No War but Ape War

Who doesn't want to watch armed chimpanzees ride horses?

There are two kinds of people: those compelled to watch a film in which armed chimpanzees ride horses, and those who aren’t.

I’m with those who are compelled.

And we’re right. We’re what will make Dawn of the Planet of the Apes the hit film of the summer. Thousands of us took to social media when the Dawn trailer appeared, and communicated our resolution to see the film with some variation of the simple phrase, “Chimpanzees on horseback!”

What is it about that image that’s so powerful? It looks like something that would appear in a recurring dream. It has a surreal logic that defines the appeal of the whole Planet of the Apes franchise.

If you recall, in the original 1968 classic, the first shot of the apes is of them riding out of the tall reeds mounted on black horses, armored and gun-toting, beating the bushes to drive the half-naked humans into the open where they can be whipped, shot down, captured in nets, and hauled off to zoo enclosures and lab cages.

Obviously, the dystopian fantasy of apes taking on the status and abusive power of humans, while humans suffer the bloody torture and abasement we’ve traditionally visited on animals, has its own manifest impact. The family resemblance of apes to humans makes this type of animal ascendancy a forbidding vision. Compare that to the comical animal-ascendant vision of cats, dogs, rabbits, mice, birds, or horses ordering us around that you get in works like Alice in Wonderland or Francis the Talking Mule or Mr. Peabody and Sherman.

Yet as menacing as the image of humanoid apes on horseback is, there’s something oddly pleasing about it. It’s a welcome change from a long, ugly history of representing the reverse: the ape-like human.

Both before and after Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution appalled the multitudes by connecting humans to apes through evidence of common ancestry, inspiring the famous caricature of Darwin-as-chimpanzee, we’ve made bad use of representations of the monkey-man. There’s been no easier shortcut to rationalizations of slavery, oppression, and racial hatred.

See, among thousands of examples, British caricatures of the colonized Irish as apes and American caricatures of African-descended slaves as apes. See nineteenth century pseudo-scientific drawings ranking races in descending order from superior to inferior, with Nordic whites at the top of the chain, rendered to resemble god-like ancient Greek statuary, and the darkest-skinned people at the bottom, represented as literally simian, with helpful measurements of brow-height and jaw length as “evidence.”

See the “lower orders,” especially at points of potential class rebellion, represented as a whole bestiary including apes (a tendency attacked by Eugene O’Neill in his play The Hairy Ape). The grand tradition continues: you can go online right now and find numerous abhorrent photo-shopped images of President Obama as an ape-like man.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes achieves its greatest impact by exploiting the uncanny frisson of seeing apes “lowered” by taking on increasingly human characteristics and behaviors. Toward the end of the film, Caesar, the leader of the apes, mourns, “I used to think, apes good, humans bad. But now I see how like them we are.”

This jaundiced view of humanity is entirely in keeping with the 1960s–70s franchise revived in 2011 with Rise of the Planet of the Apes, directed by Rupert Wyatt, and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, directed by Matt Reeves (a devoted fan of the earlier Apes movies). The 1968 film was, among other things, a fierce satire.

In it, the apes have adopted human language, clothing, and weapons, as well as the worst of our belief systems and institutions: scientific inquiry skewed to support ideology, farcical religious practices, corrupt government, power-abusing judiciary, and virulent racism (or rather, species-ism, with the orangutans at the top of the socio-political hierarchy, chimps in the middle, and gorillas at the bottom).

Though the apes based their grim civilization on the self-destructive human one that once dominated the planet, that knowledge has been effaced from their history. The apes only know humans as weak, mute, abject prey scuttling for cover in the underbrush.

What people tend to remember about the 1968 film, which was phenomenally popular in its day, is Charlton Heston’s wonderfully hammy discovery that the planet of the apes is actually planet Earth, a thousand or so years after humanity’s nuclear apocalypse. The lasting impact of that climactic narrative point was demonstrated decades later on The Simpsons, when Homer and his family discover they love “legitimate theater” while watching a Broadway-style musical called Stop the Planet of the Apes, I Want to Get Off! It features these inspired lyrics:

I hate every ape I see, from chimpan-A to chimpan-Z!

No, you’ll never make a monkey out of me!

Oh my God, I was wrong, it was earth all along!

Oh, you finally made a monkey out of me!

But what people tend not to remember about the 1968 Apes plot is the equally important discovery that the head orangutan, Dr Zaius, knows that ape culture was modeled on human culture. The only remaining evidence of human predecessors is in “the Forbidden Zone.” Zaius’ is determined to keep it hidden and exterminate any remaining humans in order to prevent ape civilization from being further influenced by humanity — that way lies nuclear holocaust.

