Its latest installment only adds to the argument that the series is one of cinema’s most educational.
As a dystopian franchise, the Planet of the Apes movies are as fundamentally concerned with our real-life self-sabotaging tendencies as they are with their own fantastical plot specificities. The best of the series, the 1968 original and the prequels released in 2011, 2014 and 2017 are all consumed with grand questions that implicate (and indict) humanity, with their eloquence in exploring their various themes being borne out in their dizzying box office and critical success. (Although the final numbers for this year’s installment, War for the Planet of the Apes, are still pending, it is already being crowned the best of the series in critics’ columns.)
Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff puts the franchise’s appeal down to the perception of its filmmakers, who grasp that “each chapter of the saga must stand on its own, teasing only the briefest of glimpses at future films”. The result of their canny understanding? We get movies set somewhere between 2 and 10 years apart; just enough time to allow the films to mature their own thematic centers and stand apart from their cinematic siblings. From the relationship between church and state and animal rights to prejudice and the dark side of the mind, the Planet of the Apes movies of 1968, 2011, 2014 and 2017 each spotlight a complex issue of their day, illuminating it for the benefit of humanity as only sci-fi can.
Warning: Spoilers for All Planet of the Apes movies below.
Confusing Scripture for statute
As author Eric Greene has noted, the enduring success of the Planet of the Apes franchise lies in its practice of adopting “the conflicts of the time, [intensifying] and [escalating] them, and [refusing] to imagine their successful resolution”. With respect to the 1968 original, scholar Amy C. Chambers concurs, locating it within a broader lineage of ‘60s counterculture movies like The Graduate, Easy Rider and Bonnie and Clyde, arguing that all are “structured around a complicated anti-hero, corrupt institutions, and a pervading hopelessness expressed through a disquieting, desolate conclusion”.
With its scripture-hugging judicial officials and a tribunal scene with obvious overtones to both McCarthyist paranoia and the religious delusions encapsulated in the (providentially named) Scopes Monkey Trial, The Planet of the Apes established the series as a counterculture looking glass: politically engaged and allegorically heavy.
A lone healthy human on a planet of apes, George Taylor (Charlton Heston) has been captured and is now the subject of a formal inquest. Taylor’s future is in the hands of three orang-utan judicial officials – including Doctor Zaius (Maurice Evans), the supposed Minister of Science – but it becomes plain to see that the tribunal’s outcome is pre-determined when the judges deny Taylor’s existence as evidence of ape-to-human evolution (they believe in the inverse) and invoke the Sacred Scrolls as the grist of their argument. That “scientific heresy” is a criminal charge in this world harks back to 1925 Tennessee, the scene of a real-life legal case against the teaching of evolution in schools.
The orang-utan officials ape the dogmatic denial of the Scopes Trial’s prosecution and are sent up in a wry optical joke: in one frame, each is seen to cover their eyes, mouth or ears in a visual rendering of the three wise monkeys maxim.
The allegory here is, essentially, a simple subversion of the Scopes Trial (albeit with much higher stakes: Taylor is threatened with castration and life as a scientific guinea pig before his eventual death in the apes’ laboratory). Laws similar to the one used to prosecute in the Scopes’ Trial weren’t overturned until 9 months after the film was released, signaling the relevance of this scene in the rejection-of-the-orthodox era that was the ‘60s.
Just say “No!” to animal abuse
While Charlton Heston’s Taylor was the obvious protagonist in the original, the humans are dispensable in the prequels’ cinematic universe. Rise of the Planet of the Apes introduces us to the star of the rest of the franchise: an authoritative mo-cap monkey named Caesar (Andy Serkis), in whom the franchise finds its focal point and emotional heart. Rupert Wyatt’s film functions as an origin story for Caesar, taking us into the dark beginnings that made a man out of the monkey by charting his growth from mewling orphan chimp to the leader of the animal liberation front.
We first meet Caesar when sympathetic scientist Will Rodman (James Franco) rescues him from a mass “termination” drive at the animal testing facility where he is born. We’ve just witnessed his mother, a chimpanzee named Bright Eyes (Terry Notary), be unceremoniously put down after an aggressive outburst. It’s not her fault, though: she’s been subjected to Will’s new anti-Alzheimer’s drug, the side effects of which have boosted her mental and emotional cognition, intensifying the pain of physical separation from her new-born baby.
