This weekend I saw Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. I liked it. It was a good popcorn movie. It kept me entertained. It made me think about humanity. It made me think about hubris. It made me think about weaponry. But it chafed a little.
Because what was the point of Malcolm, exactly?
In the little band of humans, Malcolm, played by Jason Clarke, was clearly the leader. His girlfriend, Ellie, played by Keri Russell, was a former CDC scientist and did a lot of doctoring and making good decisions. His son, who has all of five lines, drew pictures of his new ape friends and read a book to Maurice the orangutan. He was meant to represent the hope that apes and humans could coexist. The “bad guy,” whose name I never caught, was the only one who knew how to get the dam up and running to power San Francisco. (Never mind that once he screws everything up, and they put him in a time out in the car, the other humans get the dam working without him, so he was a liability they brought along only because Malcolm said they had to.) And then there were two other guys, one of whom was a POC, whose names were probably said all of once and had ten lines between them, but they DID things. When we saw them.
Malcolm just walked into the ape camp, almost causing all-out war, nearly blew up the forest when he decided to use explosives instead of manpower to clear out the dam, insisted on bringing someone who was clearly anti-ape and a huge liability, said, “put the gun down” a lot, smiled pretty, and did a really shitty job explaining why the humans shouldn’t use C4 to blow up all the apes.
Seriously, his one skill was knowing how subway tunnels work.
He was functionally useless, and yet, he was the movie’s main character.
Keri Russell’s Ellie was far more useful, and yet, her job was clearly a support role for Malcolm. When the Apes kicked the humans out of the forest, and Malcolm decided to go back anyway, he needed Ellie to watch his kid. So under movie logic, there had to be two “parents.” Except that the teenage son was also an underwhelming character as far as plot motion. We didn’t need a Plot Moppet, except for a reason for Ellie not to tag along. Later, Ellie continually uses her skill as a doctor to solve problems and build bridges between the humans and the apes. Malcolm’s role is to get her more medical supplies. Again, there must be two adults here, so that one can get necessary supplies for the other. (That would be Malcolm and his innate knowledge of the BART system.)
So, we clearly need a Malcolm for something. But does it make sense for him to be the “leader”? Are Malcolm’s lines such that only he can deliver them? Does he have some special knowledge or wisdom only his character can impart? Does he have some interesting background that makes him more capable to lead this band of rebels? No. In fact, Malcolm does not have a single line that Ellie could not convincingly deliver. Malcolm has no special skills that make him the obvious choice to lead. There is absolutely no reason that Ellie could not, and should not, have been the protagonist in this film.
Except that she’s female. And females play supporting roles. They are not action heroes. Rather, Ellie is reduced to a babysitting doctor, who once had a daughter. That’s all the character development she ever receives, while she sits in the background. And yet, I firmly believe she would have been a far more interesting protagonist than Malcolm and his singular knowledge of train tunnels.
But then, she’s a woman. So that’s probably reason enough.