Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Root for the Apes: War for the Planet of the Apes

The thing I've always loved about the Planet of the Apes movies (as well as Pierre Boulle's novel) is how deeply subversive it all is.  Stories about "a planet where apes evolved from men" turn so many of our self-assured certainties on their heads when it comes to evolution, "progress," intelligence, race, and the place of humans in relation to our fellow animals and the universe.  If you didn't read "a planet where apes evolved from men" in Charleton Heston's voice, I must insist that you go back and do so immediately (see the clip at the end if you need help).

The original 1968 Planet of the Apes stars Charleton Heston at the top of his game along with great performances under rubber ape masks from Roddy McDowell and Kim Hunter.  (Last year I went to a special screening that featured an amusing interview with Dr. Zaius, which I recommend).  A cursory viewing of Planet of the Apes might suggest that Taylor (Heston) is right to be horrified by ... try it again ... "a planet where apes evolved from men."  But if you watch the rest of the series, you'll realize that we were supposed to be rooting for the apes all along (okay, I realize the last two films of the original five aren't that great, but I still love them - for fun compare the endings of 1973's Battle and 2017's War).  That we should be rooting for the apes is especially obvious in the third film Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971), where Zira and Cornelius go back in time to a very groovy 1971 Earth where - spoiler alert! - their son Caesar is born and grows up to found the society from which his parents came in the future.  Trippy stuff!  And by far my favorite example of a causal loop.

Although Tim Burton's 2001 remake amusingly put a gun in Heston's damn dirty ape paws and stuck closer to the original ending of Boulle's novel, I prefer to pretend that one didn't happen.

Moving on to 2011, I was cautiously optimistic about Rise of the Planet of the Apes.  I loved it.  It was a complete reboot of the series starting with Caesar's origin story, which sadly had nothing to do with a causal loop but gladly had to do with a cute baby chimp.  2014's Dawn of the Planet of the Apes continued the tradition of the length of the titles as well as Andy Serkis's amazing motion capture performance as Caesar.  It also plunged us further into the world where a virus has uplifted apes and wiped out most of humanity, which means we're well on our way to becoming ... try it in Heston's voice again... " a planet where apes evolved from men."

The Review of the War for the Planet of the Apes (Finally)

In the third film of the new series, War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)we meet Caesar and his people in the forest where they encounter yet another band of pesky humans, this time led by the Colonel (Woody Harrelson), who intends to wipe out the apes.  What are the apes to do?  Can there be peace between human and ape, or for that matter, within the hearts and minds of Caesar and friends?

This is probably one of the quieter, more thoughtful Planet of the Apes films, with the possible exception of Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970), most of which takes place - you guessed it - underground (although it ends with a bang).  The quiet of War is especially odd for a film that has "war" right in the title.  There are, of course, several loud scenes of violent confrontation, but they punctuate long stretches of brooding silence.  I suspect some viewers looking for more action may have been disappointed.  Before moving on, I want to say that the fact that we can get believable brooding on the face of a digital ape is a testament to the skills of Andy Serkis and the hundreds of digital magicians working on the film.  Bravo to all of them!

All this brooding has a point.  The war is not so much in the forests and mountains of ... "a planet where apes evolved from men."  The war is in fact a war within Caesar himself.

If anyone has a reason to hate humans, it's Caesar.  In the previous film he saved his fellow apes from the bad influence of Koba, a thoroughly anti-human ape.  In this film he has to save himself.

Caesar, who has tried his best to maintain a live-and-let-live arrangement with the humans, ends up - for spoilery reasons - on a quest for revenge against the humans, but he councils his fellow apes not to follow his path.  At some point Caesar says, "We are not savages."  Caesar is aware, as proponents of the philosophy of nonviolence are always saying, that hatred also harms the one who hates, which would sound like a cliché if the entire history of humanity up to the present day wasn't about people not figuring this one out.  It's not that he's not willing to fight to protect his people.  He is, and in a much more violent ways than most practioners of nonviolence (they've got to get that PG-13 rating somehow).  But hate is where he has drawn the line.  Until now.

This very human, er, simian internal struggle is what gives this the most emotional depth of any of the Apes films.  It's powerful stuff.  If Serkis doesn't win a bunch of awards for this performance, he ought to start flinging excrement around Hollywood.