I tell you all this just so you’ll appreciate the way our uneasy knowledge of the entangled ancestry of primates, members of the superfamily Hominoidea, is the engine driving these films. We’re always discovering the ape behind the human and the human behind the ape.

For example, Caesar, the chimpanzee hero of the 2011 film Rise of the Planet of the Apes is able to lead an anti-human revolt and establish an of-the-apes-by-the-apes-for-the-apes society because he was raised in San Francisco by a weenie scientist played by James Franco, who lab-engineered him to be super-intelligent.

Caesar makes the mistake of believing he’s ditched his human past altogether by founding an ape paradise out in Muir Woods. That’s where Dawn starts, in what seems to be an Ape Eden in the deep solemn forest. Supposedly humans have been wiped out — “Simian Flu” did the trick, appropriately enough.

And there, in one of the strongest, craziest scenes in the film, the apes are swinging from tree to tree, on the hunt, the dominant predators in their brave new world. Their fur is streaked with tribal paint outlining their skulls and rib cages. They communicate with sign language. They’ve got spears.

And what’s their prey? Elk. A whole herd of elk.

This didn’t seem to be a big deal for anyone else reviewing this film, but for me it was a shocker. Chimps are omnivores, the only other primates besides humans that eat meat, but they don’t group-hunt big game. Mostly they live on fruit and leaves and maybe some bugs they dig out of hollow trees with sticks. But on occasion, they group-hunt species of much smaller monkeys, a revelation we got courtesy of Jane Goodall. (She also documented chimpanzee wars.)

The initial reaction to Goodall’s findings in the scientific community was shocked disbelief. Nobody likes the idea of meat-eating chimps, not at all — especially not the vaguely cannibalistic monkey-eating-monkey implications. We take chimp behaviors personally. Their ninety-eight percent-shared DNA with humans is uncomfortably high.

During that initial ape sequence, my respect for Matt Reeves rose considerably. I was thinking I hadn’t seen a forest-hunt scene that darkly ecstatic since Last of the Mohicans. Then the film’s creative team went really wild, blasted into the Tarzan territory of disturbing fever dreams that have always worked so well in film.

As the chimps bring down an elk while the rest of the herd stampedes, Caesar’s son Blue Eyes defies his father’s orders, breaking formation and rushing toward the dying prey. Up surges a gigantic grizzly bear, roaring. (Apparently wiping out humanity leads immediately to the resurrection of the California grizzly.)

Then, capping all the species dominance that went before, the chimpanzee pack takes down the grizzly bear. If that’s not a disturbing vision of an ecosystem gone mad, I don’t know what is.

If you read the mainstream critics, you get a vision of Caesar’s Ape Eden as a laughably idealized hippie commune: When the apes aren’t busy hugging trees they’re hugging each other, or gently tending the sick in pleasant arboreal abodes, or instructing the young in open-air schools.

But it’s the preceding scene of big-game hunting that alerts you, reminds you, of the logic of the Planet of the Apes series: humans, with the rarest exceptions, are bad. Therefore human practices among apes, even the huggy ones, take on a sinister cast. Though apes are potentially better primates — to the extent that they activate that shared DNA and emulate humans — they will soon go bad.

If unchecked, they’ll repeat our entire shameful human history, acquiring language and weaponry until they achieve a dreadful ecological dominance, developing scientific knowledge and elaborate political systems (chimps are already very political animals, forming alliances to get and hold power), fighting increasingly apocalyptic wars, and . . . well, you know the rest.

Planet of the Apes was a cultural phenomenon in large part because, despite its commercial premise, the film was a radical critique of supposedly “advanced” human culture. These new Apes films, at their best, continue the harshness of that critique. Though they include many long, mushy scenes showcasing a few blandly nice humans trying to be a cut above the general population of cruel bastards and howling idiots, these efforts are always futile.

A peacenik “Can’t we all get along?” strain runs through the series of films, and the answer is always the same: No. Humanity, the most omnivorous and warlike primate, set the terms long ago.

It’s no surprise that by the end of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the efforts to achieve a pact between apes and the human survivors of “Simian Flu” come to nothing, and both sides are resolved on total war. Reeves’ second Apes movie, the war movie, is likely to be the most popular of the franchise.

