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Cinema in Focus: ‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’

3 Stars — Challenging

What sustains hope, trust and a sense of humanity in very trying global-threatening circumstances? What if that crisis of humanity is being faced in a culture that isn't human? Such is the question in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the latest installment of the long-standing film series that began back in 1968 with Charlton Heston and Roddy McDowall.

The story is still basically the same with apes having learned how to think like humans and gaining control of the Earth, but now the story has a deeper meaning to be explored.

The advanced art of filmmaking gives Dawn of the Planet of the Apes a huge advantage over earlier films. The first two versions of this story were made into movies in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and even though a remake of the film came out in 2001, none of these versions had the spectacular computer-generated graphics that exist today. For this reason alone, this is an interesting film to watch, giving the viewer a remarkably graphic display of what San Francisco would look like after an apocalyptic plague left 85 percent of the world dead.

Graphics, though, are not what gives this story a passing grade in terms of values. In this version, we struggle with the question of love and respect versus hate and retribution. The universal question explored here is not much different than asking, how is it that after a war either side can forgive or even learn to love your neighbor? Is our humanity, or our compassion, built into our DNA? Or, do our values come from a higher source?

The core story of the Planet of the Apes series is that scientists attempted to train and implant apes with higher thinking skills, and in so doing some apes are treated kindly and others are abused in the process. Eventually the apes make the transition into human-like mental capabilities, but their emotional and psychological framework is just a reflection of the humans who either treated them well or not so well. After a cataclysmic event (in the current film a breakout of a global disease similar to the Ebola virus), the apes escape and form their own society in the woods and ultimately have a degree of power over their human counterparts.

In Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the remnant human population in San Francisco needs to repair a dam in Marin County in order to regain electrical power, but that means interacting with the now colonized ape culture.

Caesar (Andy Serkis), the leader of the apes, is the main link back to a compassionate scientist that raised Caesar with values of trust, compassion and respect. He is revered by all of the other apes, but he is not trusted by Koba (Toby Kebbell), who is filled with hate for his former captors who abused him. The crux of the story is about who will win out as the leader and role model for the colony of apes.

In the human colony, the struggle for values is identical. Malcolm (Jason Clarke) is a scientist that believes that man and ape can learn to live together, while his fellow urban guardsman Drayfus (Gary Oldman) believes that the best protection is to destroy what you cannot control, including all of the apes.

It is these questions of values that raise the Dawn of the Planet of the Apes from a scary drama to one of social and spiritual intrigue. The most interesting twist in the story is that it is the son of Caesar and the son of Malcolm that are watching their fathers to learn from them what values they should copy in order to survive. This may seem on the surface to be a science fiction or horror story, but underneath it is about the same questions we face every day in thinking about how we deal with "the others" that come into our lives.

Discussion

» When we take the clash of cultures into science fiction, we often see our struggles in new ways. How has this film opened your eyes to actual struggles in your life?

» The struggle within humanity has always been between good and evil, forgiveness and vengeance. Does this film help clarify this struggle for you? Why do you answer as you do?

» As you think of the role models in your own life, how have they influenced you both for good or for evil?

— Cinema in Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is a former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is pastor of Free Methodist Church, 1435 Cliff Drive. For more reviews, visit www.cinemainfocus.com, or follow them on Twitter: @CinemaInFocus. The opinions expressed are their own.

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