Reflections on "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" (2011),
"Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" (2014) and "War for the Planet of the Apes" (2017)
A video presentation of this material is available here.
When I first heard that the "Planet of the Apes" franchise was to be re-booted, I have to admit I was somewhat sceptical! After all, the sequels had not lived up to the promise (and delivery) of the original and the re-make of 2001 left me cold. Therefore, it was with considerable doubt tempered with some hope that I went to see "Rise", and I was delighted I did so.
Although frequently referred to as a re-boot or a re-imagining of the original, I think it's more of a new start, offering as it does a valid explanation for the beginning of the saga.
"Rise" focuses on the way humans treat other species of life on our planet - with superiority, contempt and a sense of "ownership", emphasising man's arrogance and his willingness to use other species for his own ends (especially that of making money).
We follow Caesar from his birth through infancy to adulthood and independence. His advanced intelligence is due to experimentation with drugs intended to reduce the effects of Alzheimer's, and he is brought up by Will Rodman, the scientist responsible for the development of the drug.
However, because of an incident due to a combination of protectiveness, overreaction and insensitivity, Caesar is removed from Will's tender and loving care and instead encounters another callous and abusive side of human nature. He is forced to fight for privileges, his dignity and indeed his own survival and that of his fellow simian inmates in a sort of "animal sanctuary", leading to revolution and escape.
Fiercely critical of man's inhumane attitude toward animals, the film is equally critical of the reason for their mistreatment - big business and making money at the expense of others.
By extension, the film deals with the ways in which minority groups (represented by apes) can be treated by society as a whole - deprived of (equal) rights, treated as inferiors and considered as chattels to be done with as those in authority please.
While the original incorporated several themes and managed to combine serious comment with a certain lightness of touch and a fairly camp (at times) style, this film is much more focused (on a smaller number of themes) and intense as we are made to feel and share Caesar's outrage, and see and understand his reasons for rebellion.
The film clearly warns against certain human attitudes and arrogance, and implies that there may be a hefty price to pay for our "interference" in the nature of things as well as for our haughty contempt for the dignity and independence of our fellow citizens of Earth.
"Dawn" advances the storyline and looks at relationships between humans and apes (though also human with human and ape with ape), and how easily the seeds of conflict and war can be planted, with hope being offered by just one ape and one man.
We re-join Caesar and his band some eight years after their escape to the Redwoods. In the meantime, mankind has all but wiped itself out through a virus (a derivative of the original medication to combat Alzheimer's) and resultant chaos and anarchy. (This is brilliantly and succinctly covered during the film's titles, using much the same technique as was used at the end of "Rise").
We see Caesar ruling fairly but quite discreetly over his group, who appear happy enough to get by.
We (and the apes) then encounter a small group of humans (seeking a dam and the hydro-electric power it can produce in ape territory), and in this encounter an ape is shot by a panic-stricken human. This incident leads to distrust and expulsion. However, one of the humans, Malcolm, manages to regain the apes' trust and a delicate pact is made but is threatened by distrust, experience, arrogance and ambition on both sides, leading eventually to battle and war despite the best efforts by Caesar and Malcolm to find a way to co-exist in peace.
This is clearly an allegory for the ways in which nations can slide into aggression through mutual distrust, shared history and a mutual lack of understanding and willingness to share.
The film also appears to suggest that mere access to weaponry can lead to an excess of confidence, confidence and arms which may be insufficient when faced with an enemy who feels aggrieved and fights with heart and determination, feeling it has nothing to lose. This is embodied in the scene in which an ape plays up to the low expectations of the humans, only to overpower and kill them.
Each side of the conflict in "Dawn" has its peace-makers, individuals who see a way forward, a way for co-operation and harmony (while respecting one another's differences), but each side also has its warmongers who refuse to let go of the past and who only see a way forward by removing the other side, each displaying the arrogance, blind ambition and short sightedness of the other.
Caesar learns an important lesson that ambition and selfishness are not characteristics that are restricted to humans. Leaders are followed by citizens for a variety of reasons - fear, respect, and admiration - but great leaders take on the mantle of leadership in an attempt to do what is right for their people, not through selfish ambition.
Once again, this is an intense experience, focusing on the nature of relationships and the need for mutual respect, though this may be complicated by fear, history and ambition.
I thought the direction and writing in both these films were first class, maintaining pace and clarity while developing important and worthy themes which are as relevant today as they were when touched upon in the 1968 original. The acting, particularly by those playing apes, is quite stunning. I have seen Andy Serkis in other productions, but his talents really come to the fore when he is obliged to express emotion visually rather than depend on vocal communication.
