Friday, December 19, 2014
Dawn of a Dark Tomorrow: Why Caesar's victory was anything but.
I turned 39 years old this week. That's a chunk of change, to be sure. So like most adults who reach this point in their life, I want to talk about monkeys. Specifically the ending of DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES and what it means for the franchise as a whole. It goes without saying that pretty much everything below this point is SPOILER country, so if you haven't seen the film (and seriously, why is that? I mean, you did see the trailer where a chimpanzee is dual-wielding machine guns whilst riding on horseback, right? RIGHT?), you may want to take the time to check it out. Seriously, both the Apes movies are way better than any of the fly-by-night remakes and revamps of recent years.
All right? We good? Here we go. Fairly warned be ye:
The ending of DAWN has Caesar (masterfully played by Andy 'Can This Man Get A Damn Oscar Already' Serkiss) send Malcom (Jason Clarke) on his way, reunited with his people and having defeated Koba(played to extremely disturbing effect by Toby Kebbell). Caesar holds his family close, but you can tell from the look in his eyes that this victory is practically the textbook definition of pyrhrric. We're allowed the moment of 'victory' because of the three-act structure of the film but you can see it in Caesar's eyes. He is absolutely screwed and he knows it.
Caesar's development over the course of the two Apes films is easily one the franchise's greatest achievements. It would have been all too easy to set him up as a slavering lunatic, rabidly anti-human and plotting for the complete and total overthrow of humanity from the get-go in the best supervillain tradition. Instead, they let the story build gradually, allowing us to bond with Caesar and the Rodmans as people rather than merely archetypes to get us to the scene of astronauts screaming at the sight of a ruined statue of Liberty. Like any of us Caesar is the product of his environment, he sees both the good and the bad in humanity but it's ultimately the bad that has him take his genetically modified tribe into the wilderness to raise at a safe remove. That humanity is decimated by the coincidental release of a supervirus that brings about the near-total collapse of civilization is something that I think Casear regrets, but not too much. He sees humans as deeply flawed but not an evil to be eradicated. The trouble is he feels that his people are better, that their burgeoning civilization is the superior one. Enter Koba.
Koba is one seriously twisted individual. He hates humanity with an absolute passion, and here's the most damning thing: he is not entirely wrong. He sufferred brutally at the hands of the scientists at Gen-Sys, his experiences about as close to a 180 degree turn from Caesar's as you can get. I love that in this film, both sides get an equal say, and both have valid points to make. Especially when Koba catches wind that Dreyfuss(Gary Oldman in a solid role) is preparing for war, just in case the Apes decide that they don't want to cooperate. The humans need that electricity, and while Dreyfuss wants Malcom to succeed, he and his people have lost too much too soon to trust the altruism of a species that (for all they know) originated the plague that killed his wife and family. Koba sees this as vindication of all his beliefs about humans: lying, backstabbing, cheating, and murderous. His world view is simple: The Strong control the Weak. Humanity was Monstrous when they were strong. Now Apes are Strong, and the Humans are Weak. The Apes should seize this moment and kill the humans. All of them. And if Caesar can't see this. . .then Caesar has to go. Koba is so blinded by his hatred that he can't see how much he has in common with his enemy. And Caesar is so blinded by his idealism that he can't see how much his people have in common with Humans. It's an amazing character study, one that I remind you is in a film who only really had to deliver the sight of a chimpanzee dual-wielding machine guns on horseback to have my complete approval.
But the absolute best thing about the film is that it ends on a triumphantly bleak note. Koba may have been defeated and the Apes may have escaped Dreyfuss' suicide gambit, but in that last moment before the credits roll we see in Caesar's eyes that he realizes how absolutely doomed he is. Koba may have died, but in death he achieved exactly what he wanted: a war between humanity and the apes. And we as the viewers know (from previous experience with the franchise) the outcome of that war: Caesar will lead his people to victory over the humans, with humanity becoming the slave caste of a dominant civilization of intelligent primates. Caesar's name will be revered, but it will be as the heroic liberator of apekind from human tyranny. He'll be a figure of religious awe, not a person. And in that moment at the end of the film you can almost see the mantle of that future history settle around his shoulders. It's a great moment of acting from Serkiss and the reason that it's one of my favorite movies to come out this year. A character goes from child to adult to leader to legend. . .in a movie about talking apes.
Ps. (Seriously, that scene with the machine guns. . .so. Awesome.)