Jan 7, 2017

The Fortunate Accident of the most recent Planet of the Apes Reboot

In the last few year's I've had a hard time becoming excited about upcoming sf movies (most recently looking at you, Alien: Covenant). I've even found myself cynical about Interstellar (mainly because of my strong dislike of Nolan's Batman movies) and Arrival (because hell, how could that movie be remotely as good as the short story "Story of Your Life" by Ted Chiang it is based upon), and I missed out on both of them in the cinema.
However, the new Planet of the Apes series that began in 2011 with Rise of the Planet of the Apes (RotPotA for short) is the one movie series that really keeps me engaged and looking forward to the next installment; the third movie, War for the Planet of the Apes, will be out in August 2017.

Not that the first two movies have been that good. There‘s certainly other science fiction out there that is artistically and thematically at least as exciting (like Spike Jonze‘s her or Alex Garland‘s Ex Machina). These new Apes movies feel less like the succesful execution of some great vision, but rather like a concurrence of extremely lucky circumstances that led to the production of movies that actually reflect in interesting ways on the original movie series they‘ve been spun off.
I don‘t think that I have to go into detail on the original Planet of the Apes movie (based upon, but quite different from, Pierre Boulle‘s novel La Planète de Singe) from 1968. The main thrust of that movie was satirical: The rulership of the apes, for the most part, serves to hold up a mirror to humanities gullibility and savagery, with the punch-line being that humans are actually even more savage than the mostly superstitious and brutal apes – at least, „ape does not kill ape“, while humans have nearly erased their own kind. While men and apes both play ambivalent roles in the original movie, it seems clear to me that the apes certainly do not represent a „state of grace“ lost by humankind.
Actually, the motive of life in harmony with nature is more tied to the primitive humans of the movie, who have lost the ability to speak and live in an edenic surrounding, while the city of the apes, strangely enough, seems to be situated in a dusty wasteland. If there‘s a hint of a positive message to this grim movie, it is to be found in Charlton Heston‘s character (can anybody ever remember his name?) riding off with the primitive woman Nova, turning his back on both human and ape civilisation. In any case, there‘s preciously little hope in the idea of apes inheriting the earth from us in the original PotA movie.
The new PotA series, that for now consists of two movies with a third forthcoming, puts forward a different perspective, making us actually root for the apes (at least some of them) as inheritors of human civilisation; and I would argue that they are actually engaged with the topic of posthumanism, while the downfall of human civilisation seems to be more of a footnote to them. While the original PotA movie, like the novel, took up the notion of history repeating as farce (the apes picking up all kinds of stupid behaviour from the humans), the new ones feature the idea that the apes might actually build a different kind of civilisation that is informed by what came before. While the original PotA and its sequels dramtized the end of history as a time-loop of violence and opression, this new series at least hints of the possibility of history as something open-ended.

But let‘s go into some details:
Rise of the Planet of the Apes (RotPotA, 2011) basically re-treated the age-old story of humankind tinkering with nature a little too much and getting the bill, combined with the Frankenstein motive of responsibility for the life we create. Thematically, we already see a big departure from the original PotA. There, it is irrationalism and savagery that put an end to human civilisation, but in this new movie, it is scientific experimenting and even the will to heal: The drug that turns apes intelligent in this movie was originally intended to help alzheimer patients, and the deadly virus that nearly wipes out humanity (something that is only hinted at at the end of that first movie) comes from the same lab. What could be seen as an even more scathing condemnation of human civilisation, however, feels more like an accident that was bound to happen. Yes, it is an outcome of human hubris – but more than that, it is simply a reminder that nature is never quite under control, however much it may seem so. Its more statement than verdict, and therefore so much more interesting and less annoying. Here, we have one of this lucky coincidences I‘ve talked about earlier, because the sobriety with which the „simian flu“ wiping out humankind is presented suggests that it has been added only as an afterthought to turn RotPotA into a proper PotA movie – which, in the beginning, (as David Hughes points out in his book Tales from Development Hell), it actually wasn‘t. So maybe the first thing that makes this a great PotA movie is the fact that it was never intended to be a PotA movie in the first place, but a new spin on the old Frankenstein motive. The result is that similar themes are approached from a totally different angle and with a totally different aesthetics. The heart of the movie is obviously the relationship of the medical scientist Will Rodman to Caesar, the first intelligent chimpanzee, who has been created by him and ends up being a kind of surrogate son for him and his wife. At heart, the movie is a family drama, and its connection to the PotA mythology is incidental.
Lets talk about the different aesthetics some more – the genre of family drama, of course, demands an aesthetics that is much less over-the-top than the typical scifi-blockbuster. Still, the movie was advertised from the beginning also as a special-effects-spectacle; this was not so long after Andy Serkis had wowed everyone with his motion capture performance as Gollum in Lord of the Rings, and RotPotA promised Serkis in another motion capture role, as chimpanzee Caesar, with the promise being that it would be an absolutely naturalistic performance. By and large, they kept this promise, and key to that was to stick to a naturalist aesthetic not only with regards to Caesar, but to every element of the movie.
But the casting of Serkis and the promise of a life-like performance has an even more important aspect: It was clear that the defining characteristic of Caear the Chimpanzee had to be his relatability. That was what had impressed people most about Gollum, so something similar had to be promised for Serkis' new role.
So what do we get? A Frankenstein-inspired family drama, that, probably as an afterthought, adds the notion that the creature created by man will be the first of a new kind that will replace humanity as rulers of the planet. However, these creatures are not machines, as in Terminator, but apes, our close biological kin, making them much more relatable from the get-go; also, making these creatures relatable and „real“ was the strongly marketed mission statement of the movie. We don't get cold, inhuman machines who want to wipe humanity off the face of the earth; neither do we get child-like Pinocchios like Schwarzenegger's Terminator from T2 who, endearingly, have to learn to be human. No, we get creatures who are already very much part of the world that they are going to inherit, and who, at the same time, have a father-son relationship with one of the human main characters that doesn't feel misguided or perverse at all, but quite natural. All of this contributes to the notion that the apes might actually be a valid and legitimate continuation of intelligent life on earth, in which humanity is „aufgehoben“ (superseded, upliftet, at the same time) in a Hegelian sense.

The sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (DotPotA, 2014), more or less stuck to the keyed-down aesthetic of RotPotA. However, there‘s also a number of departures from the first installment: mostly new actors (at least on the human side), a new environment (the woods instead of the city), a new genre (dystopian war movie instead of family drama). Changing tone so drastically is something that the original PotA series also dared, and it is something seldom seen in todays world of sequels that aim to do the same thing bigger. That alone won me over – but there was more, enough the get over some wooden acting and quite unmemorable human protagonists. The most interesting aspect was certainly the depiction of that pesky nature vs. civilization thing: While there's a strong feeling that the apes are more in tune with nature and live in a kind of pastoral utopia, I never got the impression that the movie implies that this would make them morally superior to humankind – and, more importantly, the need of the humans for electricity, one of the driving elements of the plot, is presented as quite legitimate. The whole tone of the film is that both groups may have a different lifestyle, but can definitely help each other to get what they need. I'm not quite sure if this is maybe nothing more but a muddled feel-good message in a quite dark and hopeless movie, and I'm just a big cry-baby for letting this get to me, but still, I really liked it. The movie doesn't fall into the civilisation-is-evil trap, and it also didn't feel like the secretly sadistic type of disaster movie in which ninety-nine percent of humanity are done away with to make room for the lucky one or two nuclear families who survive (a process that usually involves the man of the family coming into his own as protector, yawn). There's none of this in DotPotA. The movie seems to put forward a genuine interest in the collective survival of humanity and their civilizsation and of the apes. It's not about resetting the clocks, and it's not – not yet, anyway – about an endless cycle of violence and opression.
Okay, I have to admit that that last part of this article is actually just a lot of „I feel that this movie is about ...“, without any proper substantiation, so if you think that I'm wrong, just tell me in the comments – I've watchet DotPotA just once, so there's probably a lot of important stuff I have missed. I'll definitely rewatch it in time before the next sequel, War for the Planets of the Apes, comes out this year. Which brings me back to being excited about the trailer. I'm actually rooting for this series not to tie in neatly with the original PotA movies – I think it should stand on its own, as a thematically quite different take on the same motives.


  1. Jakob thank you, I really enjoyed this article.
    I generally don't like remakes but the new PotA's are really good. Plus I always thought that apes replacing humans as opposed to AI's is a nice twist from an evolutionary point of view, so it was fun to see you went into that subject ;)
    Can't wait to see this - Woody Harrelson will rock this movie!

  2. I think what makes them good is that they are actually only in the broadest sense remakes or reboots ... they just don't try to do the same thing in bigger and more awesome - instead, they set out to do something different with the same basic idea (intelligent apes replacing humans).
    That actually seems to be a hallmark of most PotA movies. After all, the original entries are also wildly different from each other; for example, in criticism, the racism metaphor in the PotA series is often stressed, but I actually believe that it doesn't really come into play before the third or fourth movie (however, in the latter one, it's really on the nose). In the first two movies, it's mainly about the apes as satirical mirror images of humankind. These movies all do something different with the same basic idea. The one inglorious exception is Tim Burton's 2001 remake, which doesn't really do anything at all besides being boring as hell ...