Reflections on “War for the Planet of the Apes”
Directed by Matt Reeves
Written by Mark Bomback and Matt Reeves
Starring Andy Serkis and Woody Harrelson
Criticism of human character and nature is maintained and even sharpened right from the opening scenes of “War for the Planet of the Apes”. Humans initiate and escalate aggression and violence in a furtive attack on an Ape encampment, the purpose of which, it transpires, is to divert the apes’ attention while their Colonel infiltrates Caesar’s home and kills Caesar’s wife and son. This happens shortly after Caesar has released some human soldier prisoners as a gesture of good will and has offered peace on condition the apes are left in peace in the Redwoods.
The Colonel’s unprincipled act virtually amounts to treachery in the face of Caesar’s act of mercy and his reasonable stance in offering terms. This is compounded by the fact he appears to neither know nor care about who he has just murdered, but simply assumes he has killed Caesar.
On top of this, turncoat apes are used by human military forces as informers and trackers but are treated with condescension and contempt while Caesar spares the lives of captured soldiers, showing mercy and respect for life – all life.
There are few shades of grey or signs of inner conflict such as we witnessed in “Dawn”. Lines and characters are clearly drawn from the outset of the film and a final conflict seems inevitable from the beginning. The principal antagonist is not even named – he is known simply by his rank, symbolising authority, position and attitude.
Having lost his family in such an underhand and brutal attack, Caesar finds, despite his previous (but untried) insistence on forgiveness and “letting go” of the past, especially in his dealings with Koba, he cannot contain his hatred and his desire for revenge. He, accompanied by a select few supporters, sets off on a mission to seek out and destroy his enemy, the Colonel, as his fellow apes decamp and seek another home.
Along the way there are numerous references to the original Apes film (including horse rides along the coastline, crucifixion scarecrows, the gift of a human doll and the name “Nova” given to the little mute girl they pick up on their travels), as well as an explanation for the spreading mutism and simple-mindedness among humans, an element essential to the original film.
Many themes are touched upon or revisited in the course of the film, using apes to represent any race or minority group under threat from those willing to ignore or neglect others in an attempt to establish their authority and ensure their own survival. These themes include animal rights, mankind’s fundamental untrustworthiness and willingness to sacrifice others (belonging to other races, but also his own) to ensure his own survival, racism and slavery, and the need for compassion and forgiveness in the face of hatred and the desire for revenge.
However, the outstanding theme is that of anti-fascism.
The Colonel’s installation is set out rather like a Nazi concentration camp and incorporates forced labour, crowded internment facilities or cages and sustenance inhumanely withheld until completion of the task set. Columns of soldiers cry out praise for their Hitler-like leader who arrogantly presents himself for their acclaim on a balcony high above them. The Colonel is even aiming for the purification of his race by getting rid of the weak and infirm, and is willing to use other races to this end before eliminating them as well.
The message regarding dictatorship and how easily mankind turns to a leader who offers solutions in times of crisis (regarded by some as extreme), is clear.
Caesar, in contrast, acts in the best interests of all his race and is even willing to put his life on the line to defend his people and insist upon their rights to fair treatment. It should be noted his fellow apes are willing to endure harsh treatment in order to save his life. Their mutual respect and admiration is in direct contrast to the dictatorship endured by the humans.
Subtlety may have been lost, however, when Caesar refers to the Colonel’s pointless building of a “wall” (as opposed to “defences”) to protect against the influx of enemy soldiers.
Once again, there is sterling work in terms of writing, direction and performance. This is the darkest of the three films but this is perhaps inevitable and logical given the development of the overarching storyline and the increasingly pessimistic tone, though this was lightened by occasional humour, especially from the vaguely Dobby-like Bad Ape.
I have to say I was totally engaged and didn’t notice time go by, and there are few higher recommendations for a film.
This would appear to be the final volume of a trilogy, but I would suggest there is ample scope for a further trilogy. These three films have set the scene and laid the historical groundwork for a further series of adventures which would see the return, thousands of years later, of the astronauts who set off into space during “Rise”. They would return to a planet inhabited by intelligent and talking apes alongside silent and weak-minded humans.
The astronauts might eventually make their way along the coastline and encounter archaeological digs in a forbidden zone which covers the site of the Colonel’s military installation, handily buried, along with the vast majority of the nation’s fighting forces, in a deluge of snow and nature …..
They may even discover that Caesar’s exploits and principles have been enshrined in sacred scrolls handed down through the generations, scrolls which form the basis, and establish the fundamental values, of Ape culture.
I look forward to seeing such a second trilogy …..
My thanks for taking the time to read this page. I hope you found it of some value.
You may be interested in my page on the original "Planet of the Apes".
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