Science fiction has always served as an ideal vehicle for social commentary, and its favorite villains have often been none other than us. As a genre interested in fantastical parables that reflect and critique current realities, sci-fi has frequently posited mankind as a despotic, intolerant, and malicious race, especially when faced with threats from “others," usually in the form of aliens, whom they don’t understand, and thus instinctively fear and hate. It’s an angle found in everything from The Day the Earth Stood Still and E.T. to District 9, and it again rears its head in the recently rebooted Planet of the Apes franchise, whose first two installments, 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and this weekend’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, follow in their predecessors’ footsteps by casting a critical eye toward man’s reckless greed and oppressive cruelty.
In general premise if not specific execution, Rise and Dawn mirror the original series’ fourth and fifth entries, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes and Battle for the Planet of the Apes. Yet these contemporary works distinguish themselves, not only from their Apes ancestors but also from most other like-minded science fiction tales, via their gleeful, subtext-free depiction of humanity’s obliteration. To be sure, both new films take great pains to show that humans both good and evil: Rise offsets David Oyelowo’s treachery, which gives birth to the lethal virus that decimates the population, with James Franco, Freida Pinto, and John Lithgow’s decency; Dawn, meanwhile, counterbalances Gary Oldman’s kill-‘em-all militarism with Jason Clarke’s kindness. Not to mention, Dawn also shows that apes are likewise split between leader Caesar’s tolerance and rival Koba’s hatred.
Those efforts toward even-handedness, however, are merely window-dressing for a series whose fundamental appeal is rooted in the sight of man acting wretchedly and/or stupidly enough to bring about his own demise.
Thus, Rise is a long, slow build-up to a wannabe-thrilling centerpiece featuring the apes triumphing in battle against their faceless human enemies on the Golden Gate Bridge. Moreover, the film reserves its genuine empathy for Caesar and the rest of his ape brethren, culminating with a moment during the Bridge battle where Caesar lovingly cradles a wounded compatriot. The same holds true in Dawn, which despite its wishy-washy have-it-both-ways plotting, saves most of its compassion for its simian characters, who, unlike the cardboard cut-out humans, are presented as complex, three-dimensional figures. And it too crescendos with a series of skirmishes in which the film asks us to actively cheer on the apes’ victory, since despite power-mad Koba’s wickedness, the apes are still portrayed as more evolved, more human, than the planet’s people.
No question, the original Planet of the Apes series operated similarly. However, they were bolstered by a not-so-subtle subtext; namely, the apes were akin to African-Americans, which transformed them into piercing civil rights allegories. Those ‘60s and ‘70s films were fantasies about African-Americans turning the tables on their racist “masters.” They didn’t just ask us to happily enjoy mankind’s wholesale extermination; rather, they were interested in providing rousing and pertinent visions of revolutionary social justice. That, in turn, puts them much more in line with most science-fiction movies about man’s evil, which use outlandish stories to shine a cautionary light on humanity’s failings, but don’t go so far as to posit man as such a lost cause that audiences should actively hope for their complete and utter downfall.
By refusing to imagine its apes as more than abused pets, and by eschewing substantive racial/class warfare suggestions in favor of safer, simplistic messages about animal experimentation and abuse, the new Apes winds up being only shallow, escapist entertainment aimed at eliciting thrills via the CG-enhanced spectacle of man’s eradication. Reducing its simian protagonists to generic subjugated-minority proxies, these films primarily employ their extinction narratives for fleeting special effects-saturated kicks. While actor Andy Serkis brings Caesar to full-bodied life via a sterling motion-capture performance, Dawn is simply the next phase of a misguided reboot that’s almost exclusively concerned with reveling in man’s ruin.
In a certain sense, that makes Rise and Dawn as anti-human as any mainstream films in recent memory. And yet crucially, their censure of mankind also comes equipped with a familiar strain of disingenuousness born from the fact that, even though humans are the franchise’s nominal bad guys, they remain the driving force behind their own annihilation. By positing scientific research (specifically, genetic testing) as the cause of both the apes’ enhanced intelligence and the incurable virus that killed the majority of the world’s population, Rise and Dawn make sure that humans retain their central agency in their own fate.
In the end, they’re the ones responsible for setting everything in motion. Consequently, even as they’re oh-so-severely vilified and then gleefully wiped off the face of the Earth (and the screen), humans continue to be these films’ true protagonists, the only ones with actual power to shape the future’s course. Even if it is, ultimately, a course for destruction.
Nick Schager is a film critic who's contributed to The Dissolve, Esquire, and The Atlantic, among numerous other publications. He tweets here.
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