Friday, July 11, 2014

War Has Already Begun: On Dawn of the Planet of the Apes


There is by now a predictable seasonable distribution of Hollywood films. Not only are special effects blockbusters released in the summer, and awards bait prestige films released in the fall, but those seasonal divisions are further gradated to the point where every summer begins with a few contenders in May, peaks in July with the biggest explosion of effects and stars, and tapers off into a series of remakes and more dubious summer properties in August. Whereas past generations had their divisions of A and B pictures, we have May films and August films. Rise of the Planet of the Apes was one such August film, a remake/reboot of a lesser known entry of a mostly forgotten series, it managed to surprise many in actually being more interesting than one would have expected and more entertaining than one hoped.  The release of its sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the apes in July then signifies something of increased brand visibility if not increased quality.

The question for investors, movie studios, and makings of various ape related products, is then can this film, a film whose biggest star wears a motion capture suit, become a successful summer blockbuster? Can the prehistory of sci-fi film franchises make it in the age of post-cinema? That is a question for studio executives, the question for us, fans of sci-fi and ape revolutions everywhere, is how will this film extend and expand the myths and allegories that have been as much a part of the franchise as rubber ape costumes? 


These allegories have been explored by Eric Greene in his Planet of the Apes as American Myth.  One of the real merits of his book is that it shows that the shifting subtexts of the Apes films, from Serling's atom age anxieties of annihilation to the militant racialized revolutionaries of the later films, are less a plan than an attempt to keep up with the shifting readings of the films while still getting a film out on time. Dawn is in some sense a remake of the last and most burdened of these films, Battle for the Planet of the Apes. Battle tried to wrestle with the time travel loop and a diminishing budget. The central question of Battle, which takes place after Caesar's parents have been sent back in time, is one of repetition and fate. Must man and ape always be at war? Dawn in some sense addresses the same question, minus the time travel loop and with a much bigger budget. Like Rise before it Dawn constitutes as kind of guerrilla war on the franchise, attacking not its most iconic and memorable stronghold over the cultural imagination (Planet of the Apes and its Statue of Liberty Scene), but the weakest points, the points where the gap between concept and execution is wide enough to ride an ape army on horseback through. 

Dawn takes place ten years after Rise. Much of humanity is decimated by the simian flu. This is revealed in the opening credits, the film itself opens on the apes now living in the Muir woods. Everything about this scene shows that the apes, having previously been hurtled through genetic evolution by way of lab experiment, are now gradually moving through cultural evolution. They have had to adapt to the ecology of northern California, hunting elk instead of gathering fruit and hunting termites, and to their new social structure, the ape categorical imperative 'ape not kill ape" is written on the wall where an orangutan teaches a class of young, chimps, bonobos, and gorillas. There is also the emergence of ape style and fashion, from face paint to garlands of flowers, a trend that mirrors real discoveries in primatology. The political structure of ape society is caught somewhere between genetic superiority and a benevolent monarchy as alpha chimp Caesar (not the children of time travellers from a distant future as in the original films, but the most accelerated of the apes) rules with wisdom and consideration. 

The peace is disturbed when a small band of humans from what remains of San Francisco enter the woods. The are seeking access to a dam in order to restore power. As in our world energy demands leads to conflict. One human shoots an ape, and this conflict eventually leads to an uneasy peace, as the members of  both the "ape home" and the human colony weigh their fear of the other against their desire for peace. Both ape and human societies have individuals who push for war, and those that want to maintain the peace. Those that push for war, both ape and man, are those that seemed must traumatized by their past, whether it be a past in a human drug lab, as in the case of Koba, or the loss of lives to the simian flu, as in the case of Dreyfus (Gary Oldman). (Both of which are detailed at length in the film's prequel novel tie-in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes: Firestorm). There is a subplot having to do with cycle of trauma, hatred, and war, which is not the film's most interesting.



