Certainly, I mustn't root for the damned dirty apes, must I?
In Matt Reeves’ Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the audience is given a hard choice. Do we cheer on the survival of humanity, or do we favor instead the liberation of oppressed apes? While many science fiction films are quick to establish an antagonist, this series strives to hold an objective perspective on the conflict throughout.
Filmmakers often employ audience surrogates, or characters that the audience can identify with, as a device to sway their viewers into rooting for a certain side. This is especially the case in the science fiction genre, where certain fantastical or philosophical concepts may be harder to grasp. The surrogate provides the audience with a perspective.
In the case of the very first iteration of Planet of the Apes, the part of the surrogate is played by Charlton Heston. But who should the audience really root for? A new video essay by Film&Stuff explores the question.
Choosing which perspective to tell your story from is one of the most important decisions you can make for your film. In Reeve’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, this objectivity is achieved by presenting the audience with two surrogates, one from each side. On the human side, we have Malcolm arguing for the cohabitation of ape and man; on the ape side, we have Koda, who believes humanity to be inherently evil.
Interestingly, neither of these characters are in fact the protagonist. Instead, they represent the different choices or paths the protagonist could choose to follow. Caesar, as head of the apes, will ultimately decide their fate. But who are we to say the decision he makes is right?
All of the conflicts in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes stem from perspective—both what the character experiences and their preconceived biases. In fact, all of the setbacks and mistakes that the characters make are caused by the information or lack thereof available to that character.
Eventually, we find ourselves in a war that none of the characters in the film really wanted, but somehow became inevitable. The audience is then left with a hard decision: Who am I cheering for, and why?
Some cautionary tales, like the thinly-veiled Avatar, would be quick to peg the humans with their “inherent greed” as the villains. But here, we catch a glimpse at both sides of the problem. When the final conflict arises, we see the battle from both perspectives. We’re hoping that the characters we identify with on either side can survive.