Dawn of the Planet of the Apes works because it never winks

This year is the 25th anniversary of the release of the first Jurassic Park. For most of us at Cinedelphia, it is a film that has defined what we look for in a summer blockbuster. So what better time than now to revisit the last 25 years of summer blockbusters and pick our favorites? View the criteria and full introduction here, and the whole series here.

16. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (dir. Matt Reeves, 2014)

Consider what a miracle it is to see a talking chimpanzee named Caesar riding a horse in the Marin Headlands in a movie that came out in the past decade. Other big sci-fi blockbusters cringe at their own source material, to the point that a character like the Flash is just called “Barry” in Justice League and every half hour somebody needs to make a joke about how their leader is a man dressed as a bat. You can have Batman, nerds, but only if we all get to laugh at the whole idea of Batman. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is grim, but it’s also a movie where gorillas learn how to shoot guns, and when that happens a wacky side-character doesn’t pop into frame to go “Could this be any more ridiculous?”

It is also, in its own way, an optimistic movie. The abused ape Koba is ready to wipe out humanity because violence begets violence and the human leader Dreyfus rallies his troops against the apes because they seem like a natural scapegoat for the collapse of society. But Caesar just wants to be left alone, and the humans he grows to care for just want to make sure their race gets a few more generations. The original Planet of the Apes posited that violence is the natural way of things: People will treat people like trash until they wipe each other out and then apes will evolve until they’re capable of treating people like trash. Not even the apocalypse is going to break that cycle. Somebody’s always going to be in a cage. Whoever’s at the top of the social order is destined to be terrible to everybody else. Dawn splits the difference between its beautiful Children of Men-inspired action scenes and inter-species conversations about Charles Burns comics and argues things aren’t that ugly. Caesar, the most likable character in the movie, sees through the manufactured animosity on both sides and preaches peace. The world of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes isn’t violent because that’s the natural function of hierarchies in societies, it’s violent because we just haven’t taken the time to understand each other.

Is it any coincidence that a movie about miscommunication is named Dawn of the Planet of the Apes but is a sequel to Rise of the Planet of the Apes, thus making it impossible to remember which film is which because they both sound like the first movie in a series? Well, yes. These things were marketed terribly.

Author: Alex Rudolph

Alex is from the Bay Area and has lived in Philadelphia for three years, though he is trying to find a way to transport into the Squand commercial that always played early in the morning on Nickelodeon (with a summer place in the Crossfire ad). If you want to talk about Dan Clowes comics and Merzbow, he will sit here and talk about Dan Clowes comics and Merzbow all dang day. He is also the founder of the popular websites AV Club, The New York Times, Harpo Productions and Bitcoin. Follow him on Instagram.

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