‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’: The believable and the unbelievable

For those familiar with the original “Planet of the Apes” series, this reboot, beginning with the “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” and now jumping ten years forward with “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, represents the leap of technology between late sixties and now. The movement and CGI-realization of the apes is a remarkable difference. Yet in getting us to the civilization envisioned in the 1968 original “Planet of the Apes,” “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” presents some startling jumps in logical development of civilization.

Michael Wilson (“The Bridge on the River Kwai” with Carl Foreman) and Rod Serling wrote the original script based on the 1963 French novel “La Planète des singe.” Serling would be  consulted for the sequel, “Beneath the Planet of the Apes,” but his ideas were rejected. Both the 1957 “The Bridge on the River Kwai” and “The Planet of the Apes” were based on books written by Pierre Boulle. Boulle’s draft for the sequel, “Planet of the Men,” but this was also rejected. Paul Dehn (“Goldfinger” and “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold”) would eventually write the scripts for the “Planet of the Apes” sequels.

In the 1968 “Planet of the Apes” movie, the society was set up in a caste system. The gorillas are the law enforcement (police and military) as well as the hunters and manual labor. The orangutans are the bureaucracy–administrators, politicians, lawyers and priests. The chimpanzees are the intelligensia–intellectuals and researchers. Humans are the slaves, experimental subjects and hunted animals. They are not known to speak.  Roddy McDowall played Cornelius and he would return to play Caesar in “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes.”

The 1972 “Conquest” explains the evolution into the human society we know and “Planet of the Apes.”  Although the movie begins in 1991, we learn that in 1983, ten years after the events of “Escape from the Planet of the Apes,” there was a pandemic that killed all the cats and dogs. Humans wanted pets and began adopting apes. Eventually the humans train apes to perform domestic tasks and by 1991, human culture has is based on slavery of apes. Caesar is the “pet” of Armando, a circus owner and this is where Caesar learns to ride a horse, becoming one of the circus’ attractions.

Keep in mind that direct U.S. involvement would end in 1973. Saigon would fall in 1975.  The My Lai Massacre which occurred in 1968 came to light in 1969. Public opinion about the war had changed and the peace movement bringing an anti-war message.

In the prologue of  “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,”  in ten years the viral-based drug ALZ-113 has killed off most of the humans, spread by a chimp handler Robert Franklin from the Gen-Sys lab where Caesar (Andy Serkis) was born. Franklin exposes the virus to an airline pilot (David Hewlett) who then spreads it through international travel. The man who raised Caesar (James Franco) is dead.

“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” begins with the apes living in Muir redwood forest hunting for deer. The apes are armed with primitive tools such as spears, they ride black horses and they swing through trees in a thrilling crash course into ape cultural evolution. They can hunt (badly), they are brutal carnivores and they are good riders.

The apes are also pretty good architects having built up upon a reservoir something that resembles a chic semi-rustic communal living quarters out of mud and sizable logs–without any saws or electric mills. It’s the kind of structure you’d imagine some rich person might want to relax in while pretending to rough it.

Here’s where the problems begin. The apes don’t seem to have the technology to support the building of such a structure. Their primitive hunting methods seem at odds with their organized treehouse fantasy structure. Their physiology could not have possibly evolved in such a short time to allow them to throw with accuracy or to climb the thick and rough redwood trees. While apes can throw (most infamously indicated by a chimp named Santino who threw stones on zoo visitors), they cannot throw with accuracy or force. If they played baseball, they would throw underhand as if they were playing softball. If they were at a basketball freethrow line, they’d pull a granny shot.

The growth patterns of  redwoods would seem to preclude brachiation or the locomotion by which primates swing from tree limb to tree limb. This is chimps who had no limitations because they are given CGI-freedom to be super heroesque while the humans are closer to normal.

Yet the characterization of chimpanzees as being aggressive is accurate and in keeping, not only with our more war-like stance toward America’s current wars, but also with what we now know about chimpanzees. They are aggressive. Animal actor Travis (spots on commercials for Coca Cola and Old Navy)  attacked Charla Nash in 2009. In California, two chimps attacked St. James Davis in 2005. These two people lost their faces. We know that chimps wage war.

