The Planet Of The Apes Prequel Trilogy - A Modern Masterpiece

Thoughts On: Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes (2011), Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes (2014) & War For The Planet Of The Apes (2017)

Humanity creates a cure for Alzheimer's that gives apes new and greater consciousness... all to devastating effects.



Having just seen the third Planet Of The Apes movie, I have been struck with the realisation that this trilogy has just re-written some of humanity's most profound and fundamental stories with world history and some ground-breaking technological innovation. What I will now then be dissecting is how these three stories function and exactly what it is they say about modern societies. If you want to read this essay in 3 separate parts, as it is going to be a long one, please click here.

We then start with Rise. The story of Rise is centred on the birth of a species and its emergence from the proverbial Garden of Eden. With Rodman, as played by James Franco, being a creator, a God of sorts, we see him give a new awakening to apes. This is signified with Bright Eyes. She is taken out of the wild, brought away from a primitive vision of the world...

... and given access to another level of consciousness; she is awakened.

However, despite this awakening, there remains a primitive drive in Bright Eyes. She has to protect her child.

This is what leads to the downfall of herself and of the entire genetic experimentation of 'God', Rodman. This is the first profound gesture of this movie as it not only chronicles the birth of a new species, but it describes how and why they are not just pawns or pets to the higher power - an idea which is echoed throughout this narrative primarily with the image of a leash or cage. Bright Eyes has a sense of self-sovereignty and a will to protect and establish her own family and kind. This suggests that what makes a species truly conscious, not just intelligent and awakened, is its assumption of freedom and family.

It's at this point that we see elements of the Adam and Eve archetype being twisted, but also the 'Terminator narrative' being revised. To expand, with the developing technological age, we have questioned the role that A.I will assume in the future - if and when we create it. As the Terminator series asked, will A.I destroy us all? The Planet Of The Apes is an equal expression of this, but concerns a biological and genetic innovation of science, not just a technological one. But, there is a core difference between the story of humans giving birth to an artificial intelligence and a superior biological species. Whilst A.I is usually used as a narrative tool to comment on the fragility and absurdity of human nature, and so is often used to comment on war and human chaos, the modern Planet Of The Apes narrative uses apes to explore the fundamental positive drives of humanity. This is why we see Bright Eyes' sacrificial and rebellious act of protecting her child as one that draws the line between humanity and apes; it says that consciousness of a human level only functions with freedom and responsibility.

So, what we see with Rodman raising Caesar is God keeping apes in the Garden of Eden despite them being conscious. In such, Rodman awakens Caesar without giving him true freedom and responsibility. The Tree of Eden, or, The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, that Rodman leads Caesar to is then in the redwood forest; it is a tree that represents apes' unique physical capabilities and strengths (which allows Caesar to climb the gigantic tree) combining with new vision:

So, what Rodman teaches Caesar as he raises him is how to take responsibility and build a family. But, there is a contradiction within Rodman. He keeps Caesar on a leash and treats him like a subordinate - though, with respect and care. Moreover, Caesar is a mistake and a side-effect of Rodman trying to take care of his own father - who loses both sight and consciousness with his Alzheimer's disease. There is then a tension in this narrative born between humans and people that is never truly overcome. And this is something that Caesar recognises when he stands atop his Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. The 'good' that Caesar is taught by Rodman concerns family and responsibility. However, the 'evil' that Caesar holds in his genetics and body is his potential to overcome humans - as is represented by the threat of violence, which Caesar often represents but sometimes embodies throughout this narrative. This then signifies a new kind of Tree of Eden; it is one that encapsulates both potential power and evil as well as internal good.

When this rift between good, evil, apes and humans is pushed to its very limits with Caesar protecting Rodman's father, we see reality thunder into the idealistic relationship between Rodman and Caesar; humanity and apes.

When Caesar bites the finger off of the dickhead neighbour, he is exiled from humanity; it is recognised that he is a threat and so is put in a new Garden of Eden with other apes where he finds a new Tree.

