There’s more to this movie than misanthropy
The critics leaping for joy over the sneering at humanity in Rise of the Planet of the Apes have missed the point.
There’s definitely a whiff of almost clichéd anti-humanism about the hugely enjoyable new reboot of the Planet of the Apes series, Rise of the Planet of the Apes.
It begins with some nasty, gun-toting humans hunting down and entrapping several apes in a faraway jungle. It quickly transpires that the ape-catchers’ principal market is that staple of anti-capitalist cynicism, Big Pharma, embodied in the profit-hungry pharmaceuticals CEO Steven Jacobs (David Oyelow). Not that humanity is all bad, however. Within the annals of Big Pharma’s research labs we meet Rise’s main human protagonist, the idealistic young scientist Will Rodman, played with pitch-perfect earnestness by James Franco.
His aims are noble, it seems: he wants to find a way to restore ‘human cognitive capacity’, an ambition fuelled in no small part by his father’s quickly developing Alzheimer’s. His means, however, are not represented quite so nobly: experiment on apes, ones which, unfortunately, have CGI facial expressions that could move the most hardened of Big Game hunters to sly tears. Will, being a good sort, is himself far from untouched by the plight of his simian subjects as we soon find out when he sneaks the offspring of one his brightest-but-shot-dead experiments home with him, a similarly hyper-intelligent knuckle dragger called Caesar who, it will emerge, is the real star of Rise.
Now, you don’t have to be a student of Frankenstein to see where this is going, not least because it’s writ large in the film’s title. Don’t mess with nature, fellas – not unless you want it to come back and sink its gorilla-sized dentures into you. As Caesar, now a 16-stone hyper-intelligent ape, becomes just a little too much for the 12-stone geek Will to handle, his girlfriend, played by Slumdog Millionaire star Freida Pinto, spells out the message, ‘some things are just not meant to be changed, Will’.
So, an all-too-familiar warning about human hubris, right? That certainly seems to be the consensus. One critic calls it ‘a jittery cautionary tale about man’s domination of nature’. Another, her tongue only slightly in cheek, calls it an ‘animal-rights manifesto’. And over at the Guardian, an eco-blogger had clearly wet himself. Here, he proclaimed, was a movie that might win millions of moviegoers over to the causes of the planet. Thank you Rise, he wrote , ‘for putting animal rights and survival at the heart of a piece of fiction’.
All of which makes Rise sound like two hours of green-tinged, animal-championing, human-denigrating awfulness. But it isn’t. Firstly because it’s actually really entertaining, and quite moving. And secondly because its messages are too mixed, its themes too polyvalent (and sometimes contradictory), for it to be neatly reduced to some ‘humans = bad, apes = good’ dichotomy.
Take the animal-rights stuff, for instance. While some of the treatment meted out to Caesar and friends is certainly from the pantomime-school of sadism, what seems to escape the minds of those determined to see a narrative of animal liberation being played out is that the apes in this movie aren’t actually animals. This is not just to say that they’re played by human actors and created by human technology. It is to recognise that during the course of Rise, the apes cease to be, well, animals. They empathise, they organise, they plan ahead, and in a startling scene towards the end they even start to speak. In short, they become human. Hence they aren’t liberated by battery acid-wielding crusties breaking into an animal research lab; they liberate themselves.
This portrait of ape-cum-human consciousness could even be satirical. The idea of animal rights has always rested on a surreptitious anthropomorphism. Rise, as the human characteristics of the apes come to the fore, actually makes that anthropomorphism explicit. In the concluding scene, with Will confronting and embracing Caesar, Caesar is no longer a hunched simian. He is as upright as his homid friend and figurative father, Will.
What is equally interesting about Rise is the way in which it relates to the original Planet of the Apes movie. Based on Pierre Bouelle’s 1963 novel of the same name, a playful Gulliver’s Travels-style satire in which evolution has done a U-turn, the film’s screenwriters Michael Wilson and Rod Serling took the book’s central premise of man’s subjugation by ape, and exploited what they saw as its racial dimension. This, after all, was the late 1960s, a time when the American civil-rights movement was at its most vibrant and so-called race riots at their most threatening. The racial frisson to a film in which that archetypal WASP Charlton Heston is transformed into a humiliated subaltern to apes was undoubtedly potent.
At the same time, however, by using the fantasy-allegorical structure of (dark-skinned) Apes versus (white-skinned) humans, Planet of the Apes was always at risk of naturalising a political conflict. That is, by representing a conflict between people as a conflict between species, the differences are made natural not political. It is no surprise then that there are plenty of critics who were made uneasy by Planet of the Apes. At any moment it could collapse into the racism that it intended to satirise.
And that is what’s particularly interesting about Rise of the Planet of the Apes. It inherits that same fantasy-allegorical structure, but it is no longer charged by political demands for civil rights, for equality, for a recognition of common humanity. Instead, it unwittingly draws on our era of identity politics. There is no recognition of common humanity here, no recognition of there being something more essential than cultural difference. Instead cultural differences are naturalised today.
What was latent in the original Planet of the Apes film is fulfilled in its belated prequel. So despite the underlying humanity of both the anthropomorphised apes and humans in Rise, what is considered more important is cultural background and heritage. Caesar and friends liberate themselves alright. But they do so in order not to demand the same as their fellows, their equals. They do so in order to be ‘true to their nature’. Caesar’s objective – to be ‘home’, to retreat to a forest – is as much an ambiguous celebration of our era of identity politics as the original Planet of the Apes was an ambiguous satire of its own era of race-riven angst.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.
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