There has been a troubled tradition of humans sticking their noses in movies that are supposedly about robots, aliens, Draculas, sharknados, talking monkeys and all kinds of other cool critters. Caesar and his fellow apes aren’t new to this party, but the revolution they’re pushing in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes has the strong possibility of creating a new kind of genre movie: a seriously good blockbuster that actually features a ratio favoring non-humans way more than humans.
The worst part of all the Michael Bay Transformers movies has never been the robots, but always the people; Shia, Megan Fox, and most recently, a-self-parody of Marky Mark who not only did not say hi to our mothers for us, but also inexplicably did not sing “The Touch.” If the films were really about Transformers, they’d be better. The best kind of monster movie knows how to balance this out, which is why every white-bread boy from John Harker in Dracula to Mark in Creature from the Black Lagoon is depicted as kind of an asshole. If we’re signed up for a movie about non-human creatures in conflict with humans, there’s a chance an artificial ADD can set in every time we’re not hanging out with the titular creature of whatever film we’re watching.
And yet, movies which attempt to only give us the money shots of our favorite creatures usually fail. Call it the Jaws principle: if we see too much of the shark we’ll get bored, and it’s in the tension of just glimpsing a fin, or a claw occasionally, where these things work. This is why the Alien franchise is a series of diminishing returns: the more we see of the xenomorphs and their various iterations, the worse the films become. Movies like Aliens Vs. Predator are just as terrible as they sound because it turns out a non-human vs. human movie always needs humans in it in order for the movie not to totally suck. The conventional wisdom has started to form that if we get too much screen-time from our beloved creatures that the legitimacy of the movie will start to fall apart.
But Dawn of the Planet of the Apes might be changing that. Traditionally, any given Planet of the Apes movie has already been a weird aberration because of a certain classiness given to its “monsters,” who are not monsters at all, but rather hooting and hollering allegories. The shuffling around of the definitions of what makes someone civilized and what makes them an animal is at the core of good monster movies and, generally speaking, is a subject handled with more sophisticatication in a Planet of the Apes movie. Plus, from Charlton Heston to Ricardo Montalban to Austin Stoker to—arguably—James Franco, the Apes films have had some fairly entertaining humans. Which is why it’s fascinating that in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, it finally feels like the apes have really won, and that’s because the humans in this movie are so boring in contrast.
None of the actors playing humans gives a particularly bad performance here. From Gary Oldman to Keri Russell to Jason Clark, everybody does exactly what it seems like they need to do: provide the apes with a giant moral conflict with which they have to deal with; what to do about the silly, pesky and destructive humans and their contagiously pesky destructive traits? Dawn of the Planet of the Apes dispenses with the chaos of the simian flu in its credits, moving into a cold-open in which the only characters we see on screen for a solid amount of time are the apes. They talk to teach other mostly in their own version of sign language and the sparing use of the apes actually speaking aloud brings a sense of realism to the film. The more we see the shark, the quicker we’ll get bored with it. It’s so effective that you’re put on edge when apes who aren’t Caesar speak.
Saying the visual effects of a particular contemporary science fiction film are “awesome” or “realistic” is something of a hollow compliment these days. But with Dawn of The Planet of the Apes (and its predecessor Rise) the visual realism of the apes is essential, and I think, part of why we can even accept a movie like this. Apes are real things in real life, meaning a movie in which super-smart apes are the legit main characters is not only now possible dramatically, but jarring when executed this well. A particularly excellent scene sees the villainous ape Koba (Toby Kebbell) pretending to be a dumb monkey in order to lull some dummy humans into a false sense of security. When he’s fooling them, it’s all Any Which Way But Loose, but when the murder switch flips, it’s terrifying. Later though, when Koba and Caesar duke it out for control of the apes, it doesn’t seem weird at all that the main conflict of the film is between these two and not really between apes and humans. It might be hyperbolic to say Andy Serkis should be nominated for an Academy Award for his performance as Caesar this time out, but I’m saying it anyway.
What happens in this movie isn’t nearly as interesting as how it unfolds to the viewer. I’m predisposed to like this movie, as I love the basic concept and philosophical musings of these films. What I didn’t expect was to realize how great it was to see a science fiction film featuring creatures who weren’t humans in the starring roles and have them graduate truly, and finally out of the clichés of the monsters. The metaphors for what makes an ape an ape work in Dawn not because a viewer like me is reaching for meaning, but because the meaning is made so plain by the convincing experience the movie offers. Saying this film ends with the “dawn” of a planet that will possibly be ruled by apes spoils nothing, since the title of the movie is already ruining its ending. The question now is this: will a sequel to this film jump forward?
And if it does, will it attempt to replicate what the original film attempted? A film in which most of the actors we witness are not playing people, but instead apes? If there is a next film in this new iteration of the Apes saga, I hope it will jump 100 years ahead, and give us a totally post-human Earth. Because now, thanks to a tightly written-script by Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, and fantastically deft visual effects coupled with solid performances, I think we’re finally ready for the most realistic Planet of the Apes yet. And if the success of this movie is any indication, it might not need to feature any human beings at all.
Ryan Britt is a longtime contributor to Tor.com.