A growing nation of genetically evolved apes led by Caesar is threatened by a band of human survivors of the devastating virus unleashed a decade earlier. They reach a fragile peace, but it proves short-lived, as both sides are brought to the brink of a war that will determine who will emerge as Earth’s dominant species. (synopsis via Coming Soon)
Modern cinema is awash in bleak dystopian visions of the future in which humanity is either obliterated altogether or vanquished to the sidelines of history (any number of zombie or alien invasion movies), split into societally-ruinous factions (Elysium, District 9), a victim of its own technological progress (Terminator franchise, Transcendence) or an apocalyptic event (The Road, Book of Eli, Mad Max franchise) or a victim of its proclivity for gravitating toward order over chaos (Gattaca, Brave New World).
What distinguishes all these films to one degree or another is that they are recognisable as less than utopian visions of the earth we know and we love.
While humanity may not be flourishing as it once was, or certain sections have been marginalised at the expense of others, society still exists in some form, and we can take a small comfort in the fact that we still exist, no matter how oppressed or displaced we might be as a people.
What truly sets The Planet of the Apes franchise apart from the dystopian pack is that, in its original late ’60s form at least, it was not immediately obvious you were on earth at all.
In fact when astronauts George Taylor (Charlton Heston), John Landon (Robert Gunnr), and Dodge (Jeff Burton) crash into a lake on a mysterious planet after a long way through deep space, they assume they are on an alien planet of some kind since it bears very little resemblance to the earth they left behind, and clearly expect to return to.
Despite encountering mute primitive humans and a hierarchy of well organised, intelligent apes who rule over the homo sapiens with cruel disregard, they continue to operate under the assumption that they are on a far flung planet far from home until Taylor’s jarring discovery at the end of the first film when he realises he is on a frighteningly different version of earth.
It’s a stroke of genius, an unsettling dystopian vision of the future where evolution has gone in a completely different direction and humanity is left very much at the bottom of the apes’ pecking order.
One thing though that is never really explained is how it came to be that way.
That all changed when the prequel Rise of the Planet of the Apes was released in 2011 and we came to see that humanity in effect cut its own throat when medical research meant to cure Alzheimers disease gives rise to super-intelligent apes led by Caesar (Andy Serkis) who grow in number and organisation as humanity finds itself battling a virus that wipes most of it out.
Fast Forward ten years and ape society is evolving rapidly while the beleaguered remnant of humanity either does it best to co-habitate with the chimpanzees, orang-utans and gorillas of Caesar’s ever growing, multitudinous followers (a group including survivors Malcolm and Ellie played respectively by Jason Clarke and Kerri Russell), or plots bloody retribution for the epidemic they mistakenly believe came from the apes.
With such polarised forces massing within the much-decimated ranks of humanity, and little to trust between the humans (on their way down the evolutionary ladder) and the apes (ever more in the ascendant), it becomes patently obvious, despite the best efforts of Malcolm and Ellie and others, that apes and humanity are on a destructive collision course.
Filmed in New Orleans, who stood in for a dystopian San Francisco, and Vancouver, where the forest scenes were shot, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes looks like another worthy entry in The Planet of the Apes canon, proof positive that it is possible to make not one but two prequels and not have them detract from the movies that they are meant as preambles for.
The real joy of these prequels -for the viewers at least, not so much future humanity – is that they give us a well-told, beautifully filmed insight into how the earth that Taylor and his companions encounter comes to be, reminding us once again that where we go as a species is entirely in our rather fallible hands.
That may seem self-evident but Rise … and Dawn … make it abundantly clear that it is often not as obvious as it needs to be and that we could well find ourselves on the losing end of the ceaseless march of evolution if we don’t learn the lesson.
Thankfully for moviegoers, humanity in these stories paid little to no notice, giving us once again the vicarious thrill of watching the world go to (ape) sh*t once again.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes opens in Australia on 10 July 2014 and in USA on 11 July.
*For a good look at what went into filming the movie, check out this excellent report from Hey U Guys.