However, the ape sanctuary is a torturous Garden of Eden for unawakened apes, one that keeps their consciousness suppressed. It is then Caesar's job here to not only assimilate with his own kind, but turn to his back on God, awaken his new family and escape into the world away from the Garden of Eden. This all suggests that this Garden isn't good for humanity or any fully awake organism; for them to truly mature and develop, they must leave. So, as we all certainly feel when watching Rise, this entire sentiment is encapsulated with one action.

Caesar says "NO!", and the fact that that sends such intense tingles down everyone's spines says that we universally recognise that something radical has changed. In fact, that "NO!" has to be one of the most powerful moments of all of cinema for the way that it drives so deep into the human condition. This "NO!" is the articulation of a true awakening; the apes are given a voice, they have established a family, turned their back on God and are ready to walk out of the Garden of Eden.

The fact that the apes do this by turning tools of oppression (the electric prod, the hose and later broken parts from the gates of a zoo) against humans introduces a new dimension to this movie; human history. These tools are all allusions to riots and rebellions, most starkly, the Black Rights movement of the 1960s. This is emphasised with Caesar's, by and large, peaceful uprising and escape from humanity. Beyond this, the infection that plays a hugely significant part of the end of this narrative holds further allusions to races being wiped out by disease - an example being the Native Americans. However, the strength of this use of history will not yet come into full play just yet, but, let it be noted that this idea has been seeded.

The final profound element of Rise comes with a reconciliation with God, or Rodman. Not only does Caesar step out of the Garden of Eden, bringing with him a new family, but he goes having come to peace with Rodman. This is one of the biggest revisions to biblical tales that The Planet Of The Apes makes. Whilst the values that Rodman, or God, teach Caesar remain with him and his culture, God is allowed to die off-screen - which is a significant statement in its own right. This marks the birth of a new species that will not live in the same ambiguity that humanity does; whilst we do not have any idea who our creators are, apes will. And whilst you could argue that the apes will also never know where humans and all biological life came from, this foundational contact with 'God' is something that puts them at a clear advantage, culturally speaking. So, with Caesar taking this into the real world having broken away from God to build a new home, the horizon seems promising.

It is then at this point that the narrative of Rise gives way to that of Dawn. Dawn is centred on the apes building upon the foundation of Rise by developing law and moral standards in their community. We see this as soon as we're told that humans are all being infected by the Simian Flue.

The Apes solidify their community with laws and ethics such as 'Ape not kill ape' and 'Ape together stronger'. These are the lessons that Rodman gave Caesar to leave the Garden of Eden with, and so Dawn is primarily about these notions being challenged. This is done with a strong focus on the human's struggle for survival and the fact that they are now realising that they aren't the no.1 species on the planet, as, without our tools, apes are very starkly the superior species. For this reason, the humans attempt to re-establish their technological basis. But, is this safe for the apes?

A lot of this movie is then focused on an idea of "too complicated". We talked about this with the movie No Man's Land, and this concept is simply a recognition that humans often allow chaos and disorder, ironically, through simplistic and short-sighted thinking, to take rule over a system when they begin to see things as too complicated. This is a stance encapsulated by the dichotomy between separatists and reformists; between, as one example, Koba and Caesar. We then see a paradigm that repeats itself throughout history plague this film. How do conflicting groups reach a peaceful agreement without blowing the whole thing up? Koba's answer is that peace can only be established after destructive separation, whilst Caesar begins this narrative believing that peace can be established with a calmer separation, but later assumes the position of a peaceful alliance.

This is constantly challenged, however, because if humans are to survive, they have to work around the apes. And thus there is introduced an idea of poison both in the human group and the ape group.

These poisons are the individuals that selfishly want to force separation and establish domination. This is an idea that is linked, problematically so, to co-survival because both groups want a stable home in which they may thrive, which means strength. And strength is the one idea that Rodman never really provided Caesar with before he left the Garden; he was awakened, given intelligence and morals, but remained naive within the protection of 'God'. Caesar then funnels this element of his personality and his survival through both hatred and love, or, at least, this is how they manifest themselves. We have already seen Caesar utilise strength intelligently in the Rise, however, throughout Dawn, all of his actions are guided by a yearning for peace and stability. Because he then loves his family group, he protects them, showing strength as to keep them stable. However, as Koba suggests, Caesar also harbours a love for humanity. It is through this that strength must surface again as to protect what little love for humanity Caesar still shares.

