Most critics say that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a better film than Rise of the Planet of the Apes (hereafter known as Dawn and Rise). I don’t agree. But what I find most interesting is how the story challenges the writers faced changed with this sequel. And the biggest decision the writers had to make in solving those challenges is what genre they would use as their primary form.
Rise was a transcendent horror story. Dawn is science fiction using the Western story structure. Rise modeled its plot on the first and greatest of all horror stories, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (click here to read my breakdown of Rise). This story of fathers and sons is not about creating life, but about creating a human being.
Science fiction is a much broader and looser form than horror. So it often combines with other genres that provide a tighter, more prescribed structure on which to build the grand superstructure of science fiction. Usually that other form is myth, because the best science fiction is about building a better world, and myth gives us the most epic path of growth of any genre.
Dawn shows the very first stages of apes taking over planet Earth. Not surprisingly, the writers chose to use the Western (America’s creation myth), because it lays out the beats for how two sharply different groups compete for the same space and resources as one group becomes dominant and creates a new nation.
Writers Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver begin by establishing two distinct tribes. Both look on the opposing tribe as The Other. In the classic Western, the whites not only see the Indians as outsiders, but as less than human.
The two tribes here are different species. But given basic evolution and the fact that these apes have accelerated to the level of humans, the opposition between human and ape is no different than the visual opposition of white man/red man. Each sees the other tribe as fundamentally, biologically inferior. And that simply highlights the sense that these two tribes, while visually quite different, have the same flaw built into their species: anyone who is different must also be less.
The writers set up their character web using classic Western techniques. The leader of both tribes – Caesar for the apes and Malcolm for the humans – is somewhat enlightened. Both see the other tribe as fundamentally the same as they are, neither good nor evil. These enlightened characters want to find a way to live together in peace.
Each tribe also has at least one character, acting from fear or hatred, who wants to destroy the other tribe. Beginning with Carver for the humans and followed by Koba for the apes, these characters set in motion a downward cycle where the inevitable outcome is violence and eventually genocide.
Here we see the power of genre to express a tremendous amount of information and insight in an extremely concise way. Needless to say, the picture drawn of human beings is intensely negative. The simple microcosm depicted here shows why extremists always seem to defeat moderates and why the great national conflicts in the world never seem to end (insert your choice here).
Dawn also uses the Western to show us negative science fiction. In negative science fiction, we learn to create a better world by seeing what not to do. The key technique for doing that is the dystopian world, a technique I discuss in detail in both the Myth and Masterpiece classes. We’ve been seeing a lot of dystopias in popular storytelling recently, in books and films like The Hunger Games and Divergent. I would go so far as to say that knowing how to create utopias and dystopias on the page is now essential for every writer to master, regardless of genre or medium.
By using the Western story form, Dawn is able to create a dystopia based on a concept from social philosophy and game theory known as Prisoner’s Dilemma. We saw Prisoner’s Dilemma used in the dystopian world of The Dark Knight. In Prisoner’s Dilemma, two partners suspected of a crime are placed in separate rooms. The authorities give each suspect four outcomes based on whether the two prisoners confess or remain silent. Because the system is skewed and because neither prisoner can trust what the other will say, each inevitably confesses and causes the downfall of both.
This is precisely what happens in Dawn. Because each tribe has fundamental visual differences, and each is separated in space, neither can fully trust the other. And once a single member of one tribe commits an act of hatred against the other, the downward cycle of distrust and destruction quickly hurtles to the bottom.
If Dawn shows the power of genre to tell a concise story, it also shows what happens when writers fail to transcend their form. Transcending a genre means doing the story beats in a fresh way. In Dawn, the writers are so enamored with playing out the Western beats in science fiction dress that the film starts to get predictable about halfway through. And once the downward cycle of opposition between the two tribes is set, the story pretty much hits the same beat all the way to the end.
True, by stepping into the science fiction realm, the writers have taken on a more ambitious challenge than they faced with a horror film like Rise. And for the most part they do a good job of meeting that challenge. Given the box office and the critical response, I seem to be one of a handful of people who thought this film failed to reach its potential.
But whether you agree with my assessment or not, the lesson I take from Dawn is valid: if you not only pick the right genre for your story, but transcend it in truly original ways, you set yourself apart as one of the best writers in popular storytelling today.