Summer blockbusters seam intent to satisfy crowds looking for low mental output and high octane thrills, but rarely do they leave the viewer with anything more enduring than a headache and more thought provoking than a love triangle. And so summers find contemplative viewers in small theatres seeking independent jewels. But when these viewers wants to talk intelligently about movies to anyone outside of the five audience members present at the indie theatre, Transformers 4 and Sex Tape don’t offer much fodder. But just when such hopelessness confronts us, along comes a smart blockbuster like Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, a film popular, exciting, and thought-provoking.
This movie is not called Dawn of the Planet of the Humans and Apes, so from its very title we know that things do not look well for the humans who have survived the devastating simian flue. The evolved ape community will rule and our race will be exterminated. We just don’t know how, so we watch the nervous interaction between the new ape civilization in the Redwood Forest and the struggling humans in ruined San Francisco with incredibly high stakes. Minor decisions are being made and any one of them could be the spark that sets the inevitable bonfire of war alight.
This simmering tension is sustained by a musical score that, like the film, is both interesting and heartfelt. The cinematography is not content to to let us just sit back and partake in the action, instead it throws us in headfirst with angles that surprise and engage the viewer. And it's a major accomplishment that we grow to care for and understand the apes as equally as the film’s humans. Part of this is due to to the completely believable worlds that are built, both the rising ape culture and the ruined San Francisco. And a large portion of credit goes to the astonishing work of Andy Serkis and his fellow ape actors. The audience develops a deep emotional resonance with their civilization but the remaining humans are not ignored. Instead, the uniqueness and preciousness of human life is acknowledged, especially in light of the oncoming disaster. One might argue that there is less depth to the human characters, but I would say that since we are unfamiliar with the apes, the extra time spent with them is well proportioned.
Watching this movie will inevitably spark deep discussions. I would suggest that there are two conclusions we can walk away with. The first is the importance of a rooted understanding of what makes someone human. If humans are not made in the image of God, ethical decisions between apes and animals and lower life life or higher life loose their footing. But as sketchy as this ground is, I think Dawn of the Planet of the Apes deserves more praise than criticism for its ontological understanding, if we suspend our belief and acknowledge that the apes are humans. And that is the second conclusion. Fo even in an ideal community like that of the apes, war is inevitable. Someone is going pick the forbidden fruit, disobey the given rules, and fire the shot that will begin the collapse. The minor moral choices we make have great weight because their consequences are brutal.
Finding a movie that strikes us with these truths in such a fresh and thought provoking way is rare. Coupled with a story that is thrilling, special effects so effortlessly believable, and a world rendered with both explosive terror and and quite sadness, we have a summer blockbuster to be proud of.