Dawn of The Planet of the Apes is the sequel to 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, itself being a reboot of earlier Planet of the Apes films and an adaptation of the French novel “La Planète des singes”. Following the events of Rise, the Simian Virus, which was designed to cure Alzheimer’s disease in the elderly but inadvertently gave Apes heightened intelligence, spread across the world and proved to be fatal to humans. After wiping out majority of the human population, only small pockets of people immune to the virus remained and they lived in their own isolated societies. Meanwhile, thanks to the virus which increased their intelligence, ape-kind has proliferated and built proper societies with education, governing rules and a strict hierarchy. Dawn depicts what happens when the humans, driven by the desperation to expand and find new resources to sustain themselves, come into conflict once again with the relatively isolationist apes, led by Caesar.
In Dawn, guns are given heavy importance in the story and they help to further the plot of the movie. The survivors stockpile their guns and use it as a display of their power to fend off the apes they fear. Later, it is these very guns that are a cause of a bloody conflict with heavy losses for both sides. On the surface, Dawn has been credited for pushing strong anti-gun sentiments (Rich, 2014) as the strong graphic imagery associated with guns evokes empathy for the plight of both the apes and humans. But I argue that Dawn aims to tell a deeper story about humanity and what it means to be human in the apocalypse using guns as tools.
Guns are used as tools of characterization on top of being key plot devices in the film, beyond being just tools with which the humans fight the apes. In the film, we are introduced to characters such as Carver and Dreyfus who strongly believe that guns are intrinsic to their survival and identity as humans. They believe it separates them from the intelligent apes. Their relentless pursuit of firearms leads to distrust between allies and escalation of conflicts. However, I believe that Dawn tells the audience that our own intrinsic qualities, such as trust and kindness, help define us as humans and gives humans the power to promote their own survival. Dawn does this to help us answer the question “what really gives power to humanity in an apocalypse”.
Guns and Humans in The Planet of The Apes
On the surface, guns can be seen as a tool to advance the human agenda in the world of Dawn. But beyond that we see how guns help to play a central role in defining what it means to be human. For the humans, guns provide a sense of security, protection and power against any would be threats. It gives humans the confidence to press forth into the unknown and accomplish their mission, whatever it may be. In one of the early scenes of the movie, Malcolm and his small party travel deep into the redwood forest where they run into two apes leading to a tense standoff. Carver, one of the members of Malcolm’s party, opens fire on them and wounds the apes. This a turning point in the movie which sends both species into a collision course. Had Malcolm and his team not brought their weapons along, its easy to see that they would not have gone so deep into the forest and risked running into the apes. Following the standoff in the forest, Caesar gathers the large ape-army and heads to the human settlement for a face-to-face confrontation with the humans.
In this scene, we can see how the human survivors, albeit afraid of the apes, stand against the ape army. And what are they holding in their hands? Guns. Many guns. These guns gave the human survivors a sense of superiority as the apes were only armed with primitive weapons such as spears and bows. It reassured the humans that despite being outnumbered, they out-armed the apes and that was a significant enough advantage to allow them to have a face-to-face confrontation.
Dawn also shows us how intrinsically tied humans can become to their tools, using it as a means to define their humanity. I believe that the humans in the movie have a base fear of the apes reaching the same state of ‘humanity’ as them which is why for a majority of the movie, guns were only in the possession of humans and seen as something that can exclusively only be used by humans. Humans use the guns to assert their definition of ‘humanity’ onto the apes to distance themselves from them. This is why the more primitive apes insist on Malcolm and his team abandoning their firearms when the return to the ape-city, to prevent such underlying tension. Koba, Caesar’s treacherous second in command uses this established norm to manipulate the rest of the apes and incite war against the humans.
Koba steals an assault rifle from the human’s armory and uses it to try and assassinate Caesar. Koba subsequently uses said gun to frame the humans and blame them for Caesar’s supposed death. Startlingly, majority of the apes believe Koba, despite the rapport and trust that Malcolm and his team had built with the apes. This goes to show how strongly associated the humans in Dawn have become to their guns so much so that the mere display of a gun is enough to evidence to prove that humans were responsible. The point that Dawn makes here is that the humans in the movie have become too tied to their weapons in trying to define and distance themselves, such that it its easy to manipulate others using this identity.
Guns: Boon or Bane?
Outside of the movie, Dawn has been praised and criticized for being an anti-gun movie and it’s easy to see why. (Rich, 2014) In the climatic conflict of the movie, it is a blood bath with both humans and apes being slaughtered at each other’s hand via guns and other firearms. The graphic violence displayed serves as a stark reminder to the audience about the gruesome potential of firearms. From a cursory observation, it can be said that this is the key takeaway from the movie and while I do not disagree, I believe that there is another scene which better highlights the dangerous nature of guns.