What we are thus seeing through this rift within Caesar is an extension of his foresight; to protect the future, he has to decide what evils must be forgiven and what goods must be revealed to be poison. This is why when classical themes of 'regicide', what we can equate to killing a king, find their way into the narrative, Caesar has to recognise the poison in his 'good' social group whilst continuing to act mercifully and with trust towards the humans - and this intellectual recognition extends to his closest friends such as Maurice.

As Koba takes over the ape group and leads them into battle, there is then a demonstration of two archetypes; the merciful, wise king and the corrupt, evil king. In such, not only wouldn't Caesar readily go to war (let alone instigate one through attempted murder), but if he did, his battles would be thought of as a tactful means of overcoming an enemy - as we saw in Rise. With Koba, the corrupt, evil king, war is an outlet for evil and violent catharsis; it has no regard for his people or a greater ideal which leads to a lot of unnecessary death. Koba's sacrifices, some of which are committed directly by himself...

... are then an expression of his evil; his 'sacrifice' does not unite the group through ideals of good, family and home, instead, fear - something that extends into War.

It is at this time, and with one of the most expressive sequences in this film, that Caesar returns to his Garden of Eden to reflect on all that he was taught.

It's here where he learns two things, 1) apes are not better than humans, and, 2) his father was not God, instead, just a good man. This signifies one major step in Caesar's maturity; he has reached a point as an ape (as a 'man') that is equal to Rodman's, allowing him to see him not so much as God, but just a man. This completes Caesar's reconciliation with him that ended Rise and shatters the Rodman-God metaphor. As a result, this is also what allows Caesar to decide to establish peace with humans as equals with the understanding that, whilst the work of humanity seems to be at the expense of humans, and in this respect God has left apes (Koba) with scars, humans are not one simple collective; there are good people and there is evil. And in such, Caesar is really beginning to understand what his Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil really taught him.

With this knowledge, Caesar has to revise his ideals such as 'Ape not kill ape' and 'Ape stronger together' to begin to surpass human morality and social structuring. He must do this because there is such a thing as poison, and it has manifested itself in the form of Koba, who cannot reconcile with 'God', with the higher power that is/was humanity. So, what Caesar must to is recognise that apes are not stronger when their structure is being poisoned, and also that not all apes are apes that contribute to the higher ideals of the group. This all manifests into this moment:

After defending himself and exploiting Koba's weaknesses (as represented through their battle), Caesar has to decide whether or not to allow evil to fall into demise - a decision that he indirectly makes in the end of Rise when Koba pushes the helicopter over the bridge; a helicopter that held a human figure of evil and a lack of foresight; Jacob, another poison. This, Caesar allowing evil to fall, is Caesar's ultimate demonstration of strength, a culmination of physicality, morality and intelligence, and it leaves him a great king in his infancy.

However, there is a question we must ask ourselves. What does Caesar now perceive, how does he see his future?

As is demonstrated with his farewell to the 'good human', Malcolm, both humans and apes have failed as a consequence of their poisoned structures - and this is going to lead to war. However, this is going to be a war between the virtuous apes and the corrupt humans, because, for now, the few good people who are not under the rule of poison are going to escape. The implications of this, whilst hopeful now, will then only be resolved in War.

War, as an extension of Dawn, is focused on the trials of a great and wise king. So, as we delve into this, I'll emphasise that there will be SPOILERS and I hope you'll understand that I can't yet use images as I don't own the movie.

War opens with the humans, those that were called in the end of Dawn, attacking the apes. With this, we come to realise that the poison that was supposedly destroyed through Koba still infects the ape society. In such, there are traitors that help the humans, adhering to an idea that there needs to be destruction and separatism. Because Koba and his followers were essentially told they are not apes, humans are now then taking advantage of them as 'donkeys'. However, Koba doesn't only infect ape society through these traitors; he exists within Caesar too as a product of him knowing the evil and the good of apes.