“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” makes chimps more like idealized warriors in a monarchy from the distant past–say Rome without democracy. Maybe it’s more like Hercules and his loutish companions with Caesar as Odysseus. Caesar has one wife and is in what seems to be a monogamous society although she is attended by other females. We know which chimps are females because they have head adornments and not because we can see male sex organs.

We don’t see the chimps, orangutans or gorillas gathering fruit, although in the wild or in zoos, their diet would be mainly fruit. We don’t see them eating honey bees, termites or driver ants. Instead we see them on a planned hunt. In the wild, real chimps do eat other primates which would make for sticky social situations in a primate-based society although notably baboons aren’t included in this primate society.

In real life, gorillas eat mostly plants (stems, bamboo shoots and fruit). They also eat termites and ants according to the World Wildlife Fund organization.  However, according to National Geographic DNA studies have found that gorillas also eat antelopes and small monkeys.

There are bears and deer in the redwoods, but not cats or dogs or dog-like animals–the kind of scavengers you’d expect to linger around a civilization that eats meat. However, the apes do have horses.  Yes, horses and only black horses, even though bay is a more common color and typically you need pasture land to support horses. The apes have somehow learned to ride and ride well and trained their horses for battle with firearms although they don’t have firearms yet.

The humans are finally running out of diesel and oil fuel.  The green revolution apparently didn’t take hold and all the survivalists didn’t survive. There’s no solar power. The human enclave in San Francisco needs to start up a hydroelectric power plant at the dam in the Muir Woods. It’s not clear how much longer they can continue to fuel their non-electric vehicles.

A small party of humans on their way to the plant run into two young apes on their way back from successfully fishing. A young ape is shot, but the party’s leader Malcolm (Jason Clarke) is able to convince Caesar (Andy Serkis) to allow the humans access.

Each side, apes and humans have their hot heads. On the human side, it’s Carver (Kirk Acevedo) who doesn’t trust the apes. The leader of the surviving humans, Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) doesn’t trust them either, but, at first, he will listen to reason. On the ape side, Caesar’s friend and adviser, Koba (Toby Kebbell), a bonobo, has a deep mistrust of the humans having been experimented on before his release.

Both Malcolm and Caesar have teenaged sons, Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston), respectively. And they also have wives. Malcolm’s first wife, Alexander’s mother, died from the “simian flu” and his second wife, Ellie (Keri Russell) is a former nurse with the CDC (not a doctor). Cornelia (Judy Greer) is Caesar’s wife and the mother of Blue Eyes and has just given birth to another son.

The superiority of the apes is posited because they can thrive without electricity and fossil-fueled vehicles. Humans cannot. At least not now.

Although according to the 2010 census, the San Francisco population was 48 percent white, 33.3 percent Asian and only 6 percent African American, and the Latino population of any race is 15 percent, the representation in this movie is skewed. Chinese are the single largest ethnic minority with 21 percent.

Malcolm (Jason Clarke, an Australian) is white. Dreyfus (Gary Oldman, British) is white. Keri Russell (an American) is white. Alexander (Australian Kodi Smit-McPhee) is white. Werner, the guy trying to establish contact with the outside world via radio (because no one preserved solar-panel run radios or had the know-how of Gilligan Island’s professor) is played by Joco Sims, who is black. The hot-head with Malcolm’s search party, Carver, is played by Kirk Acevedo who is Puerto Rican and Chinese. Enrique Murciano, of Cuban descent, plays Kempt.

This movie would have been the perfect opportunity to have an Asian American portray a leadership position.

The San Francisco of the survivors is an enclosed area and one wonders how the survivors survived. What were they eating in the last five or so years: Twinkies, Velveeta and Spam? They have no dogs to protect them and they also have no horses. They also seem to have no farmland, no urban gardens. They do have high-powered automatic weaponry left over from the National Guards–a whole warehouse full. The apes get wind of this and take a few for themselves.

There’s no ape named Brutus, but Caesar is betrayed and that’s what starts the war between humans and apes. You know how this is going to end. After all, it’s about the beginning of the Planet of the Apes. And Caesar is named Caesar for a reason. On the way, there will be spectacular explosions and the humans will be, human-like, wondering at the superhuman qualities of the apes. The great stunts will be done by CGI apes doing things that real apes cannot do. The motion capture and Andy Serkis is astonishing, but the realistic portrayal of apes and their limitations is not.



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