People are talking wildly about nominating Andy Serkis for an Oscar for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. On the one hand, it’s the absolute centre of the movie, just as it was in Rise of the Planet of the Apes three years ago. But it’s hard to decide whether it’s an extraordinary technical achievement or a genuine piece of performance, and whichever it actually is, it might spell the end of acting as we know it; if the computer can do this, why bother with new stars? Mo-cap the old ones and use the computer to make them young. Suddenly, it’s not a problem making another Star Wars movie even if Harrison Ford is in a wheelchair.
I spent a good chunk of Dawn thinking about the way that “alien threat” movies are supposed to be a barometer for what society is really scared of, and trying to figure out what Dawn was standing in for. With vampires, it’s easy; it’s all about the way in which creepy, superficially glamorous selfish individuals screw the rest of us over, and the way we’re complicit in it because we think we might just be able to Renfield our way to the top; vampire movies are about our relationship with celebrities, and dangerous elites in general. Zombies are another easy notion; vast faceless hordes, coming to ruin our communities with their incomprehensible primitive hungers. Pick your barbarian incursion, and zombies are your proxy.
Talking apes with personalities and a history of being victimised by humans? You can map anything you like onto the situation. In the grey corner, talking apes trying to build a civilisation from scratch; in the other grey corner, beaten down human remnants trying to rebuild some of what they lost when “simian flu” wiped out nearly everything. Throw in Iago the bonobo in the shape of Koba, scheming to start the war with the humans while the apes have still got numbers going for them, and poor old Andy Serkis’ Caesar’s got his work cut out trying to keep the peace.
But just as the end game for this series of movies is right there in their titles - it’s Planet of the Apes …. - the suspense isn’t whether there’s going to be a war, but whether it will kill anyone we’re invested in. That’s where Andy and the rest of the mo-cap crew run rings around the humans. It’s hard to figure out precisely why, though it might be as simple as Dr Johnson’s old saw about bears dancing; you’re not giving them marks because they’re doing it well, but because they’re doing it at all. Great apes have a running start with our affections; almost like us, but without the complication and annoyance that people always bring. And the ape performances build on that, making them more charming than the people they’re pitted against. By the end of the movie, it’s clear that we’ve just seen the opening skirmish in a bigger war, but I reckon most people left rooting for the apes to win. Which makes it all the more interesting to wonder who the apes are a proxy for in our world.