This is all expressed when Caesar's oldest son and wife are killed by the colonel of the attacking army. Because he fails to protect them, the image of Koba begins to haunt him in a Shakespearean manner, symbolising Caesar's understanding that he, whilst he is a good king, cannot justify the destruction of the humans - especially at the expense of his family. This is why there were plans to flee the forest which are enacted when Caesar begins to further embrace the evil, or Koba, within him by deciding to take revenge alone, abandoning his group so he can cut off the head of the snake that bit his family: the colonel.

The primary conflicting force of this vengeance is, however, made obvious when Caesar's core group follow him; Maurice, a guard and Rocket. It is later made clear that, just like the apes will die for Caesar, there are humans willing to die for the colonel, leaving both the humans and the apes societal hydras that spawn two new heads every time one is destroyed. After all, this is what happened after both Rise and Dawn; the humans are cut down, but the malevolence and evil within their groups only flourishes. So, whilst Caesar signifies a growing aggression and evil once his family is taken away, it becomes his task throughout the movie to prevent his tribe from becoming a hydra and a snake that consumes itself - which is what the humans are becoming.

We have seen humans as the self-consuming snake ever since the end of Rise; after the power went out and the humans began destroying one another. This continues throughout Dawn, despite their efforts to produce a great leader, and comes to a climax in War. We see this through the infection, which the surviving humans assumed they were immune to, coming back and rendering humans mute and ape-like. Because of this, the humans face utter eradication; even if they survive, they are inevitably going to devolve unless they destroy the disease that causes their devolution. What we are then seeing also come to a climax in War is the human side of this narrative.

We have implied that there is a use of history throughout this series that comments on us, but it has so far been incoherent or incomplete with only a few references to rights struggles and political polarities. In War, we are seeing one of the most damaging of human ideas being expressed as a holy war: eugenics. Genetics is where The Planet of The Apes series began and it is where it will end. Humans attempted to strengthen their society, but allowed corruption and a lack of foresight, as represented Jacobs, to destroy themselves - and they only fell further when societal and moral structures failed (which is demonstrated in Dawn).

Eugenics is then the form of genetic manipulation that, instead of saving the minority of humanity and thus progressing the whole as with the cure for Alzheimer's, is going to save the majority of what is left is humanity as to give the whole a chance. This leaves colonel as the most complex human character in this entire series, but also an encapsulation of 'too little, too late'. The apes made their rise with a maturing and developing great king; humanity has been searching for this for years and the best they can do is a king that is the equivalent to Koba. The colonel then incites some of the greatest human atrocities ever committed; acts of world war, genocide and eugenic holy war - all signified through imagery of concentration camps. As a result, War For The Planet Of The Apes could be recognised as Holy War For The Planet Of The Apes. This is largely because humans are fighting for their highest ideal and all that makes them human, symbolised by holiness and God, whilst apes are striving to develop their own, what we would call, humanity. What makes their war holy is then this appeal to the abstract pinnacle of a hierarchy; a guiding God, or set of ideals, of compassion, mercy, unity and family.

However, whilst there are clear elements of the war that are holy (because they are linked to the essence of humans and apes as well as their greatest ideals), there is more to this war for Caesar. He has to not only recognise and allow for the existence of human good (as he does in Dawn), but he must begin to protect this. But, the only human good that remains of people has been shunned from society; it is they who are mute and devolved. Having found a little girl like this, but also with a representative of highly humanised apes through a new character who often calls himself 'Bad Ape', Caesar must then learn how to be a great king over the course of this narrative by learning from humanity's greatest mistakes - e.g. our world wars, holy wars, vengeance and most damaging of ideas.

By continuing to assume and develop his moral, intellectual and physical strength, Caesar must then endure and sacrifice himself to human evil in the concentration camps as to protect and save his apes. As a result, a lot of this movie plays out much like The Bridge On The River Kwai with hints of the stories of Christ - but this is a detail I won't delve into. So, it is through this endurance that Caesar and his leading core group of apes preserve the good of humanity (the innocent mute girl) and in turn allow all that is corrupt and evil in humanity to fall. As has been a motif of this entire series, allowing evil to fall is done through infection - which is a symbol of nature and innate biological combat. By preserving the little girl, who has a blood-stained doll, Caesar brings into the concentration camp, which his whole tribe is put into, infection. This infection is what seals the severed neck of a decapitated hydra, preventing it from ever coming back to life. In such, this infection gets into the colonel's system.