Ironically, one critic who recognizes the dark view of humanity expressed in the new Apes films is Govindini Murty. Writing in 2011 for Libertas Film magazine (“The voice of freedom in movies and popular culture”), he sees Rise of the Planet of the Apes as profoundly anti-human, part of a disturbing trend in current sci-fi films:

There’s clearly a divide emerging between sci-fi films that believe in the value of humanity and those that don’t. On one side are films like Transformers, Battle: LA, and Cowboys and Aliens that depict humans as heroes defending freedom and civilization. On the other side are films like Avatar, Super 8, and District 9 that take a far darker view of humanity, portraying them as villains who torture alien ‘others’ out of a lack of compassion or understanding. You can put 20the Century Fox’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes squarely in the latter category.

Where Murty gets it wrong is in thinking the 1968 film is profoundly pro-human:

Rise of the Planet of the Apes reverses every message of the original film by featuring the apes as the noble, intelligent heroes and humans as the sadistic, barbaric villains . . . Planet of the Apes showed that when apes take over the world, they are actually just as brutal as the worst sort of humans — that in fact, when human civilization is wiped out and apes take over, there is no utopia of peace and justice.

Murty really needs to go back and watch those films again. The 1968 Planet of the Apes is extraordinary in its tendency to revile humanity.

Charlton Heston begins the film with a monologue celebrating his own escape from Earth in a space mission that takes him millions of miles and a thousand years away from the human race he despises for its mindless bigotry, injustice, and aggression.

But Heston’s own character is the most punch-worthy human being ever conceived, a macho cigar-chewing egomaniac who believes only in his own superiority. He’s narratively designed to need the most all-encompassing form of beat-down if he’s ever going to recover a modicum of decency. It’s a positive delight to see him repeatedly pummeled by apes.

And again, the apes are shown to be monstrous to the extent that they’ve been humanized. As Murty points out, they’re like “the worst sorts of humans.”

Of course, Murty goes on to reveal his own take on how and why these new Apes films are so deplorable, and in doing so, illustrates nicely why they have great popular appeal. We want to see them if only to undercut this ideological stance:

[H]umans — who are acting true to their natures by building great cities and seeking to conquer nature in order to live longer, better, more comfortable lives — come into conflict with the apes and other animals, whose nature is to preserve their own way of life, which is simpler than that of humans due to their smaller brain size.

That is the way of the world and the mysterious ways of God. Humans were given large brains and physical abilities that enabled us to create all the wonders of art, science, and civilization — other animals were not.

Bring on the super-intelligent apes! We’ll take a chance that they’ll figure out how to stop acting too damn human, after they’ve won the war against humanity and taken over the planet. Call that the plot of the third Matt Reeves film in the series, The Salvation of the Planet of the Apes.

For some, the way Dawn of the Planet of the Apes so insistently underscores the danger of apes repeating human history is silly, overreaching, beyond the range of a genre film. Andrew O’Hehir of Salon, for example, mocks the film’s clear references to major historical events:

Screenwriters Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver and Mark Bomback have cooked up (or overcooked) a parable of innocence and experience that gestures at a whole bunch of real-world issues, from the history of warfare and the rise of extremism to the conflict between tribalism and cosmopolitanism. Caesar’s ideological opponent in the war for simian hearts and minds is a brutal and duplicitous chimp called Koba (Toby Kebbell) . . . Koba, as you history majors may know, was the youthful nickname and revolutionary nom de guerre of an especially notorious world leader, and I bet the writers were really proud of that one.

O’Hehir is referring to Joseph Stalin here, who took the revolutionary name of Koba from one of his literary heroes — not sure why O’Hehir’s being so coy about it. He goes on to describe further

exhausting historical references — which go from Wahhabism and al-Qaida to the Battle of Agincourt to the fact that Koba starts a fire in Ape-Paradise, blames it on the humans, and tries to assassinate Caesar.

Here O’Hehir is talking about the Reichstag Fire, the destruction of the German parliament building in 1933, which Adolf Hitler used to suspend civil rights and consolidate power by blaming it on the Communists, fomenting public fears of a Communist takeover.

Indeed, Koba the bonobo does pull a variation on the Reichstag Fire strategy, in order to seize power and get the human-ape war started. (Note the nervous even-handedness that is one of director Matt Reeves’ weaker tendencies in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes: referencing one dictator from the political left, one from the right. He’s also tried to argue in interviews that there are no “real villains” in this film!)

It’s quite true that Dawn and the other films of the franchise are constantly evoking bleak events in human history. It’s part of their whole design, creating a sense of entrapment within a cyclical momentum endlessly replayed: humanity’s evolutionary rise and seemingly inevitable fall, dragging all the other species down with us.

The films also create a corresponding desire to escape the cycle. We want to see if the apes can evolve past us. May the best primate win.