If there is one lesson to be learned from "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes," opening July 11, it is this: You do not want to mess around in the simians' living room.
In the sequel to the 2011 hit "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," which stars Jason Isaacs, Gary Oldman and Keri Russell, Caesar, the leader of a primate revolutionary army (played by Andy Serkis), has settled in with his charges in a forest near San Francisco, where they have created their own civilization. But some humans escaping from a viral apocalypse blunder into the apes' domain -- and that sets off a major conflict between the species.
"I wanted to see a movie that started in the ape world and see what they have created," says director Matt Reeves. "And I hope you had invested so much in Caesar, you see him as a husband and father, so the appearance of humans would create tremendous stakes for him emotionally. I felt that would create a context in which Caesar had to be a leader, and he would do anything to protect the world the apes had created. In that sense, it is 'don't mess with his world.'"
Man against nature
"Movies -- and other literary forms, for that matter -- have always used man's attempts to control and manipulate nature as a story generator," adds film critic Marshall Fine of hollywoodandfine.com. "It may be because, in real life, we're constantly seeing the effects of our tampering with the natural order. But movies find ways to make that conflict into something dramatic -- so that we don't just lose a species but, instead, find our own species' survival threatened."
What goes around comes around. In "Planet of the Apes," the 1968 classic that jump-started the franchise -- now up to eight films -- astronaut Charlton Heston's appearance in the ape culture is particularly disruptive when a group of chimp scientists realize that humans are actually intelligent, and instead of apes evolving from men, it's exactly the opposite. These metaphors about evolution and the clash of civilizations are just some of the reasons why the series has remained so popular.
"Deep down, often, there is an awareness that we are just very smart animals and that push-pull between our animal and higher nature fascinates people," says Mark Bomback, a co-screenwriter (with Amanda Silver and Rick Jaffa) on the film.
"This notion that the apes inherited the Earth, and the difference between us and them is a finer line than we want to admit, speaks to us about what it means to be human. It's a big vessel for metaphors," Bomback says.
"I wanted to watch evolve," adds Reeves. See them come into articulation. We're seeing the evolution of the apes, paralleling our own evolution."
Like the first film, the current one is also set in a post-apocalyptic world, although "Planet of the Apes" does not reveal that fact until its very last scene ("You maniacs! You blew it up!").
And although Reeves sees his film as sort of a Western -- cowboys (man) vs. Indians (apes) -- as well as a creation story about the evolving ape culture, he does not downplay its catastrophic aspects.
"We are so aware of our potential self-destruction, and I don't think that's anything new," he says of his film and the wave of post-apocalyptic films that have been released over the years. "It's a way of dealing with our anxiety about it. But I wanted this film not primarily to be post-apocalyptic, I wanted to feel we had something new to say. I wanted this to be a burgeoning ape society story, an ape creation film."
"The original film is more hard science fiction than ours," adds Bomback. "And that's what we were challenged with on this film -- how does this post-apocalypse lead to the one in the 1968 film? It's basically about how we as humans are going to be the architects of our own destruction."
And there's this: One of the ironies of the franchise is that in a country where many do not believe in the theory of evolution, the latest iteration of the "Apes" franchise is proving to be a huge success. "Rise" grossed over $175 million domestically in 2011, and "Dawn" is one of the most anticipated films of the summer (a 99 percent "want to see" on rottentomatoes.com).
"Oftentimes, really satisfying movies allow you to work out your anxieties," Bomback says. "And I wonder if someone has issues about evolution, this might be a way to work them out. This is a way to sort of watch that explored through pure fiction."
"I find it curious that these films -- about apes evolving beyond man -- are so popular when the debate about evolution remains part of the public discussion," Fine says. "I love the idea that people who don't believe man evolved from apes are confronted with popular entertainment that began with a story in which apes didn't believe that man was evolved at all."
Humans' encroaching ways
"Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" isn't the only film in which humans make the mistake of encroaching on another species' habitat. Here are several others.
"The Lost World" (1925, 1992): The original "hidden valley filled with dinosaurs" film, based on a novel by Arthur Conan Doyle. Humans find the place, and ... you know what happens next.
"King Kong" (1933, 1976, 2005): Explorers go to Skull Island, kidnap a giant ape from his prehistoric home and take him to New York. They should have left well enough alone.
"Creature From the Black Lagoon" (1954): A geology expedition to the Amazon discovers a prehistoric amphibious humanoid. Uh, oh! You do not want to mess with the Gill-man.
"Mysterious Island" (1961): Civil War prisoners escaping in a balloon are knocked off course by a storm, find themselves on an island inhabited by prehistoric creatures. You just know this means trouble.
"The Valley of Gwangi" (1969): Cowboys battle nasty dinosaurs in a place called The Forbidden Valley. Hasn't anyone learned by now to leave these giant reptiles alone?
"Jurassic Park" (1993): So OK. You're a bunch of genetic scientists who have created a wildlife park of cloned dinosaurs. But now it's their 'hood. Be careful. Very careful.
"Avatar" (2009): A mining company on a distant planet threatens the existence of a local tribe called the Na'vi. And they ain't about to let those nasty Earth capitalists run all over them.