Last July, militant forces in Israel and the Gaza Strip began a prolonged conflict that left thousands dead and millions of people blaming one of the sides – or both sides – for derailing the Middle East peace process. The Friday after Hamas and Israel’s military started trading bursts of rocket fire, summer blockbuster Dawn of the Planet of the Apes hit theatres worldwide.
To many viewers watching Matt Reeves’ big-budget sequel, the onscreen action seemed quite prescient of Middle Eastern conflict. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was one of the rare box office behemoths to work both as full-throttled action filmmaking and urgent, insightful, politically charged storytelling. The film touched on many fears and anxieties that were happening in Israel and the Palestinian Territories at the time of its release.
The film focuses on two neighbours – the apes, led by chimpanzee Caesar (Andy Serkis), and the humans. Both want to live in peace yet are fearful of the danger the other group poses. Caesar and his collective of apes live in the forest outside of San Francisco. There, they have homes, families and room to move around. In San Francisco, meanwhile, is a band of humans who have survived a pandemic. They are among the final human inhabitants on Earth, yet lack the resources to survive. Food is scarce, as is electricity.
You can sympathize with the apes as much as with the humans, while the more vicious from both sides have backstories to explain their rage and penchant for violence.
When a small group of these humans, led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke), go searching for a dam in the forest that can generate power, they encounter the tribe of apes. Much of the first hour of the film deals with the difficulty of an ape-human peace treaty. Caesar, who has interacted with both kind and savage humans before, is wary that they could betray him. Regardless, he hopes an alliance will help to create calm between the neighbours. That doesn’t sit well with nasty ape Koba (Toby Kebbell), who wants vengeance on the humans who tortured him for years. Upon catching sight of the humans’ gunpower and military might, Koba becomes convinced that the humans’ aim is to get rid of the ape population.
The tension between Koba and Caesar is mirrored with the difference in opinion among the humans. Malcolm knows the key to the humans’ survival is through appeasing the apes and insists that dialogue is the right way through. However, human leader Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) wants to fight the apes and reach the dam through aggression.
Reeves’ sci-fi drama is a rare blockbuster to have many of its characters in a neutral gray zone. Summer tentpoles typically have heroes and villains that are easy to identify. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes doesn’t ask its audience to cheer for one side. You can sympathize with the apes as much as with the humans, while the more vicious from both sides have backstories to explain their rage and penchant for violence.
As in Israel and Palestine, there are hawks and doves among both sides in Reeves’ film. The former seeks aggression, while the latter yearns for peace. The steps that the humans and apes make toward co-existence – sharing the dam space, giving each other resources such as medicine – are useful. (Despite the regional tension, some Palestinians have the chance to seek medical help in Israeli hospitals.) However, there are fringe members of both parties who disrupt this calm and continue with cyclical violence.
If you were to ask audiences to label one side of the film’s conflict as the Israelis and the other as the Palestinians, you would also get wildly different responses. Upon this writer’s initial viewing of the film, the apes represented the Palestinians and the humans were the Israelis. (Note: I am comparing the Palestinians to the apes from the film, not apes in general. I don’t need your derogatory hate mail.)
If one goes with this interpretation, it is easy to view Koba as a radicalized member of Hamas, the terrorist group that led the bombing campaign against Israel and denied multiple ceasefires last summer. Koba has had enough with the psychological damage he has suffered as a result of humans mistreating him, and so he fires back. He tries to lead the ape population, including many of the children, to take up arms against the “oppressive” humans.
On the other side is Caesar, who realizes that war against a powerful army could cause the apes to lose all they have built. “Apes do not want war, but we will fight if we must,” he tells the humans. The event that turns the apes toward war is when Koba shoots Caesar with a human gun and martyrs the chimp leader, telling the others it was a human who murdered him. This recalls the propaganda and scapegoating that can turn radical Islamists to take up arms against a Jewish foe.
Meanwhile, the humans live in good housing, have more efficient weapons than the apes (who wield spears) and try to protect themselves from outside intruders through high walls. (Depending on whom you ask, the barriers that separate Israel from its Palestinian neighbours are either “Apartheid walls” or “security fences.”) Similar to the tiny Jewish population in Israel, the humans have banded together to remain strong after a catastrophe decimated their numbers.
While this is one reading of the film through a political lens, one could also compare the apes to the Israelis and the humans to the Palestinians. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes co-screenwriter Amanda Silver was quoted in an interview for the Jewish Journal last summer explaining that the apes could be stand-ins for Jews after the Holocaust. “It can be argued that the apes have been oppressed, that they bear scars of that oppression both psychically and physically, which makes them say, ‘Never Again,’” she said.
The various family relationships in the film also show how the scars of one generation’s conflict eventually trickle down to influence the next. After a bear attacks and injures Caesar’s son, Blue Eyes, Koba tells the boy that scars make him strong. Caesar probably wouldn’t agree with that assessment. Meanwhile, Malcolm’s son, Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee) tries to bond with orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval) in a subplot. Unfortunately, a lovely moment between those two characters is halted with sharp gunfire in one scene, suggesting the all-encompassing power of destruction over personal connection.
Through the lens of a modern geopolitical conflict, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes earns multiple readings. The film’s exploration of a tattered peace process has many similarities to Israeli-Palestinian strife. The film even ends on a rather dark note, with both Caesar and Malcolm realizing how their small steps to peace have been demolished. Just as political analysts expect fighting between Hamas and Israeli forces will return in the not-too-distant future, the ape-human conflict will also come to a head in a third Planet of the Apes installment in July 2017.