“Film is incredibly democratic and accessible, it’s probably the best option if you actually want to change the world, not just re-decorate it.” Banksy
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is one of the finest entries in the Planet of the Apes saga, for unlike the countless sequels of the original, it follows the allegorical apes’ formula of its exemplary predecessor and the quintessential original. What makes this film work today, much like the original worked back in 1968, is that it has subtext. On the surface, it’s a film about apes and humans battling it out, but if you read between the lines, you’ll recognise what is required of every great science fiction film: allegory.
Franklin Schaffner’s original came out at the peak of the African-American Civil Rights Movement in America. The film was very much perceived as a groundbreaking allegory for racial relations and slavery. Now, there is the ignorant misconception that the original Planet of the Apes is a racist film, but I honestly think that anyone who falls there simply did not understand its intentions and implications. In fact, if anything, it’s a product of that civil rights movement. The original Planet of the Apes placed the white man in the shoes of the black man during slavery. It is arguably the most humanitarian science-fiction film ever made.
Schaffner's 1968 original Planet of the Apes
Like the original, Matt Reeves latest installment in the series seeks to promote equality between races. However, this version reflects contemporary times, and while the original was more of a social commentary, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes works as a political commentary about what is happening in the Middle East today. But before we get into that, let’s take a closer look at what the first installment in the Planet of the Apes reboot, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, stood for.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes put the viewer in the fur of mistreated animals. If you remember correctly, we watched Cesar being tested upon. Cesar was also mistreated in captivity when we saw him caged in like a zoo animal. The subtext here was animal abuse in general, be it in labs or zoos. Not many know this, but after Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes came out, PETA, the animal rights organisation, went bananas (pun intended) over his film.
Wyatt received the Proggy Award, an award usually given to animal-friendly companies and people, and the film received PETA’s official seal of approval. Rise of the Planet of the Apes was very much a product of the animal rights movement to end the use of animals in research and entertainment. Come to think of it, it was the first Apes film to rely solely on state-of-the-art CGI. Unlike all the previous Planet of the Apes films, no real apes where used during principal photography. The 1968 film was a cry for the basic human rights of African Americans in a post-slavery America; the 2011 reboot was a cry to end humanity’s narcissistic tendency to regard themselves as superior beings to non-humans.
Reeves' 2011 Rise of the Planet of the Apes
“There is no reason why challenging themes and engaging stories have to be mutually exclusive – in fact, each can fuel the other. As a filmmaker, I want to entertain people first and foremost. If out of that comes a greater awareness and understanding of a time or a circumstance, then the hope is that change can happen.” Edward Zwick
When a Planet of the Apes follows what I like to call the Allegorical Apes Formula, it aims for something profound. There’s a pattern to be recognised when you look back at all of the Planet of the Apes films. The ones that failed to recognise the opportunity to tackle a fundamental world problem was generally perceived as cheap entertainment, while the ones that sought to marry entertainment with thought-provoking themes proved to be both commercial and critical successes.
Matt Reeves starts his Dawn of the Planet of the Apes a decade after the events of Rise of the Planet of the Apes. In the opening scene, Reeves quickly concludes the predecessor’s allegory. Most of the human race has been wiped out by the lab-originated Simian flu virus outbreak. A new chapter begins. The viewer is transported to a post-apocalyptic Earth. Deep in the jungle, we meet Cesar, the recognisable leader of his kind. He looks out into eternal greenery curious if any humans are still out there.
The Cesar we meet in this film is a lot wiser than the one we met in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. In fact, he’s the wisest character in the film, human or ape. It’s clear what Cesar is trying to do. By observing the fall of mankind first hand, Cesar tries to learn from humanity’s mistakes. Cesar attempts to create a utopia of apes. “Ape not kill ape,” seems to be the village motto of an ape settlement governed by an ideology Caesar has created. The symbol of this ideology is a four-point star wrapped in a circle; the shape of Caesar’s attic window frame in his former human home.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a political commentary with very clear parallels to what is happening in the Middle East, not just during the recent Arab Spring, but what has been happening in the Middle East throughout the years. My theory is based on the actions of the film’s characters and how the story progresses. First, we learn that the human race has not gone extinct and that those immune to the virus settled in a small city nearby. The human race here represents the United States.
The human city has a strong military base, and much like the United States interest in the Middle East, the humans need to step on the ape village to acquire natural resources. The water pumped out of a dam located on ape domain can generate electricity for the human city. Since gas is running low within their city, the humans are willing to take any military action necessary to reach that dam. Indeed, the story is all too familiar, but Matt Reeves’ political commentary runs much deeper.
Caesar makes a very strong statement on behalf of the Arab world. First he shows his primitive “manpower,” and then he addresses the humans in a short but fairly simple peace treaty proposal, clearly stating the consequences that befall foreign interference. “Apes do not want war. Do not come back.” Malcolm, the leader of the human world, peacefully reaches out to Caesar, in an attempt to find common ground, or rather a peace treaty that shall benefit both camps.
Meanwhile, Koba, a former lab animal with scars he incurred under experimental human captivity, has ideas of his own. His hatred towards humans runs much deeper. [Spoiler Alert] Koba fueled with human hatred, breaks Caesar’s strict “Ape no kill ape” law by attempting to assassinate the leader. This behaviour is all too common in the Middle East nowadays, especially here in Egypt. The second-in-command overthrows the old leader in a violent coup. Koba’s first act as leader is the imprisonment of the previous regime’s loyalists. He puts Caesar’s followers behind bars much like the Egyptian military reacted towards the Mubarak regime loyalists and, later, the Muslim Brotherhood’s followers.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes allegorical apes formula is crystal clear. After witnessing the way of life of the apes, Malcolm comes to respect the apes. By the end of the film, he treats them as equals when he tries to help them out against the general human interest. Likewise, Caesar gradually learns that apes are not superior to humans, but very much alike. They both ultimately come to the realisation that both parties want the same thing; to live in peace and harmony.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a film that calls for the political right of any country to live in peace. As Malcolm proved in the film, any problem can be overcome through dialogue not violence, because war is bad for both sides. The Planet of the Apes saga called for civil rights in the 60s, animal rights in the noughties, and basic political rights in the twenty-tens. Once again, a Planet of the Apes film attempts to change the world for the better.