War for the Planet of the Apes considered

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Pierre Boulle never imagined War for the Planet of the Apes, the latest film in the remade franchise. In fact, it would be fair to say the author of the original book never imagined any of the series, from the first in 1968 to the latest, released in 2017. They were far, far from what he had envisioned in the early 1960s. Warning: spoilers ahead.

Boulle’s 1963 novel, Monkey Planet, was basically a satire and a social commentary. And it wasn’t based in America: the astronauts came from France (and their last view on landing was of the Eiffel Tower not the Statue of Liberty… oops. Spoiler alert!). But it had a lot of contemporary themes common to both, including Cold War jitters.

The novel was scripted into an action movie in 1968, starring the hammy Charlton Heston, with Roddy McDowall (and others) in chimp makeup. Rod Serling of the Twilight Zone fame had a hand in the writing, but so did others, and it ended up a sort-of reflection of Boulle’s original. A fun-house mirror reflection.

While the lumbering Heston would (mercifully) only have a cameo role in the first sequel (Beneath, see below), McDowall starred in the remainder and set the tone for the series.

In the 1968 film, Heston plays a heroic American astronaut who fights to win freedom for the humans and stir up a revolution against ape dominance (ironic that the US was so hep on such concepts when they did them, but took umbrage when anyone else – such as Che Guevara – did it). (Heston went on to become a mouthpiece for the NRA.) The other films have no less histrionic plots.

Although Beneath ends with a “divine” bomb blowing up the planet (apes and mutant humans both), the series went on for three more films, the writers providing a “miraculous” escape for apes Cornelius, Zira and Dr. Milo via an astronaut’s space ship, arriving back in time to 1973. The former couple have a son they call Caesar, who becomes the lead revolutionary in the subsequent two movies, culminating in the final overthrow of humans in Battle for the Planet of the Apes.

War for the Planet of the Apes dvd coverBy now you’re probably familiar with the premise and the role reversal in the films: modern-day astronauts accidentally travel into the future (3978 CE in the first version, 5021 CE in the remake) where apes have developed speech and intelligence, and have taken over the planet. Humans have devolved, lost their speech and are basically animals, kept as research animals, pets or slaves. It’s a bit murky how this all came about in the originals, but made much clearer in the remake prequels where it’s the result of an escaped Alzheimer’s gene-therapy virus gone awry.

In the first series, a virus first shows up in Conquest, but it kills only cats and dogs. This prompts humans to adopt apes as pets (why not llamas or pandas?), which then become slaves to humans, but since they’re smart it leads to an ape revolt which leads to ape domination and human subservience. Got that?

Okay, as noted in the Gizmodo article, the two series don’t run in neat parallel lines, and can’t really be matched up for one-to-one comparison. Plus their timeframes are different. After the 2001 remake, the three prequels share only some of the basic elements of the original series, and thus allow for a much more coherent storyline.

In the first series, there’s a lot of not-so-subtle Cold War commentary going on, with the threat of worldwide nuclear destruction implicit. As noted on Reelantagonists:

Planet of the Apes begins with a manned mission in space. Astronaut George Taylor (played by Charlton Heston) is the last to enter into hibernation, but before doing so, gives a monologue about humanity and his hope that it is better than when he when last left it. “Does man, that marvel of the universe, that glorious paradox that sent me to the stars, still make war with his brother?” … Taylor longs for a humanity that has reached a point without war , but in the end, discovers that it was war that caused the upside-down world he now dwells on.

The first film was followed by four sequels produced until 1973 (Beneath the Planet of the Apes, Escape From the Planet of the Apes, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes and Battle for the Planet of the Apes) each one taking the story further and further away from the book. And, in Beneath, telepathic human mutants get into the story. The final two films (and somewhat the middle one, Escape) also attempted to establish a rationale for the first two, by creating the conditions that would lead to the storyline in the first. Time travel, you see, is necessary, both to and fro.

Despite the increasingly zany plots, many of the films still retained some Boulle-like social commentary. As Rolling Stone points out, issues like the arms race, race wars (it was the time of the Watts riots), animal cruelty and experimentation, slavery, castes, and gender issues were present, and if not resolved through the story, were at least raised. Boulle may have smiled on that aspect. But as B-films, they don’t really aim to resolve anything, merely to entertain, although at times you feel like the directors were wielding a big stick and shouting, “See? Allegory! Allegory! Pay Attention!” throughout. We got it: the apes are us.

