Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Humans Sink Lower Still

"Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” directed by Matt Reeves, 2014

Lenin pointed out that ‘of all the arts, for us, the cinema is the most important.’  He probably didn’t have this kind of animal parable in mind however, but he might have.    The recent ‘Apes’ series – as opposed to the older series – focuses on  ‘animal rights,’ in which viewers sympathize with the orange orangutans, mountain gorillas, black chimpanzees, bonobos and baboons.  Like the monstrous aliens of “District 9” living in apartheid-like townships, or even Frankenstein, when so-called scary animals or monsters become more sympathetic than humans, you know something is up.  The first film, ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes,’ featured the breakout of the apes from a vicious medical testing facility and a zoo in San Francisco, and their escape across the Golden Gate bridge into Muir Woods.  They are led by an intelligent chimpanzee named “Caesar,’ (Andy Serkis) advised by an intelligent zoo orangutan, Maurice, while the fighters are led by an abused bonobo called “Koba.”  Koba was, of course, the underground name for Stalin.

Jail films resonate with audiences because we’ve all been in a jail – either a job, a bad marriage, an intolerable straight-jacket of a situation or a real jail.  The ape revolution seems to be the answer to the incarceration plague, especially in the U.S.  This is not incidental imagery.

This film takes place 10 years later, in a dystopia after the almost complete collapse of human civilization due to the ‘simian’ flu.  This is something like the avian, swine, Ebola or AIDs virus – and it has wiped out most of the human population.  The freed apes are living on Mt. Tamalpais outside of San Francisco, and haven’t seen a living human in several years.  They have prospered – they hunt, live in a large log village on the mountain and have multiplied their families.  Of course, these are not only innocent and abused animals, or intelligent animals, but perhaps stand-ins for primitive peoples still living in the Amazon or on Pacific islands.  Or any hunted tribe of rebels or slaves – even Iraqis who resent someone seizing their power source - oil. Or something like Orwell’s Animal Farm.  All these resonances show up in the course of the films.

Unfortunately, the humans do show up in this Edenic world.  One particularly stupid one immediately shoots a young chimpanzee in his excessive fright. Evidently some immune humans still remain in the wreck of San Francisco.  They need to turn on the power from the dam near Mt. Tamalpais, as their diesel fuel is running out.  This involves the humans going into ape territory.  The apes don’t need electricity – they have fire. Will the two groups be able to ‘co-exist?’  Caesar decides that letting them turn on the dam is preferable to a war where many apes will die.  Caesar is no push-over, but he knows that fighting could destroy the ape society, so it is a parable of intelligent pacifism.  On the human side, Dreyfus is the commander of the San Francisco colony, a former cop, and a guy who looks like Eric Clapton.  He is preparing to kill all the apes to get access to the dam.  A scientific ‘hippie’ family convinces Dreyfus that they can turn on the dam without killing the apes, as they understand these apes are not ‘merely animals.’  (And if they were ’merely’ animals?)  Dreyfus gives them 3 days... or its war.

At any rate, while the dam does start working again, the overall attempt fails.  The screenwriters have chosen to put most of the failure on the ape Koba, not the humans.  Koba sneaks into San Francisco and finds the human's armoury of weapons and their preparations for war. Instead of telling Caesar, he keeps this knowledge a secret.  Koba and Caesar have been butting heads, but now Koba, in his rage at the humans, sets fire to the ape log village and shoots Caesar with a purloined weapon, and claims the humans did it.  This is all done right in front of a crowd of apes, so the scene is not credible. 

The war starts.  Bloody fighting around various San Francisco landmarks.  Machine guns, tanks, fire.  The armed apes defeat the humans after the heroic efforts of Koba on horseback.  After the victory, Koba kills an ape ally of Caesar’s by throwing him off a balcony, and jails the rest of Caesar's sympathizers like Maurice in a barred bus.  At this, Caesar’s son finally sees that his father is right about Koba (Stalin). Caesar is discovered badly wounded at the bottom of a cliff by the scientific family.  The woman doctor nurses him back to health in the house he lived in as a young ape in San Francisco in the prior film. The ‘good’ human father meanwhile attempts to stop Dreyfus from blowing up the tower the apes are in by pointing an automatic weapon at him. Then Caesar and Koba have their final showdown – and – contrary to ape law – (‘ape shall not kill ape’) Caesar drops Koba off a tower because Koba ‘is not an ape.’  At the end, we know the ‘war’ will continue – sequel #9, #9, #9?

Clearly this is a money-making machine first of all, like most film series or childish comic casualties like “Batman.’  Ending it would end the franchise, but war is an unending and perpetually giving commodity.  Film is the main medium that a visually-oriented population connects too, not writing.  So the series will continue until ticket revenue drops, not when its narrative logic runs dry.  After all, how many films can center on just humans fighting apes forever?    

More importantly, why do people connect with this series?  Does the audience identify with the humans or the intelligent apes?  I think at this point in both films the apes are treated, except for the example of Koba, as far more likable.  These animal revolutionaries are kinder than we expect.  The humans are either stupid, self-centered or vicious. Only one family of humans respects the apes, while the rest of the humans are an undifferentiated mass, with a leader who will kill for electricity.  The main message is that ‘co-existence’ is impossible because the humans are only interested in re-creating the same society that has been destroyed.  The ‘war’ means that the world has basically returned to barbarism – or perhaps any modern battlefield.  And in that case, innocents must die.

Pessimism about humanity is at the heart of this film, as it is at the heart of many dystopian and apocalyptic stories.  And indeed, when you look around at who controls this world, you can’t fault the idea that much.  Perhaps 'becoming an ape' might improve the situation.

And I saw it at the Riverview Theater
Red Frog
September 16, 2014

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