The opening shot of Matt Reeves’ Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a close-up of Caesar’s face that slowly pans out to reveal the life the apes have created for themselves. Although we begin to see the foundation of their newfound society, the shot is really meant to orient the audience to the tolls that leadership has taken on Caesar. He has aged since we last saw him. He is no longer the solitary ape who was abandoned; he is now the leader of his band.
We see how the apes have become more human-like in the last ten years. “Ape not kill other ape” is sloppily scrawled out in faded chalk on a rock face inside their settlement. They have created a loose monarchy, which implies progress, but anytime there is societal governance, there is bound to be conflict. Look at contemporary America for an example of a dysfunctional system at play. For this rule, this commandment, to be written, one should assume that at some point it will eventually be tested. As the apes become more human, rules will be broken, because that is the cyclical nature of the human experience.
Caesar is burdened by the crown more than he wants it. He never asks to lead, it falls upon him. All he really wants to do is raise a family and live a peaceful life. But, it is the Planet of the Apes franchise, so fate has other plans.
The true battle of the film puts Caesar in direct opposition of Koba, who is introduced late in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. He was tested-on and abused for years at the hands of humans so he understandably has no respect, nor any trust for them. Koba believes that all humans must be killed, while Caesar is more thoughtful and thinks that there is an opportunity to work with humans and preserve peace. Neither ape is wrong. Though Caesar leans toward being too trustworthy of the humans, Koba, though he has his points, is so bloodthirsty that he is incapable of making any kind of compromise. The important difference here is that Caesar’s decisions have repercussions that affect the entire community and that is a burden that he alone must shoulder.
Deep into the film, after Caesar has been injured, he tells his son, “I see now how much like them we are.” The power of this dialogue comes from the sparsity. The tattered English feels like fragmented Shakespeare, and it gets to the heart of the painful reality that to have thought is to be part of an existential community that is bound to destroy itself because of original sin.
The struggle of the film is Caesar’s, but the other half of the coin is Jason Clarke’s Malcolm, a human who is trying to protect his family as well. He is an idealist just like Caesar who thinks that an understanding can be reached between the species. There is a moment in the film that harmony seems so close. The audience wants everything to work out so badly, but this is Greek tragedy where the characters don’t have autonomy over the world. They are cogs in a machine that is much larger than them, and in the case of the humans and the apes, there can be no peace.
There is a moment halfway through that is an evocative step for a big summer blockbuster to take. The attempted assassination on Caesar is a moment of true power because they had happiness, the humans and the apes found solace together. But, because of the hatred of one, everything that they had tried so hard to build was ruined in seconds.
This middle chapter in the franchise is one of the great modern science fiction films. It illuminates so much about the world we exist in, while simultaneously being an incredible tour de force for action spectacle.
The last lines of the film are a reminder that we can be so close, yet so far from achieving a community. Malcolm looks at Caesar and says, “I thought we had a chance” and Caesar looks back at him and says, “I did too.” Then, Matt Reeves, in a moment of complete confidence, mirrors the opening shot by slowly closing in on Caesar’s face. This time, he has again aged, but his face can’t hide the horror of what is to come. The battle for San Francisco has ended and they are about to be thrust into the war for their way of life.
Peace was close, it was so goddamn close.