In a stroke of divine brilliance (or strategic foresight), Project Nim – James Marsh’s documentary about an ‘70s experiment to raise a baby chimp in a human family gone awry – was released in the same week as Rise. Caesar’s life trajectory mirrors that of Nim’s: to his delight, Will discovers that Caesar has fetally inherited the super-intelligence from his mother, and so the baby chimp gets to ride home with him and play happy families, against the express orders of Will’s amoral boss Steven Jacobs (David Oyelowo), who has cruelly condemned the rest of the lab’s simian subjects to “termination” after the incident with Bright Eyes.
But despite coming to Caesar’s aid, Will, the most sympathetic human character of the film, is still flawed in the movie’s eyes: while he rescues Caesar and raises him somewhere between a son and a pet, Will doesn’t display remorse at his involvement in animal testing. Caesar is special to Will because Caesar is smart, but the lab’s other apes, unexposed to the drug’s mutating effects, don’t earn a second thought. By the time you get to the mid-credits scene, you realize Rise isn’t out to assuage human guilt through Will.
The rest of the film’s human cast do little to salvage our species, either. Brian Cox and Tom Felton are the father-son duo behind a primate prison (officially a “shelter”) that Caesar is later moved to, where he is mercilessly taunted and prodded by Felton’s brutish Dodge Landon, while Cox’s character seems (impossibly) none-the-wiser. As in any good prison story, the confines of Caesar’s cage give him a new perspective, and as his sentience burgeons to near-human levels, he settles on a plan of action: liberation.
It is no coincidence that Caesar’s first word is a roared “No!”; the gross abuse of his species by so many (in)humans in the name of medical research weighs so heavily on the young chimp that he breaks the cardinal rule of simian science: apes don’t speak. Caesar’s wokeness morphs into altruism when he rejects the chance to return home to a life of domestic safety with Will, choosing instead to deliver “red pills” to the rest of his simian peers by exposing them to the scientist’s sentience-inducing drug. The rebellion that follows is a righteous one; oppressed apes rise up to overcome their shackles, seeking freedom rather than revenge.
The film’s subtext is crystal clear: humans must change their ways, or face a day of reckoning for their centuries-long mistreatment of animals. It’s a message that goes hand-in-hand with the filmmakers’ commitment to not using real monkeys in the film, a decision that has since been honored by PETA and the Humane Society of the United States.
Hearts of Darkness
The second instalment in the prequel series is Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, a “grand drama of civilization” that pits Caesar’s new world order against San Francisco’s last few survivors of the Simian Flu (as it turns out, the very same virus that gives apes super-simian abilities is fatal to humans). But the battles that ensue don’t happen at Caesar’s command; instead, Dawn is much more interested in the fragility of peace and the ultimate inevitability of war when both parties harbor agitators consumed by blind distrust and an insatiable desire for vengeance.
Two new antagonists pose an insidious threat to the tentative peace between monkey and man: Koba (Toby Kebbell), a bonobo scarred and blinded by medical research, and Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), the clan leader of the area’s surviving humans. Unlike their counterparts – Caesar and a friendly human named Malcolm (Jason Clarke) – these two are hell-bent on exacting revenge on the other. But not just for the fun of it. Both have lost a great deal: Koba’s health and happiness were snatched away by Steven Jacobs in Rise, while the chip on Dreyfus’ shoulder is laid bare when he weeps into a family portrait of his wife and sons, killed by Simian Flu.
Dawn documents the best efforts of mediators like Caesar and Malcolm, who are equipped with the foresight to understand that war will decimate both populations and ravage the homes they’ve made. While Malcolm is a crucial dove amongst the human hawks, Dawn sees Caesar as hope’s real champion: like his name, the alpha ape commands authority from the outset; he’s a leader of Roman epic proportions with the strength and wisdom to make decisions of grave civilisational consequence.
