Too Late Film Review: Why I Hated Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

There are a lot of things to love about Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. It has fantastic special effects. It never takes its characters less seriously simply because they are talking apes. Maurice.

You'd have to be a sociopath not to love Maurice.

You’d have to be a sociopath not to love Maurice.

There is, however, a huge, fundamental problem that presents itself in the third act, essentially ruining the movie. We used to have a thing called tragedy. It was simple and effective. Romeo loves Juliet. Juliet loves Romeo. They both end up dead for no reason. It’s a satisfying story and it carries a great message. People can do horrible things to each other and it’s totally avoidable. It fills the need for stories without happy endings and leaves the audience better for it.

At a certain point, possibly with the release of Fight Club in 1999, we traded tragedy for cynicism and Dawn suffers greatly because of that exchange. (From this point on, this article will be spoiler heavy) The movie gets problematic with the reveal that Ceasar is still alive. Right up until that point, it had stayed true to the series’ tragic roots and provided a fresh twist. Instead of mankind’s hubris being the source of all evil, it’s hatred among any sentient species. This culminates in the delightfully painful moment of Caesar’s supposed death at the hands of his second in command, Koba.

There is great dramatic irony building as we see the humans and apes make meaningful steps toward peace, all the while not knowing the actions of one cowardly chimpanzee will undo all they have worked for. It does an amazing job of showing how sinister prejudice can be and then throws that all away with the ending. Caesar survives, because he’s too popular to kill off and he takes up a fallen Koba’s war against the humans because it’s allegedly inevitable and if it was inevitable anyway, than there weren’t really any consequences to Koba’s actions that wouldn’t have happened anyway.

How could they have possible seen his betrayal coming?

How could they have possible known he was a bad guy?

It is the easiest thing there is to say that the world is terrible and everything sucks. It’s both uninspired and uninspiring. It’s comforting to believe the universe and the people in it are inherently bad because then we don’t have to face the fact that we are all, as individuals, responsible for the world being the way it is. To suggest otherwise is lazy in life and lazy in art. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes comes so close to being something great before giving in to toothless cynicism and that makes me sad. And not in the way it was supposed to.

  • Jeremiah Lambert

    can’t say that i agree with you here Benson. im ok with tragedies but i think this movie is stronger for not being a tragedy. knowing the franchise… we all know the larger story is a tragedy anyway… where apes will take over eventually and enslave humans… so not rushing straight to that gives us some time to actually digest, coincide and relate with our hero characters with the actions and emotions as a result of Koba’s betrayal with some truly heart felt emotional scenes. my favorite being the scene where Caesar’s son is talking to the wounded Caesar about how Koba had killed his friend and how he was mistaken in following Koba. it shows character growth and a learning experience that, while yes, was simple… is extremely effective in showing just how human these apes are becoming. and the end shows how not everything is not so black and white even for the apes when Caesar is forced to decide to “kill” Koba despite his code for apes not to kill apes. if not for these great scenes the death fake-out i agree would have felt cheap. but because of them im glad it wasnt real. this story is so big in scope and doing well there really is no reason to rush into the that bigger story tragedy we already know of, it will come eventually and im ready to have my heart broken. this series has done a fantastic job of keeping a very strong emotional core despite its big budget blockbuster facade.

    • First off, I’d like to thank you for this well put, considered response. I have a history of making people angry on the Internet and you are by far the most reasonable I have encountered (even within the group of people who actually read past my headlines).

      I don’t disagree with a lot of the things you’re saying. My main frustration with the movie is that it does so much right and is so close to being something I love. I just think it’s so much easier and less interesting to say “everything is crap because that’s the way it is” than “everything crap because … [anything else]”. In this case, it would be “everything is crap because the weak can use fear to justify their prejudices and make societies who have no reason to fight start killing each other”. It’s not an original statement, necessarily, but it’s valid and it was explored in an enjoyable, effective manner in the first two thirds of the movie. I don’t think it’s a question of rushing anything, there is a very specific, tragic idea at the heart of this franchise and when you take that out, it becomes like every other big dumb blockbuster. Caesar coming back bothered me on a superficial level. I like that scene with him and his son too, but no matter how good the post “death” scenes are, it will always feel like a fake out. Lord knows I love a comic book, but comic book death has become too wide spread these days, no one dies anymore (don’t get me started on what’s going on in Miles Morales: The Ultimate Spider-Man right now). I’m fine with Caesar surviving to the end of the movie, but to pretend he’s dead for more than a second is just cheap manipulation and unearned emotion. But as much as I didn’t like that, that’s not REALLY where the movie lost me. The movie REALLY lost me in Caesar’s final speech to Malcolm. There was a definite implication that even without Koba’s dirty business, the war still would have been inevitable. If all this was inevitable, then why I am watching? How is Koba an interesting villain if his actions had zero effect on the story? And what is unique or interesting about that? If this is all unavoidable, a group of people and apes doing as expected is not a story. It’s dog bites man, it’s the status quo, it’s a version of Logan’s Run where he’s happy just to die at 30 like everyone else.

      • Jeremiah Lambert

        none of the things you have mentioned really bother me. yeah the fake out was a bit cheap. but had they shown Caesar fall, hit the ground and roll down the mountain and then still alive all within the same scene… would that appease you? the time of his supposed death till the time of him being discovered alive was like what… 10 min if that. my problem with this was the logistics and geography… did Caesar really roll all the way down the mountain and never stop till the bottom practically. ha.

        then about the ending… just because a character says something in the movie that is basically an assumption… it doesn’t make it an absolute truth does it. it’s the general ambiguous inevitability i think he is speaking of. i believe Koba’s actions do matter and are going to be the spark that starts the war… what i feel Caesar was saying was if it didnt happen now it would have happened with another hateful ape (or hateful human). it would have happened eventually through probably similar circumstances. what we got was Koba though and i think he was a great villain. even a sympathetic one at times (the “human work” scene comes to mind.)

        speaking of fake out deaths… did you hear the after credits. its just sound. that of debris being moved and what one would assume is the breathing groaning of one alive Koba coming to. ha. you can add that one to you list if problems.

        • I don’t think the movie is stating it as an absolute truth, but it was certainly setting the tone of the ending and that was enough to leave a bad taste in my mouth.

          I liked Koba as a bad guy for the most part, but yeah, I stayed for the after credits. They can’t even let a villain die! It reminds me of a conversation I had after Thor: The Dark World and how Loki had been the villain of three different movies (well, two and a half, really). My friend had the realization that it was because all the other villains were dead at the end of their movies. God Bless the MCU. Sure, Winter Soldier had two non-deaths, but those were grandfathered in from the comics. And I’m sure if they (spoiler?) kill Cap in Civil War, they’ll let him stay dead. At least I hope so.