A horror movie for frightened adults of the future, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes begins its tale with very angry apes. When they confront humans for the first time in years, the menacing encounter quickly turns deadly. Can humanity ever find peace with such scary apes?
That's the gist of the dilemma that unfolds during the movie, which is dark and galvanizing and definitely worth seeing on the big screen, owing in part to its large-scale set pieces and extravagant action sequences. But the secret to its success is that apes are, once again, viewed as frightening creatures, a perspective that has waxed and waned in movies over the years.
When King Kong burst on the scene in 1933, the giant ape personified the danger of wild animals. He was a terrifying beast, and might easily have destroyed the whole of Manhattan, were it not for his soft spot: the lovely Ann Darrow (Fay Wray).
The film was rereleased in theaters five times over the next 23 years, but each time it was trimmed of certain violent scenes due to stricter rules in Hollywood. A sequel, Son of Kong, costarred an albino gorilla who was much friendlier to humans in general than the original Kong. The friendliness of a large ape toward humans became the theme of Mighty Joe Young, released in 1949 and featuring the stop-motion animation of Willis O'Brien, whose work on King Kong helped make it a classic. In Mighty Joe Young, a giant gorilla stars, but he's only 12 feet tall -- about half the height of King Kong -- and is sufficiently malleable to become a nightclub star in Hollywood. Events conspire to make him look like a dangerous beast, but then his true nature is proven. The big ape has been transformed from villain to hero.
Jumping forward nearly 20 years, Planet of the Apes became a big hit in 1968. It was a movie very much of its time, a debate on civil rights disguised as popular entertainment, set in an upside-down world where apes are the dominant species and humans are treated like animals. Here, some of the apes are villains, yet a few are heroic, reflecting the complexity and confusion of the late 1960s.
Planet of the Apes spawned four sequels over the next few years, with the apes becoming increasingly heroic. That helped seed the ground for the first remake of King Kong, which painted humans as money-grubbing villains, and the giant ape as little more than a sad pawn in their greedy game.
A far different perspective on apes was offered in Gorillas in the Mist (1988). Sigourney Weaver starred as the real-life scientist Dian Fossey, who fought for the protection of rare mountain gorillas in Africa. After seeing her sincere conviction on-screen, it was difficult to think of gorillas as mindless beasts seeking only the destruction of mankind.
Peter Jackson achieved his long-held dream of remaking King Kong in his own image in 2005, an expansive affair that was clearly made with affection and respect. Kong, performed by Andy Serkis in a signature motion-capture role, is monstrous in size, but only reverts to his animalistic origins when provoked.
The turn back toward fierceness came in 2011's Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Andy Serkis originated the role of Caesar, whose mother was the subject of drug experimentation. As a result, Caesar is more intelligent than the average ape, and he also develops a keen sense of justice. When Caesar is sent away to an animal sanctuary with cruel humans in charge, he organizes a rebellion. He's an angry ape, leading a group of angry apes who just want to be left alone, away from humans.
This is why apes are scary again: they act like rebellious teenagers, but they are much stronger than humans and they don't need the material comforts that humans demand; niceties like heat, electricity, power and indoor shelter mean nothing to them. They certainly don't need us, and they're definitely smarter than we think. Humans tend to be afraid of things they can't control, which makes these apes the scariest creatures on Earth.