Monday, July 24, 2017

War For The Planet Of The Apes

War For The Planet Of The Apes has received widespread accolades, and rightly so. More importantly than the remarkable special effects, it tells a thoughtful story about war, morality, revenge, justice, goodness, and hope. And it once again features apes riding horses, which is hard to beat in terms of sheer entertainment value.

What stood out to me in this final (?) installment of the series was the remarkable biblical imagery. I said to my son after I watched it, "That was a story of Caesar, the Ape Moses, leading his people to the Promised Land." I went home and jumped online, and sure enough - that's what the director had in mind:
In Reeves’ mind, the character’s death was almost biblically preordained. “He was sort of this ape Moses, so for him not to be able to be in the Promised Land with them — I thought reaching this place could be tremendously emotional,” he said.
 Director Matt Reeves told EW:
“We watched Bridge on the River Kwai...We watched The Great Escape. We watched Biblical epics, because I really felt like this movie had to have a Biblical aspect to it. We watched Ben-Hur, The Ten Commandments. We didn’t go, like, ‘Let’s take a little bit of this, a little bit of that.’ When you surround yourself with something that feels emotionally right, there are connections that make sense to you that somebody else might not see…[the films] informed the vibe we felt about this thing.”
The parallels to the biblical epic of Moses are unmistakable.

  • Caesar thinks he is sending his people safely toward the promised land in a desert, but Pharoah's army  the paramilitary group Alpha-Omega pursues them (and captures them...slight deviation from the original story).
  • The Colonel demands the apes make bricks without straw work without food or water.
  • Caesar stops (but doesn't kill) a soldier beating a fellow ape.
  • Caesar gives his version of Moses' "Let my people go!"speech to the Colonel.
  • Caesar hangs on a cross (different story, same book. Moses is seen as a type of Christ in Christian history.
  • The Colonel is brought down by a plague.
  • As the apes leave with Alpha-Omega, the militants begin to slaughter them until a nearly miraculous series of events leads to their destruction 
  • An invading group that also wanted to kill the apes is wiped out by a flood an avalanche that looks a lot like a flood.
  • Caesar and Aaron Maurice lead the surviving apes to the land of promise - but Caesar does not enter the land to which he led his people.

It's not as if the biblical imagery makes War preachy or overtly biblical. The director is pulling from the emotional power the story, not the religious implications. Still, according to Vox, it's a better biblical epic than most recent biblical epics. They might be right, if only because the distance of the story (#apes) makes it easier to see it as an analogy and not an attempt at retelling.

* * * * *

I left the theater pondering why it is that we can tell such epic stories of good and evil with apes in ways we usually don't with people. We tend to increasingly like our human heroes to be as flawed as we are, yet in the ape world  their moral clarity builds as their humanity grows. Kobe went from an amoral animal to a moral monster; Caesar's journey in War involves overcoming the hatred and desire for revenge that simmer in his heart. They raise the moral bar for us, not adjust it comfortably to where we are.

The Colonel was in some ways an expose of the modern anti-hero, I think. If the story were told from his point of view, we might be convinced he's the hero. He is doing what it takes to save humanity. He's not emotionally invested - it's nothing personal - it's just survival of the fittest now. How easy it is for a smooth-tongued psychopath to convince himself and other that he is rationally the good guy. It all adds up nicely on coldly utilitarian terms. He tells Caesar, "No matter what you say, eventually you'd replace us. That's the law of nature. So what would you have done?" That's a twisted Kantian argument, but the Colonel has no problem with a categorically imperative law that allows him to do unto others what he would have them do unto him. He assumes Caesar would see the sense. "There are times when it is necessary to abandon our humanity to save humanity," he says. Or to abandon...apeness... to save the apes.

But that's what the apes won't do. Earlier in the movie, Caesar applies cold utility to justify leaving a young girl to die, Maurice says, "I understand. I cannot leave her." He gets the logic; he refuses to accept that rational equals moral. Maurice is right; Caesar is wrong, and the movie shows this to be true.

This series has shown us the moral and physical devolution of humanity and evolution of the apes. One is turning into animals, devoid of notions of right and wrong, committed only to the base animal instinct of survival at all cost. The other is turning into what humanity should be: noble, good, committed to justice and mercy, aware that the moral enterprise requires more than a will to power or a law that is red in tooth and claw.

* * * * *

What does it say about the times in which we live that one of our most popular current stories claims that the best solution for the dark hearts of humanity is to delete us and start over? And what does does it say about the nature of our world that, if we see these movies as prequels to the original series, the apes will lose their way just as we have? Their promised land is Eden; they are starting the world again, and they are going to break it just as badly as we have. Apes, meet transworld depravity.

But that's clearly reading more into the movies than the director intended. Reeves offers a story that reminds us of the importance of justice and mercy, as well as the hope that comes with freedom.  Or, as Caesar so eloquently puts it:
"It is my hope that out of this solemn occasion a better world will emerge, out of the blood carnage of the past a world founded upon faith and understanding, a world dedicated to the wish for freedom, tolerance and justice.

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