. The more “civilised” we become, the more organised and compartmentalised our brutality. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is one of the most grim and unrelentingly cynical movies of the year, one which seems to reject utopianism or idealism or hope. It is no wonder that that ape community develops in the ruins of San Francisco.

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Dawn of the Planet of the Apes dismisses the romance around words like “civilisation” and “revolution.” It seems like cruelty, exploitation, murder and violence are not so much the result of particular ideologies as they are the inevitable consequences of so-called “civilisation.” It is certainly a grim central thesis, but Dawn of the Planet of the Apes makes a pretty compelling case.

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