Civilization(s) on the Brink in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Today's article is a feature from Capital Commentary, a weekly current affairs publication by the Center for Public Justice. To read more, visit

After human experiments enhanced their intelligence, apes have escaped and established a colony in the woods outside San Francisco. The humans, most of whom have been wiped out by a virus that was also a result of those experiments, have hunkered down in a fortified remnant of the city. Does the survival of one group depend on the demise of the other? Tragedy that it is, Dawn goes even further and traces the dismantling of both societies.

And like the Shakespeare it heavily draws upon (the lead chimpanzee is named Caesar for good reason), Dawn of the Planet of the Apes recognizes that downfall comes from within. Deep within. If this movie’s predecessor Rise of the Planet of the Apes was a nod to how we’ve gotten the human dominion thing wrongDawn is an even bleaker reckoning of original sin. As these apes have rapidly evolved, so has their capacity for wickedness.

We see this mostly in the relationship between Caesar and Koba, the scarred, scary chimp who Caesar rescued in Rise and who now serves as lead hunter for the colony. These two apes are played by Andy Serkis and Toby Kebbell, respectively, using motion-capture technology, in which actors provide the movements for characters whose final look is developed via computer animation. As Koba, eager to finish off the humans who once tortured him, works to undermine Caesar’s attempts at cooperation, the actors communicate the apes’ shifting relationship largely through pantomime. Consider, for instance, the differing ways Koba approaches Caesar and offers his hand in a supplicant manner. Early on, it’s outstretched in true submission; later, he gives it just enough of a twinge to suggest simmering resentment. 

Caesar’s platform, to speak in political terms, is summed up by the three words he manages to grunt, “Home. Family. Future.” The humans, of course, seek the same thing, and they also have two leaders with differing strategies for achieving it. One, played by Gary Oldman, is skeptical of the apes’ intentions, while the other, played by Jason Clarke, sees an extreme sort of pluralism – an interspecies one -- as the only way forward.

Yet as we know from the real world, a pluralist society is a delicate one, susceptible to the reactionary instincts of the fearful. And so when Koba’s treachery catches fire around the same time a trigger-happy human makes a poor decision, things fall apart. The director, Matt Reeves, stages the ensuing battle sequences with the requisite, summer-blockbuster bombast (look for Koba’s astonishing takeover of a tank), but he also brings an eye for what warfare costs. Each death we witness – be it human or ape - has the real feel of loss.

In the movie’s embers is a remnant of Caesar’s dream, a hope that - like original sin - also lies deep within our hearts. Dawn leaves us with a few characters who have survived this clash and who desire to rebuild toward a lasting peace. It’s an echo of the longing we all have for a restored creation, for a place we can finally and truly call, to borrow a word from Caesar, “home."

- Josh Larsen is editor of Think Christian. He also writes about movies at LarsenOnFilm and is the co-host of Filmspotting. Connect with him on Facebook and Twitter.