Rolling Stone published a film history that documents the franchise’s early development. After the very first film, the plots, sets and quality of the next four sequels deteriorated in concert with dwindling production budgets. yet the series remained popular, even when companies were reluctant to fund more. A TV show lasted a mere 14 episodes in 1974, and an animated series even less: 13, in 1975. Plus there were comic books. Shades of the Godzilla franchise! But the films were successful at the box office, albeit less so in each sequel.

The original film, Planet of the Apes, was remade in 2001, directed by Tim Burton, and starring Mark Wahlberg, Tim Roth, Helena Bonham-Carter and Paul Giamatti. It proved very successful, although Rolling Stone critics said it had a “… silly, somewhat dull script that includes perhaps the most nonsensical ending in the entire franchise.” I disagree with the latter part: it was closer to Boulle’s ending than the first film (but not exact). The plot was essentially massaged from the first film, and thus was only as good as the original source. Burton said it wasn’t just a remake of the original film but a “re-imagining” of Boulle’s novel. You say po-tay-to… Still, it was entertaining (even though I’m not the biggest Wahlberg fan).

What stands out most in the 2001 film is the production quality compared toi the first series. The original series advanced the art of makeup (for actors portraying non-human characters) considerably. New technologies (especially CGI), new techniques really improved the look of the sets and characters in the 2001 version. But not as good as they would be in the subsequent prequels.

The reboot was followed by three prequels (Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and the most recent, War for the Planet of the Apes). These basically expand on some of the ideas presented in the original series’ film, Conquest, giving the background story to explain how apes take control over Earth (thus setting up the story in the first of the series) as well as telling the rise of the leader ape, Caesar.

These films are of an entirely different sort from any before them: they are a much higher calibre than any of the former movies, they combine motion-capture (brilliantly performed by Andy Serkis) and CGI in a stunningly realistic manner, and they have stronger plots and far deeper, more philosophic messages. Plus they have a solid, coherent story.

They don’t deal with just some imagined ape-versus-human conflict: sure, they’re allegorical like the first, but they ask what it means to be human at all. They ask who we are, they ask why civilization matters. They ask why we are violent, why we are selfish, why we are so materialistic. They don’t answer a lot of those questions, but they do make us wonder about them ourselves.

They put the worst of our collective being up for display and demand we examine it. They are dark, brooding and at times uncomfortable. The issues that swirled as deep currents in the originals come bubbling to the surface: race, gender, animal cruelty, hunting, intolerance, bigotry, concentration camps, fascism, militarism and blind obedience, zealotry and religion are all there. Humans in these three films are, overall, less likeable than the apes, more violent than the ape, less compassionate, too.

In an ironic twist, in the 2001 film, apes debate whether humans have souls. It’s been an undercurrent throughout the entire series, but it’s really an ancient question, just turned on its head in this instance. The ninth-century Zen koan (“Joshu’s Dog”) asks, “Do dogs have Buddha-nature?” A recent article published online asks, Do Elephants Have Souls? Even today Christians debate whether pets go to heaven (most Christians say no in part because they can’t get past their specie-ist views, but also in part because of rigid, literalist ideologies, but curiously, the Mormons say they do). GK Chesterton and GB Shaw debated the question in 1925. It’s more complicated in Judaism as this post shows, but the answer he comes up with is sort-of.

(Personal comment: dogs, cats and many other animals are sentient. they have emotions, they feel pain, they think. And if you don’t believe they share those attributes with humans, you either aren’t a pet owner, you’re stoned, you haven’t been paying attention, or maybe you’re just a specie-ist.)

Regardless of your view on the existence of souls (I don’t believe in them any more than in ghosts or goblins but I can appreciate them in my movies), the question remains: what makes a human special? Or superior? Speech? Tool making? Religion? Books? Chess? When we lose those skills, what are we? We become the very animals we hunt, we kill, we enslave. That’s a big theme here.

In War for the Planet of the Apes, the Kurtz-like Colonel (title only: no actual name given in the film; played by Woody Harrelson), says, “There are times when it is necessary to abandon our humanity to save humanity.” But what, we ask, does that humanity consist of, exactly? The Colonel rationalizes killing his own people – even his own son – for losing to the virus what he considered their humanity – speech and reason – but yet the little girl, Nova, seems to be a better example of humanity than the Colonel, even without her ability to speak. Where, we wonder, did he lose his compassion? And is he less human without it?