However, this is a detail that proceeds a second group of humans descending from the north to destroy the colonel - all because he is killing the devolving humans. The battle that plays out here is an ambiguous one that probably needed more of a focus on. However, it quite clearly represents all of humanity's remaining strength coming into conflict with itself - much like what happened with the apes in Dawn. What we can assume, however, is that this human struggle is a futile one that is predicated on base emotion with no higher ideal - which is why the infection can be considered metaphorically to be the continued downfall of humanity after they ignited a fire with Rise. In fact, what is reflected by Dawn and War is the idea that consciousness cannot be turned off once it is switched on; an awakened being cannot be put back to sleep. The humans are the ones that woke up the apes, but in attempting to put them back to sleep, they only destroy themselves as a result of trying to defy nature instead of managing and advancing it with an alignment with the apes.

This all comes to its final climax when Caesar unites all of the apes by giving everything he has to them. However, Caesar giving his all means that he fails in blowing up the humans, putting to a stop their civil war which is destroying all of the apes who are caught in the crossfire. However, one of the donkeys, an ape traitor, turns against his masters having recognised that Caesar can give no more - all for the greater good of the apes, he then sacrifices himself. As a result, Caesar sucks the last of the poison out of his society, turning the last of the evil monkeys good, which triggers the Great Flood; an avalanche that destroys the entirety of the human army. This is, of course, after his final confrontation with the colonel. Here, Caesar attempts to embody Koba by murdering the colonel and taking vengeance, but, there is no need for this after Caesar accepts this dark side of himself, moreover, his moral and intellectual limitations as an ape. Caesar has evolved as far as he can as an ape, but has managed to do enough. This is why, despite being ready to accept a step backwards, nature takes its course. Not only is the colonel infected, but the flood wipes away the last of the human's power.

The apes, however, survive the Great Flood by clinging onto trees, signifying that it is their base essence as apes (their innate strength which separates them from humanity) that allows them to transcend humans once they have learned to become morally, socially, structurally and ethically superior to them - but also having recognised their own shadow, which is what Caesar accepted when he confronts the colonel by embodying Koba.

There is then hope at the end of this narrative with devolved humans and evolved apes finding and establishing a new Eden of their own design in the real world, bringing into it lessons from human history. It is here where the old great king is no longer needed, however. He has physically given everything he has to the apes and this kills him. But, Caesar transcends the tangible world with his death; he will now become the founding father, a tangible God, to all apes to come, who will hopefully continue to thrive and evolve as a species alongside what is left of humanity.

Now, with the entirety of this trilogy covered, it seems that this narrative is anti-human. However, what we can consider this narrative to be is an expression of our greatest fears in the modern age. Not only can we sense that our scientific and technological innovation is leading us to a point where we will maybe create new life that may endanger our own existence, but, we can all recognise that there are significant structural issues with human societies that could make those up-and-coming challenges insurmountable. What the entirety of this narrative expresses is then a cautionary tale concerning human talent and innovation, yet also the precariousness of our values and moral structures. Caesar and the ape society are then signals to humanity and a reprisal and re-contextualisation of our greatest stories that mean to serve, warn and guide humanity.

For exactly this, it is overwhelmingly clear that this trilogy is one of the greatest pieces of art that cinema has produced in the modern digital age. And whilst I have attempted to outline the main structure of this narrative and its core ideas, I think there's an awful lot more that we could all re-watch this movie for and even utilise. However, this will all lead to a talk we've had before on Cinema As A Religion, so, we'll end things here.

Actually, I think I can find a bit of a positive note to end on. In Rise, we are told that humans have just entered Mars' atmosphere:

This means that there may be surviving humans in the solar system and that all is not lost in the world of The Planet Of The Apes. So, can we then expect more from this trilogy that reaffirms humanity? Is it possible that we can develop our own great kings and rise ourselves? Can we merge and co-exist with a true Planet Of The Apes; Earth populated only by these evolved creatures? Maybe this is a signal for more to come, but maybe this is where the series leaves us looking into the dark void of our own future.

However, this is where I'm going to end this post with one last question: what are your thoughts?

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