Realizing that their fuel stores are running low and that their settlement will soon be out of power, Malcolm makes a desperate gamble and ventures back into the Redwood Forest, despite Caesar having issued his warning to stay out. He does this so that he can ask the ape to provide them access to a hydroelectric dam, which if restarted would provide enough energy for the survivor settlement to survive, which can only be reached by crossing the ape’s territory. When Malcolm and his team are brought in front of Caesar, the first thing the ape does is to confiscate all their firearms. It is only after this do both sides begin to build a mutual trust and rapport between each other. All seems to be going well until Carver reveals that he has a hidden pistol and uses it to threaten some of the younger apes.
This puts a definitive end to whatever fragile human-ape relationship that might have been developing. Caesar forces Malcolm and his team to leave immediately without completing their mission and once again, forbids their return.
What this sequence of events go to show is that the very presence of guns can cause an escalation in situation. In that scene where the hidden firearm was revealed, Caesar loses his trust in the humans and ordered them to leave. He had lost faith in the humans, despite the trust and respect they showed because of their association to their weapons. When Malcolm and his team surrendered their guns, Caesar is more willing to forge relations with them. This goes to show that Caesar, as the leader, does not have a problem with the humans in and of themselves but the tools and means by which the humans try to get things done. In every scene that they are involved in, there is always an uneasy tension even if they are not being used.
To reiterate, humans in Dawn use guns as mean to display their superiority over apes and provide themselves a sense of security. Yet when they become so dependent on these tools, they fail to see the shortcomings of said tools. They fail to realize that their blind reliance on these tools may be the very thing that might be hindering them from achieving progress. Carver refuses to be unarmed around the apes and is constantly distrustful of them. He immediately resorts to using his guns to try and control the situation without realizing that the apes are intelligent, emotional beings capable of being communicated with. I believe that this is another cautionary warning that Dawn tries to bring across to its audience.
Alternatives in the Apocalypse
If Dawn makes such a strong argument against guns, our over-reliance on it and its very dangerous nature as a tool, then what alternatives do humans in the apocalypse have? I believe that Dawn itself also provides us with an answer to this query itself. In Dawn, Caesar’s baby son runs up to and plays with Ellie, Malcolm’s wife, who is working on the dam. This unprecedented moment highlights the ability for humans and apes to bond and interact with each other without any malice of ulterior motive, just pure curiosity and admiration for each other.
Often throughout the movie, this becomes the easiest way for the humans to build rapport with the apes and whenever they do so, the humans get further in pushing their agenda. I believe that the movie is trying to highlight these human qualities that resonate so well with others and emphasize that these are better tools to help survive in the apocalypse. When dealing with other intelligent species, showing genuine respect and placing trust in them reflects positively upon us and opens up options for survival. The only person in the movies to do this consistently is Malcolm which is why he was able to repeatedly gain an audience with Caesar despite the humans angering the apes.
However, it can also be argued that the Caesar and some of the other apes, like his son Blue Eyes, also show signs of kindness and trust. Thus, how can it be argued that these qualities are unique to humanity. The answer to this lies in the upbringing of all the apes. Following Caesar’s origin in Rise to his interactions with Malcolm in Dawn, we can see that Caesar has seen a wide spectrum of humans and experienced their nature first hand and he tries to impart this to his fellow apes, which is why Caesar seems to be exhibiting more ‘human’ qualities. In contrast, majority of the apes are still distrustful and wary of the humans, only choosing to help them because Caesar instructs them to do so. Hence, Caesar is the only one who actively displays some of these “human qualities” and as such, these qualities are still mostly restricted to humans.
Following the earlier scene is when Carver’s hidden gun was found leading to the eviction of the human team. After this point, Ellie goes out of her way to treat Caesar’s dying and sick wife, highlighting her kindness and the trust that she places in the apes. This altruism that is demonstrated is something only the humans do in them movie, not even Caesar shows any form charity. All his acts of kindness have always been motivated by keeping the two races at peace. This charity and altruism demonstrated by Ellie highlight the human’s potential for kindness and its effectiveness as a tool can be seen by how Caesar regains faith in Malcolm and his family, despite not trusting the humans as a whole.
Dawn does an excellent job of utilizing guns in the story send strong anti-gun sentiments. Beyond this, the duality of guns as tools help to define what is humanity in that world and it sheds light on how humanity has an intrinsic need to separate themselves from the intelligent apes. The guns spark conversation as to how better can those humans define themselves and through the interaction of characters like Malcolm, we can see that our intrinsic characteristics of altruism, kindness and trust are much better tools to help them survive alongside the apes instead of fighting against them.
Rich, K. (2014, July 10). Dawn of the Planet of the Apes takes a powerful anti-gun stance. Vanity Fair. Retrieved from https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2014/07/dawn-of-the-planet-of-the-apes-gun-control
Reeves, M. (Director). (2014). Dawn of the Planet of the Apes [Motion picture]. Hollywood: 20th Century Fox.