And yes, there is more than a passing resemblance to the Brando version of Kurtz as seen in Apocalypse Now. We only wait for him to mutter, “The horror, the horror!” but when his moment comes, irony of ironies, the Colonel is struck dumb by the very virus that he killed his own son for having. And in that scene, again, Caesar is shown to be more compassionate than the human Colonel, when he refuses to kill him – despite having spent half the film seeking just that vengeance. Perhaps Caesar should have uttered in irony the immortal words of Herbert Morrison on witnessing the explosion of the Hindenburg: Oh, the humanity!

Richard Lawson, writing in Vanity Fair said of the prequels,

These are wonderful films that should be widely revered, particularly 2014’s towering classical tragedy Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and now War for the Planet of the Apes (opening July 14), a grim and resonant prison-escape drama that caps off a trilogy in rousing fashion. Thoughtfully staged and rumbling with purpose, these movies are earnest, often deeply unsettling allegories that take their mission seriously.

There is an ape religion throughout the franchise, although more evident in the earlier series. There are “sacred scrolls” quoted by Cornelius and Zika in Escape From the Planet of the Apes. And Zaius, the science minister in the first film, was also described as the Defender of the Faith (like Henry VIII, I suppose – it seems orangutans are the religious apes, more than the others). And Patheos writer Paul Asay suggests another religious connection:

…what we see in War for the Planet of the Apes reminds me of another divine punishment—that found in the story of the Tower of Babel.
According to Genesis 11, all the people of the earth gathered together and decided to build a massive tower to the heavens. It was a display of arrogance, and God didn’t like that very much. So according to Gen. 11:7, He confused their language, “so that they may not understand one another’s speech.”
I find that particularly interesting, given yet another side effect of the Simian Flu: In War for the Planet of the Apes, we learn that the flu doesn’t just kill people: It turns the survivors dumb. No longer can they communicate as they used to—and as apes do now.

There’s the Christ-like scourging and crucifixion of Caesar. And then there’s the Colonel’s troops: “His soldiers often bear the Greek symbols of Alpha and Omega, an obvious reference to Revelation 22:13.” Not to mention they all get killed – along with the other army troops attacking the compound – in a manner notably similar to Pharaoh’s army in Exodus. And there are more parallels in that article.

But whether they are meant as religious/biblical parallels or are simply conveniently recognizable tropes for storytelling is hard to decipher.

War concludes this series of prequels in a suitably Mosaic manner: Caesar, the leader, is the ape’s Moses, and the allegory is not disguised (in fact, it’s even mentioned in one of the special features). Caesar is not simply a simian revolutionary: he is the father to his people, leading them out of slavery wandering through the wilderness to arrive at the promised land where, like Moses, he cannot enter.

It’s a touching scene; well acted enough to bring a tear to many a viewer’s eye. But let us not forget the same scene in the 1958 film, The Ten Commandments, in which Charlton Heston as Moses passes the leadership to Joshua much as Caesar passes it to Maurice. The only thing missing was the Torah that Moses passed to Eleazar. And I never cried when Moses shuffled off the set, Torah-less.

Or perhaps that was the message: the apes need no Torah. They need nothing written, no stone tablets, no Bible, no fixed and unbending religion or ideology that ossifies their minds. After all, it was the “divine” bomb that destroys the planet in the earlier film, Beneath the Planet of the Apes (but eventually leads to the ape renaissance via time travel). And of course it leaves the stage open for another sequel as Caesar’s son rises to the challenge of leadership. Secularly so, I trust.

At least that’s one message I took from the film: we don’t need no religion. Not the kind of phony, bigoted religion practiced by the faux Christians and hypocritical Repugnicans in the USA today, for sure. But we do need guidance: where or who is our own Caesar to rebel against the state and lead us out of the wilderness to that promised land? Waiting for such a leader in the era of Donald Trump and the growing American theocratic/oligarchic state may be the real fantasy here. Che Guevara has been reduced to an internet meme and a T-shirt image.

My own politics and religion aside, this is a great film, much better than I had hoped for, and certainly a monument to the advances in motion capture and CGI. The characters are believable, the story is exciting and well-written, the dialogue is good. Andy Serkis and the other motion-capture actors are remarkably good – so good that you will suspend belief early on. And at no time does it become a caricature, as some of the earlier series films do.

This film makes you think, it will make you feel for the characters, it will make you laugh and maybe even cry. It’s the best movie I’ve seen in a while. A solid five out of five stars in my review.

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