Change in a Planet Where Apes Evolved from Men (but Not, Apparently, Women)

There are issues of personal identity in the films.  Are the apes people?  Of course they are!  That's an easy one, but here in the real world are apes, dolphins, elephants, octopi, ravens, etc. people?  Even if they're not by whatever criteria of personhood you supply (intelligence, self-awareness, memory, tool-use, whatever), how should we treat the creatures we share this planet with?  What do we owe our fellow animals?  Why do we use "animal" as an insult when we're also animals and far from perfect ones at that?

Another major theme of the film is change, particularly the dying of humanity and the rise of the apes.  The new series of Apes films takes a rather dystopian direction, which is entirely in line with the dystopian direction of entertainment in the last decade or so.  At least it's dystopian from the human point of view.

In War, the Colonel (Harrelson) represents a rather violent, reactionary response to change, the kind of reactionary bigotry that's all too familiar these days.  That he's reacting to the end of the human race makes him more sympathetic than you might expect.  Change is hard, especially when it's not going well for you.  Could he learn from Buddhists that change is inevitable or from Stoics that we shouldn't worry about changes outside of our control?  Watch the movie to find out!  (One thing that's been bugging me since the trailers: the Colonel says that all of human history has been leading to this one moment, which sounds portentous, but is actually trivially true if you think about it.  All of human history has led to me writing this blog post, too.).

One thing I didn't like about the film was its near complete lack of women or even female apes.  I don't think this movie passes the Bechdel test even if you include female apes (here's an article on what Congressional candidate Brianna Wu had to say about it).  There are a few non-speaking human women soldiers and one little human girl who is literally mute (although she plays an important part and starts learning some sign language from the male apes).  I think we see two female apes, but it's not clear if they talk or sign to each other.  It's even more unclear why they couldn't easily have made this movie Bechdel passable.

I'm not going to excuse this at all, but I wonder if - at least on the human side of things - the relative lack of women could be seen as making a point.  Does the Colonel represent the excesses of a masculine war mentality, toxic masculinity run amok?  That the urge to destroy the other will not stave off your own destruction?  Am I reading too much into it?  Or does everything from the reactions to the recent announcement that the next Doctor on Doctor Who will be a woman to appalling statistics on violence against women help make the point?

I've written before about the end of the human race with regard to Interstellar.  What, if anything, is so bad about the extinction of the human race?  Is the meaning of our individual human lives tied up with the meaning of the life of the species as a whole?

I'm not entirely sure how to answer these questions, but my suspicion is that the fact that the life of an individual or of a species comes to an end does not rob that life or species of meaning.  Sure, one must rage against the dying of the light, but at some point all this raging might itself detract from the meaning of your life, especially if doing so hurts others.

The strength of the Apes films has always been the ways in which they encourage us to view things from a different perspective by turning our expectations on their heads.  While I'm disappointed about the lack of imagination on gender issues in War for the Planet of the Apes, I think it gives us some material for thinking about what it means to be human.  Or ape.

If humans were to go extinct, but there were new people on the scene as remarkable as Caesar and his ape friends, that wouldn't be such a bad thing.  And that's why I always root for the apes.

My Planet of the Apes poster in my office
(by the window so people can see it from outside)

In case you want to enjoy Chuck Heston's splendor, here's the clip I've been going on about.


  1. Thank you for the fantastic review! This is on my list to see, now!

  2. What, if anything, is so bad about the extinction of the human race?

    Personally, it shouldn't mean that much to me since, even if our species checks outs, I'll probably be long dead. But it was Stephen Baxter's collection of short stories published under the title "Evolution" that hit me like a ton of bricks when humans have a global nuclear war that leads to the collapse of civilization and the devolution of Homo sapiens back to non-sentient hominids.

    After reading the last story that takes place about a billions years in the future I literally came away psychologically shaken. Not exactly sure what that means about myself but I felt compelled to watch a couple of hours of Star Trek to make myself feel better.

    1. I loved Baxter's Evolution! The thing about the human race is that it will end. Even if we all download our minds into a giant computer or become beings of pure energy or whatever, that won't really be humanity in its current form. It's a matter of when, not if. Although hopefully it will happen long after we're around to comment on blog posts.

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