More than a few textbooks casually proclaim humanity as the dominant lifeform on planet Earth, an honor at which insects in general might roll their multi-faceted eyes. Be that as it may, it’s a sentiment that has guided human civilization for millennia: this world we inhabit is ours to use and abuse as we alone see fit, whose dangers are to be managed and endured but never taken as a serious threat to our very existence. Now, in an age of runaway technological advancement and rising threats of self-inflicted extinction, the question finally comes forth: what if we had to compete for this world we consider to be ours? Are we really up to the task? Are the things we have seen as evolutionary strengths really as good as we make them out to be? Or are they drawbacks we live with because nothing has ever revealed them for the flaws that they could be? We’ll never know such questions, since we pushed our brother and sister species into extinction long ago, but we have the province of science fiction to give us a speculative reality check. And on that front, we can get a pretty compelling answer from Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. We’re just just not likely to take much comfort from what we learn.
The story takes place 10 years after the mutated chimpanzee Caesar leads a rebellion that frees himself and his numerous primate comrades from a San Francisco testing laboratory. As they seek refuge in the nearby forests, the same viral experiment that granted Caesar and his fellow escapees human-level intelligence have also prompted a simian flu pandemic that has decimated homo sapiens and brought the downfall of human civilization. Now, as Caesar’s tribe flourishes, the remaining humans of San Francisco struggle both literally and figuratively to keep the lights on in their society, and accidentally encroach into ape territory while seeking to reactivate a much-needed hydroelectric dam. For the humans, meeting a tribe of talking apes is quite the shock. For the apes, it’s confirmation that contact with humanity, and perhaps war with it, has always been inevitable. As Caesar and a human named Malcom struggle to forge an uneasy peace between man and ape, dissenters on both sides—a scarred Bonobo named Koba and a nihilistic demagogue named Dreyfus—seek to push ignite a winner-take-all conflict in which only one species will remain to claim dominion over a ruined world.
Just as Rise of the Planet of the Apes provided us with a compelling treatment of our notions of freedom and equality, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes provides an equally effectively narrative about the forces that draw mutually antagonistic peoples into conflict. Throughout this story, we see the best in both man and ape societies struggle to bury past grudges, forgive current missteps, and to live by trust rather than suspicion. We see this best in an amazing scene in which Caesar recognizes the potential for violence between man and ape and brings his entire troop to San Francisco, some of them even on horseback, to demonstrate that they might be outgunned, but they are willing to fight a battle that renders any victor a Pyrrhic one, so why not find a better way? It is a scene that is as thought-provoking as it is badass, but Caesar would be the first one to caution anybody from cheering on the apes too much here. People always feel triumphant before war breaks out. Once it’s over, even the winners often wish the whole thing could have been avoided.
But sadly, the peacekeepers of this story are outmaneuvered by its warmongers, which casts a dark cloud over the proceedings. However our heroes might prevail, we know that they still will have lost against the wider struggle to prevent what is left of their world from descending into war. The treachery of Koba drives this point home especially well, as we see his endless rage and his need to fight, But the way in which he must get satisfaction, and the price he is willing to pay to ensure his vision of peace is nothing short of villainy. Eventually, there must be a reckoning between Caesar and Koba—since they are the true inheritors of this world, and their decisions will guide its future far more than mankind’s. When Caesar makes his final declaration regarding Koba’s fate, it comes with no small amount of sadness. After all, we see throughout Dawn how the character of Rocket—a fellow chimp who Caesar fought with viciously in this series’ first chapter—has overcome their differences and now honors Caesar as a friend and an ally. Koba’s pain runs deeper, but so too does his capacity for forgiveness. That he chooses to forsake the latter marks for the first time when an ape has finally become one of the monsters they choose to fight. And the worst part is, we get the strong feeling that it won’t be the last, either.
The moment of truth comes during Dawn’s finale, as ape and human clash without mercy in the ruins of San Francisco. Thinking Caesar dead, the apes follow Koba into battle, including Caesar’s son, Blue-Eyes, who is eager to avenge his father. And yet, there comes a moment when Blue-Eyes has a chance to spill human blood, and he cannot do it. He can still listen to reason and quiet the howling part of his soul that demands retribution. When we see Blue-Eyes take the path his father would have chosen for him, we see that ape or human, there are ways toward a better tomorrow, but nobody can force us to take them. With all of our baggage, we must each choose the right way forward on our own. Not all will find their way, which shows that maybe humanity isn’t so much the arrangement of one’s DNA, but the legacy of one’s actions.