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.
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.
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.