The movie takes place in the future after a simian superflu has wiped out most of mankind, and of the hundreds of human survivors we see left in San Francisco — plenty of whom have speaking roles — only one is a woman: Ellie, played by Keri Russell. She’s the one who tags along a few steps behind our male lead in all her scenes, and she’s off-screen for most of the movie, including the all-important final act. Ellie’s counterparts at the colony of apes don’t fare much better when it comes to representation: There, too, we meet countless male apes but only one female, Caesar’s love interest, Cornelia. This motion-capture character is played by the talented actress Judy Greer, who has a dancer’s background, studied simian movement for months, and yet has about 90 seconds of screen time in the final film. No one even calls Cornelia by name in the movie — if you wanted to know, you’d have to look it up later.
You can argue, as my colleague Scott Renshaw did, that “Dawn’s” almost exclusive focus on male characters is “a feature, not a bug” — it’s a movie about primal urges, especially violent ones, and the generational conflicts embodied in the parallel father-son relationships between Malcolm (Jason Clarke) and Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee) on the human side, Caesar (Andy Serkis) and Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston) on the ape. And that’s fair enough: If you can argue that “Orange Is the New Black” doesn’t need more male characters because it’s a story about women, then you can make the same argument in reverse about “Dawn”: Women are marginalized in both ape and human society because their preoccupation with violent conflict drowns out the archetypically female drive to empathize rather than attack. (It’s worth nothing that although ape society is entirely dominated by males, the moderate, pacifistic orangutan Maurice is actually played by actress Karin Konoval.)
This, you might say, is simply the natural order (re-) asserting itself: Male animals are physically stronger, females bear young, and their places in the apes’ nascent culture follow suit. But there are two problems with that line of argument. First, whatever social niceties have been stripped away by humanity’s threatened return to the Dark Ages, the human race has historically been strengthened by its ability to evolve beyond biological imperatives: Physically weak people who might die in a more strictly Darwinian environment make contributions in the realms of technology or advanced thought; women become active members of society rather than constraining their contributions to giving birth and rearing children. In featuring only a single prominent female human, a CDC doctor played by Keri Russell — one who, at a certain point, admiring tells Malcolm, “That was a brave thing you just did” — “Dawn” ignores the chance to draw a potentially fascinating distinction between human society and its ape counterpart. Instead, the movie indulges the sentimental notion that the apes, being closer to their natural state, are inherently more pure than humans — a simian spin on the noble savage.
Second, as Dr. Susan Block points out at CounterPunch, the idea that all simian societies are dominated by males — that patriarchy is essentially “natural” — is simply false:
The movie does support human “family values,” essentially turning Caesar, the alpha chimp, into a devoted husband and model dad. The reality is, as Dr. De Waal states, “Male chimps don’t really know who their offspring are and they don’t necessarily care.” Ditto for bonobos where ignorance of paternity, plus female solidarity and “mom power,” is one of the keys to keeping the peace.
Speaking of which, there is also a glaring lack of female apes in this movie. That helps make it even more dystopian. Certainly, there are no bonobo females who would soon set the guys straight on all the gratuitous murder and mayhem that ensues. Granted, a gang of bonobo gal pals might have ruined “Dawn’s” relentless march to war, but there are hardly any common chimp-type females either. The only identified female ape character is Caesar’s sweetly submissive “wife” Cornelia who, between giving birth to Caesar’s baby (a son, of course) and being sick, spends almost the entire film lying flat on her back, whimpering.
In other words, not only are “Dawn’s” humans less evolved than we are, so, despite their genetically enhanced higher-brain function, are its apes.
Granted, “Dawn’s” climax leaves both sides headed toward all-out war — and no, that’s not a spoiler: We already know the apes win this one — so it would seem that letting bellicose types like Gary Oldman’s Dreyfus and Toby Kebbel’s Koba run things doesn’t work out too well in the end. But it would have made “Dawn” a better, more interesting movie if it had at least explored the possibility that exigent circumstances might have pushed either humans or apes to structure their societies along different lines, which would only have heightened the tragedy in their failure to do so.
At her blog, spoken-word performer Kaitlyn Pyley mourns the movie that could have been.
I’ve never understood why dystopian films have so much trouble imagining a landscape with women in it. Or why, with civilisation apparently dismantled and society being rebuilt, patriarchal structures have survived with ease. In the recent past, global wars have accidentally resulted in liberation for women, because with the dominant male class off killing each other, women have had to step into new roles. This is the kind of stuff that I find interesting about stories set in post-conflict societies: how new interpersonal dynamics emerge under unfamiliar circumstances.
It’s axiomatic for me that you review the movie you’ve seen and not one that might have been made, but when that movie has as much on its mind as “Dawn” does, it’s hard not to wish it had spared a thought for this. Perhaps the most distressing aspect of Reeves’ response when Buchanan asks about the movie’s gender breakdown: “It wasn’t a conscious decision. I don’t know.” A movie this big, made over years and for hundreds of millions of dollars, is the product of thousands of conversations. That not one of them involved the addition, or even the omission, of significant female characters is as damning an indictment of contemporary Hollywood as you’ll find.