Cast out of the garden of Eden (spoiler notice)
“You are not an ape.” The words that Caesar, leader of the budding simian civilisation, uses to ostracize one of his own, are telling. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is quite a downer of a story, and it’s not because humanity is once again on the verge of annihilition by our own doing. Neither is it the giant skirmish between man and monkey that sees what’s left of San Francisco demolished.
It’s in the words Caesar chooses to condemn the murderous war criminal Koba. Caesar, you see, is an idealist. He has witnessed the slave master side of humanity, but also its kindness. The smartest of the pack, he envisions a society where ‘ape not kill ape’. Apes are better than humans, and since their rise from mere animal is so very recent, there hasn’t yet been an opportunity to disprove this theory. The apes live in the garden of Eden, unspoiled because time and circumstance haven’t made monsters of them yet.
Of course, the snake was already there from the start. Koba, tortured and disfigured by the humans, was always going to rebel and seek retribution. He and Caesar butt heads constantly. Any alpha primate would’ve slain Koba years ago, but Caesar chews on loftier thoughts. Inevitably Koba gains the advantage and takes over the colony.
There are some humans embroiled in this plot, but they are of incredible unimportance. From the first moment the story is about the apes, you root for the apes, you want them to win. The humans are there to cause friction and set in motion their departure from Eden. That you feel for Caesar and want to believe the apes are better says a lot about how depraved we consider our own kind, how shameful really, but it also serves to make their fall so much more painful.
The thing that makes it so pointedly nasty isn’t that it takes one corrupted leader for the whole troop to pick up arms and head for screaming, human genocide. We expect lousy Führers and angry mobs just about anywhere. Hey, if we’re cynical enough to write off our own kind for being dumb, we certainly won’t have problems accepting monkeys going bananas.
But Caesar’s a different story. He’s different. Notice how he refuses to behave like the others. No apelike mugging and crude posturing. He uses idiom and metaphor. Hard to tell if that’s because of his upbringing among humans or a longing to be like them - perhaps even a loathing of all too apish behavior. But we recognize ourselves in him, he’s the better, the wiser part of us, the ultimate noble savage. Near the end of the film he even transforms into monkey Jesus – a crowd of believers bowing down and offering their hands in religious supplication.
How complete is his moral defeat when at the end he looks down on Koba, hanging over a deadly precipice, and exchanges ‘ape not kill ape’ for ‘you are not an ape’? Caesar uses the language of exclusion to justify killing one of his own. Rather than creating a new set of laws to abide by, thus deepening the sense of justice for this newfound community, he decides Koba isn’t an ape and therefore the law doesn’t apply to him. This is what tyrants do. It’s double-speak, a malign bending of reality to fit the rules; the language of rabble-rousers which leads directly to hate crimes and marginalisation of minorities. Is it for Caesar to decide who’s an ape and who isn’t?
Of all the moral failings they took from the humans, this one’s the most damning. It shows how Caesar's vision has completely failed, and he doesn’t even seem to realize it. In one sentence, he’s lost the moral high ground and his status as enlightened ruler.