The first remake, Rise eschewed much of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes ambiguous racial politics, replacing them with a much more literal focus on the plight of laboratory animals. Dawn 's allegory is neither race, nor is it the revenge of animals on their captors, its central concept is in some sense war as an "anthropological machine." Borrowing the term from Agamben, an anthropological machine is a conceptual structure, or relation, that creates and maintains the distinction between man and animal. Although in this case we could say that war both maintains and destroys this distinction. Philosophers from Plato through Fanon have posited war, the struggle for death, as precisely the point where mankind proves that it is something other than an animal instinctually determined to value self-preservation above all else. In this case "humanity" is proven by a willingness to kill or die for honor, the flag, or some other ideal, constituting itself through the value it attaches to an abstraction. To borrow a phrase, war is a force that gives us meaning. War is also the place where humanity risks collapsing back into animality, revealing that underneath our ideals there is nothing other than the battle over territory and survival. The film places apes at the center of this intersection. (This is why there is so much debate over conflict in ape societies in primatology. As Donna Haraway observed, apes are the site of the naturalization of social institutions). The question the film constantly raises is what separates war, the struggle to dominate and rule, from the animalistic defense of territory.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes could also be called "The Part Played by Politics in the Transition from Ape to Man" (to borrow Engels' title).  In the beginning of the film the apes are unified, "apes together strong," functioning as an extended family despite differences of species. The first real division of the apes appears in their response to the presence of humans. This divides the apes into two groups, one led by Caesar the other by Koba. Politics in this case is not just the division between friend and enemy, but a division that coalesces around symbols and their meaning. When Koba attempts to assassinate Caesar, he is quick to leave the gun and hat as signs of a human assassin, recognizing that assassinations are always as much spectacle as strategy. It is Caesar, however, who really understands the power of symbols. He survives the assassination, but is initially too weak to lead. His solution is to use his symbol, a chalk drawing of his original home that functions almost as a family crest, to make his presence known. Apes might follow the strong as he argues, but apes becoming human follow the strength of symbolic identifications. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is thus the emergence of culture through entry into symbolism.


These two themes, war as an anthropological machine and the political power of symbols, coalesce in the film's penultimate scene. Caesar and Koba battle in a skyscraper. Koba is defeated and dangling over the edge, he reminds Caesar of their categorical imperative, "ape not kill ape." Caesar responds by declaring, "You are no ape," before letting Koba fall to his death. Caesar becomes human not by his adherence to the moral law, as in some Kantian ideal, nor by violating species preservation in favor of intra-species aggression, as in a Hobbesian world, but by recognizing that the human act, the act of politics is to simultaneously declare the validity of the universal law while deciding its exception. There is something sad in watching an ape become human all too human. It is definitely less fun than watching gorillas battle cops on the Golden Gate bridge.

8 comments:

seymourblogger said...

Tweeted and facebooked this. I need some time to go back and read your archives. Much to learn.HOpe you are getting more and more hits on Snowpiercer so it will go to multiple screens. Fug Harvey Weinsten.

jane said...

Can we reflect for a moment on the fact that Koba was Stalin's Party name? Raymond Williams even has a play of that title...

unemployed negativity said...

Interesting, well the reference is at least. I guess that it is possible to see Koba as a critique of Stalinism, but it is painted a little too broad for that.

jane said...

I don't think it's coherent or anything, but I registered (as a minor and ad hoc aspect) the story of Caesar and Koba as something like a brief idyll on what would have happened had Lenin recovered from the stroke and had to enter into a struggle with his former aide-de-camp. I mean, one has to get through the two hours somehow.

unemployed negativity said...

Well, I have a soft spot for apes.

seymourblogger said...

Nice catch Jane. I missed that. Your Lacanian ear or eye is sharp today.Just a resonance UN not a literal likeness.

unemployed negativity said...

The real question is why was Koba a bonobo? This is not only consistent with what we know about bonobos, but with the prequel nature of the film. If Maurice the orangutan's school sets up Dr. Zaius, then shouldn't the ape that advocates war be a gorilla? In general the movie needed a better gorilla.

jane said...

Well, the film is insistent on producing differences among its apes, most notably along the axis of good/bad, and ditto the humans, so that the revolutionary antagonism of the previous film can be safely walked back into a [purely human] ethics of the family. That's most of what annoyed me. In addition to being boring, it was basically a narrative counterrevolution.