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Phil Mellows is a freelance journalist living in Brighton


  Dawn of the Planet of the Apes


Directed by Matt Reeves (2014)

We live in a world of wars. Fierce conflicts erupt that we sometimes struggle to fully understand. Innocent people are dying, and it seems there's no reason to it. At the moment, 100 years on, we're also glancing back to the First World War. The arguments about what caused the slaughter of millions are reignited.

So it's hard not to see Dawn of the Planet of the Apes as a sci-fi fantasy that nevertheless speaks to these urgent concerns. Why do we go to war?

The previous episode in this latest incarnation of the story, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, was an uplifting tale of rebellion as the super-intelligent ape Caesar, Spartacus-like,  led his oppressed species to freedom.

Dawn is more Game of Thrones, an exercise in political power, frustrated idealism and deceit. It's not such fun.

We join the colony of apes 10 years on, settled into their forest home across the bridge from San Francisco. Humanity has come a cropper thanks to the same drug development programme that gave Caesar his brains but also turned out to be a deadly virus with the obligatory, vague flu-like symptoms.

Only the immune have survived and, bereft without their ipads, they need electricity. The plan is to recommission an old hydro-electric dam that happens to be in the middle of ape territory. (Why they couldn't instead get that huge wind farm just outside the city going, I don't know.)

The apes are getting on perfectly well with a bonfire, so there's no competition over the power plant, no reason, really, why this should cause a problem. But that wouldn't make much of an action film - and there are those, on both sides, who harbour intractable distrust.

While Caesar (Andy Serkis) wants to help the humans who raised him, his lieutenant, Koba (Toby Kebbell), tortured and scarred by human researchers, is having none of it, and plots to overthrow his beneficent rule.

That's mirrored among the humans by the opposition between Malcolm (Jason Clarke), who made first contact with the apes, admires Caesar's leadership qualities and seeks conciliation, and his boss, Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), who builds a stockpile of weapons just in case, and Carver (Kirk Acevedo) a species-ist with anger management issues.

This all plays out with some tension, especially on the ape side where Serkis, Kebbel and Nick Thurston, as Caesar's son Blue Eyes, manage somehow to punch a gamut of emotions through the CGI.

Less convincing is the bad person/ape view of history, the way in which war and peace hang in the balance, determined by stupidity and accident.

What makes Dawn interesting, though, is its challenge to the whole thing around what it means to be human.

In just 10 years Caesar's apes become decidely human themselves, building complex shelters and decorating their bodies with face-paint and some snazzy headgear. They also talk, of course, though still mostly sign among themselves. But they have a sophisticated language to relate to the world around them, and they are relating to it much as a human society does.

They also have values, based on the ape solidarity that gave them their freedom, and taught to the youngsters by the sage orang-utan Maurice (Karin Konoval). This backfires, though, with Koba's traitorous behaviour. The dictum 'ape not kill ape' falls as Caeser tells him “You are not ape”.

So values are detached from species, as they might be from race or nation. The ideology behind the drive to war is undermined.

Which still leaves us with the material determinants. Perhaps that's one for the next in what looks like being a long series.

July 25, 2014

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