Despite the rigid hierarchy of the monkeys, Dawn isn’t a story about alphas and betas scrapping for power. It’s an allegorical tale about the toxic effects of prejudice and inter- and intra-species mistrust. Koba isn’t motivated by a lust for power; instead, vengeance governs his heart, leading to his interpretation of Caesar’s tolerance of the humans as making him a traitor to his own species (“Caesar…love humans…more than apes”).
Although Caesar’s sway amongst simian society is enormous and apparent, not even this giant of ape politics can stop the rumbling engines of war. Tensions gradually build until they boil over and trigger the conflict foreshadowed at the outset; a few Franz Ferdinand-esque shots and a lighter are all it takes to bring down the delicate peace brokered between the two sides. Koba and Dreyfus’ inter-species prejudice prevails over Malcolm and Caesar’s responsible approach to mutual tolerance, painting a dark picture that does more than hint at which impulses ultimately rule us.
A Scroogian shot at redemption
Despite its (many) allusions to nationalist politics, War for the Planet of the Apes’ obvious political analogies aren’t the allegorical crux of Matt Reeves’ movie. The single-minded Colonel (Woody Harrelson), his band of skinhead soldiers, and the “Wall” they’re out to build certainly bear a blatant resemblance to current political characters, but the parallels are just one layer in a bumper pack of themes. Journeying deeper into the heart of the movie reveals an elegiac core of metaphor that casts its net wider than domestic politics, proving itself to be eternally and universally pertinent.
War reiterates the canon set down in Dawn, which asserts that apes are about as angelic as humans: that is, not very. The idea that primates can have the same flaws as humans (see: Koba) is crucial to their construction as complex moral characters. If they were entirely without sin, the Apes franchise would be a boring one; a predictable tale of the triumph of animal good over human evil.
The muddying of monkey morality adds a frisson of danger to the series, but its prime function comes to the fore in War, when Caesar suffers a devastating loss at the hands of the opposable thumb-havers and is faced with a philosophical fork in the road.
Although not entirely apparent at the outset, the humans of War have descended into the kind of deviating factionalism on display in Apocalypse Now (a film War heavily references) and the questionable wartime morality seen in epics like The Bridge on the River Kwai (another of director Reeves’ influences). A twist late on reveals that the cause of our species’ moral deterioration (and accompanying dwindling numbers) is infighting – rather than the human-ape conflict we saw begin at the end of Dawn – between Woody Harrelson’s Kurtz-esque rogue Colonel and a more scrupulous human army, who disprove of his eugenic methods (he favours executing apes as well as the humans blighted by the Flu pandemic, which has mutated further to induce muteness).
Like a visit from one of Scrooge’s supernatural friends, the apes (and human audiences) are shown a warning message via the film’s warring homo sapiens; a kind of cautionary peek at what might happen to the simians if they don’t learn to control their darker drives. The Ghost of Earth Yet To Come reveals to the bereaved Caesar and his long-suffering clan of refugees what the humans have done with their lot – the very same lot the apes have been dealt. Unable to quell the murderous leanings of Dawn’s Dreyfus, humanity has landed itself with the genocidal Colonel, a beast much harder to tame. Now bitterly split along factional lines, their chances of survival are plummeting, and fast. For our own part, we know how this ends: 1968’s original showed us a planet that seemed like a stranger until we saw the Statue of Liberty sticking out of a beach like an Easter Island relic. So it’s not simply plotted machinations that keep us on the edge of our seat in War; instead, we’re so invested because we want to know how Caesar navigates his emotions (by now, chiefly vengeance) and steers his species off the apocalyptic path.
While you could ruminate on the all too obvious parallels between the Colonel and his seedy real-world counterparts, War ties up the politically minded franchise with a last chance at deeper introspection. Caesar must learn to overcome his bloodlust for the greater good, lest human-ape relations devolve into a vicious eye-for-an-eye-style settling of scores. Choosing between the catharsis of personal vengeance or the long-game of self-restraint is a difficult battle for the soul to wage, but, as War nudges us towards the hazy memory of a planet full of apes, we learn that it can be the difference between life and death for us – and for the rest of our planet-mates.