Apes Unlimited

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In 1968, at the height of the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement, a film emerged reflecting on the necessity for both. Although it was nominated for two Academy Awards (and won an honorary Oscar for Special Achievement in Makeup Design, which did not become an official category until 1981), the original Planet of the Apes is often dismissed as a campy sci-fi costume flick. Yet it addressed important issues about war, technology, and what it means to be human.

Most people know the plot: after being cryogenically frozen and suspended for centuries, three astronauts crashland on a planet that is remarkably compatible with human life; it has the right atmosphere, temperature, water, and food. The big difference is that on this planet the apes are civilized scientists while the humans are, like Jonathan Swift’s “yahoos” in the fourth part of Gulliver’s Travels, uncivilized brutes. No one who has seen the film can forget the shocking sight of the torch of liberty projecting from the sand in the final scene. The message was clear: this will be our future if we do not change our course.

POTA was followed by four sequels in rapid succession (1970, ’71, ’72, ’73, and a TV series in 1974). Now, nearly 50 years later, the message is just as timely: wars erupt as cultures clash around the globe. An African-American is in the White House, but government-promoted racism continues to flourish. Laboratory experiments change our food into something not-quite-natural, while genetically changed strains of viruses and biowarfare threaten our DNA. It’s not surprising that a new set of cautionary prequels should emerge that imagine a prelude to the 1968 POTA and offer a similarlycautionary message about war and civil rights. The newest film is not only just as timely, but even more sinister.

No one who has seen the original Planet of the Apes can forget the shocking sight of the torch of liberty projecting from the sand in the final scene.

As Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) ends, an experimental cure for Alzheimer’s disease has mutated into a deadly virus that has led to the near demise of the human race while causing the apes (on whom the drugs were experimented) to develop language and technological skills. (See my review in Liberty.) Now we have Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and it is a surprisingly satisfying addition to the franchise, despite being a bit slow in the first half.

As Dawn opens, apes now populate the woodland north of San Francisco, and they use weapons, ride horses, and plan strategies as they hunt deer (yes, these apes apparently have become carnivorous). The opening shot, looking up from the floor of the forest at dozens of apes swinging from treetop to treetop, is both eerie and beautiful. But the humans have not become extinct. A few were able to survive the “simian flu” and are now living in isolated camps in San Francisco (and possibly in other pockets around the world). Inevitably, the world of the apes and the world of the humans collide when the humans enter the forest to look for a way to repair a dam that could provide hydroelectric power to the city.

The film makes a strong case for the idea that reactions to actions, not the actions themselves, lead to war, and that appropriate reactions can avert it. Refreshingly, the film does not imply, as one might expect, that humans (especially white humans) are always bad, and animals (especially black animals) are always good. Instead, there are good and bad characters in both groups. Carver (Kirk Acevedo) is a trigger-happy human who shoots when scared. His foolish action could lead to either retaliation (war) or conciliation (patrolled borders) from the apes. Koba (Toby Kebbell) is a bitter ape who fears humans and wants war. He seems to have read Saul Alinsky’s playbook about how to use deception to influence public opinion. Under Koba’s leadership, the apes lock up the humans and their own peaceful dissenters, and steal weapons from the human arsenal. In a subtle nod to George Orwell’s Animal Farm, apes can be seen in the background painting a list of rules on the wall of their dwelling, a list that begins with “Apes do not kill apes” — after Koba usurps Caesar’s role as leader.

On the other hand, Caesar (Andy Serkis) and Malcolm (Jason Clarke) try to lead the apes and humans, respectively, toward a negotiated peace. Caesar calms his followers by reminding them, “If we go to war, we could lose all we’ve built — Home. Family. Future.” He then turns to a solution reminiscent of Robert Frost’s response to the Cold War (“good fences make good neighbors”) by delineating boundaries between the two groups. Cross this line, and we fight. Malcolm recommends similar restraint with the humans. I like this suggestion that we judge others by their actions, not by their pedigree. Of course, Koba prevails, and the second half of the film is a tense, action-packed battle between humans and apes as Caesar and Malcolm try to restore d├ętente.

The original POTA introduced a then-groundbreaking prosthetic technique that allowed actors playing apes to move their cheeks and lips and show emotion on their faces. It was so innovative that designer John Chambers won the Oscar for his achievement. Now the apes are made to move and talk in a completely different way. That’s Andy Serkis, king of the motion-capture creatures (Smeagol-Gollum, King Kong, the previous Caesar) playing Caesar the Ape, but he isn’t wearing a hairy body suit or a prosthetic mask; he’s wearing a tight-fitting body suit with computerized balls attached to record his movements. Those are his expressive eyes we see on the screen, but his ape’s body is drawn through computer-generated “motion capture” techniques using the patterns created by the electrodes attached to his body. The ape is then drawn over the movements, complete with fur, scars, and expressions.

Man fades into the shadows while apes run toward the sunlight, signaling the rise of the apes and the end of humankind’s reign on the earth.

Consider that there might be dozens of apes or other CG animals in each scene, that each ape has to be drawn individually on each frame, that there are 24 frames per second in this 130-minute film, that for much of the film the apes are communicating in an intricate form of sign language, and that it all looks so real that you forget it’s animation, and you begin to appreciate what a work of art this film is.

Film uses a language of its own to create metaphors. In this one, a fiery backdrop during a battle scene reminds us visually that “war is hell.” Similarly, as the film ends a man fades into the shadows while apes run toward the sunlight, signaling the rise of the apes and the end of humankind’s reign on the earth. In this version, the apes use sign language when communicating with one another; I expect that in the next, the humans will have devolved to the yahoos that Taylor (Charlton Heston) found when he “crashlanded to earth” nearly 50 years ago. If that film is anything like this one, it will be well worth watching.


Editor's Note: Review of "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes," directed by Matt Reeves. 20th Century Fox, 2014, 130 minutes.



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