Friday, May 10, 2024

2 Apes 2 Planets: On Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes


The recent Planet of the Apes films can be defined by two questions: one internal to the films themselves, to their own universe, albeit with allegorical dimensions, and the other external, to their status as commodities in the culture industry. The first question is what is the nature of the conflict between humans and apes? Is it a natural conflict, a conflict between two species for domination, or is it a political conflict, a conflict between different ways of living. The second question is will audiences watch and identify with apes, with CGI characters, rather than humans played by human actors.

Kingdom of the Planet Apes pushes the second question the furthest while continuing to offer a muddled response to the first question. With respect to the second question it is possible to see each film as moving from human to animal. The first, Rise begins as a story of a scientist trying find a cure for Alzheimers only to eventually become the story of Caesar, the ape leader; the second film, Dawn was as much a story of a human community trying to restore civilization after the plague as it was as an emergent ape society; it is only in the third movie, War that we get a full shift to the apes, with a human colonel emerging only as an antagonist and enemy that we only see in the final act. Each of the previous films had a cast to at least draw in an audience who might not see a movie of CGI apes, with James Franco (unfortunately) playing the scientist in the first film, Gary Oldman and Kerri Russell playing the human survivors in the second, and Woody Harrelson chewing up scenery as the colonel in the third. Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes does have a surprise human star showing up in the third act, but what is striking is how much of the film is about the apes themselves. It is nearly halfway through the film before the first human actor says a line. The shift from human protagonists to apes is now complete. It remains to be seen if audiences with embrace this pop posthumanism, shifting their attention to apes as the central characters. In some sense with CGI the forces of production have gotten ahead of existing social relations: it is possible to make a film with dynamic apes, lizards, and robots, but for the most part screenwriters, even AI assisted ones, insist on giving us stories of the people who care for an contain apes and giant lizards. 

After a brief scene following the death of Caesar the film begins several generations later in a world apparently entirely dominated by apes. We first meet Noa and his friends, a group of apes belonging to what will be called the eagle clan. They are engaged in an important ritual, stealing eggs of the eagles that they will bond with and use to hunt. The are apes who have mastered fire and the domestication of other animals, but the latter is lived almost as much as symbiotic relation as it is domestication. The use of the term clan here will be significant, in that this first group of apes are presented as more or less in a tribal society, as noble savages. I recent read The Invention of Prehistory: Empire, Violence, and our Obsession with Human Origins by Stefanous Geroulanos. One of the striking things about the book is that he reveals how old and persistent the three stage history of humanity is--the one that divides human history into savages, barbarians, and civilization. It has shifted from being a concept that was supposed to be derived from facts to be reified into a fact itself  That is why one sees it appearing again and again, with different savages, barbarians and ideas of civilization. It is a concept that has been rewritten many times, into the stone, bronze, and iron ages in its more materialist variant and animism, religion, and science into its more idealist variation. It has even been updated into third, second, and first worlds in the twentieth century. Thus it is not surprising we find this same schema in the ape films as well.

Noa and his clan are eventually besieged by the barbarians, a group of apes, including gorillas, the goons of the film series, who are both searching for humans, and looking for more workers for their grand imperial project. These apes are ruled by Proximus Caesar, an ape who continues the title, but not necessarily the legacy of the original Caesar. The barbarian stage is represented in this film by the ability of the apes to dominate and control other apes. Caesar's soldiers carry elaborate cattle prods that they use to keep others inline. This domination is in service of Caesar's grand plan, an attempt to crack through a giant silo constructed in the last days of humanity. This silo contains all of the technology necessary to solidify Proximus Caesar's rule over the apes, it has guns and tanks. 

Noa, Mae, Raka

Where does this leave the third term, civilization? In some sense we get it twice. First, as Noa begins his quest to find his clan and liberate them from the barbarians we meet Raka an orangutan. Raka continues the teachings of Caesar, the idea of apes living together, of ape not killing ape, a philosophy which also extends to peaceful coexistence with humans. The logic of the Apes films continues to be one splits into two. Two ape civilizations and two human civilizations in Dawn, with Caesar and Koba representing two futures for the apes, and the two human civilizations being represented by Malcolm (Jason Clarke) who wants to coexist with the apes and Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) who wants to exterminate the brutes. In the third film, War the division was between the apes the sided with Caesar and those that sided with the humans. Now this division continues into the legacy of Caesar himself. Proximus Caesar continues the idea of Caesars power, bringing the slogan "apes together strong" back to the fascist roots suggested by it initial image of sticks bundled together. Raka continues the philosophy of Caesar, even invoking the strange origin story of an ape raised by humans, as an ape who wanted to live with humans. The film seems to suggest that civilization begins not with symbols, "the symbols have meaning" as Raka explains a book to Noa, but when those symbols become  contested and interpreted differently.

Noa and Raka are soon joined by a human they refer to as Nova. Raka calls all humans "Nova" a nod to the second film and to the original film in the series. It is eventually revealed that Nova is not like the other humans, who live as feral beasts, she can speak and her name is actually Mae. Spoiler Alert: Mae is not an astronaut who crashed landed on this planet as some on the internet have speculated. I must admit that i thought that such an idea would be interesting, especially now that we have spent so much time with apes it would make sense to flip the original story. Tell it not from the perspective of the astronaut who is shocked to find out that it "was Earth all along," but from the apes who would be shocked to learn that humans can talk. The Planet of the Apes films keep remaking and reinventing the earlier prequels and sequels, borrowing elements from Conquest, Battle, and even Beneath, but never quite approaching the original plot of Planet. Mae is part of a group of humans who have survived not only the first round of the simian flu, the genetically created disease that wiped out most of humanity, but its second mutation as well, the disease that has left most of humanity as mute beasts. Noa, Raka, and Mae join up and travel to find Proximis Caesar's Rome by the ocean, a community dedicated to his task of breaching the silo. They travel together but it is not clear if they have the same goals. 

This brings us to the second question, that of the conflict between ape and humanity. The film shows us that the apes are divided politically as much as they are unified biologically. The apes of Proximus' kingdom and Noa's clan live differently, believe differently, and think differently, even the two followers of Caesar, Raka and Proximus, are sharply divided. We also get a division within humanity, Proximus has his own captive human, Trevathan (William H. Macy), who reads books and collects knowledge for his king. Like the gorillas in War he has aligned himself with what he sees as the dominant species, with his best chance for survival. The war is over and the apes have won. Mae's allegiance with Noa and Raka, we eventually learn, is only temporary and opportunistic, she is part of a community of humans that still is trying to restore their dominance on Earth. That is her real reason for traveling to the silo. Humans and apes are both divided, but differently. The apes are divided between two different social structures, the small tribe of the eagle clan and the kingdom of Proximus, while the humans are divided in terms of how they understand their best chances for survival. 

 If apes and humans can be divided amongst themselves, split between those that live with nature and those that dominate other apes, then their interspecies conflict would suggest that any conflict they would have with humanity would be political as well. Whether or not apes and humans could co-exist would then be a political question, a question of political structure and not natural destiny. The films can never quite commit to this, and return again and again to the idea that conflict between ape and human is a species conflict determined by nature. The tagline of Rise, "Evolution becomes Revolution" already situated all of the films in the place where biological conflict became political conflict. As much as one could fault the films for vacillating between two ideas of conflict, of war--one which presents it as artificial, a product of our social relations, and the other that presents it as natural, part of the very existence of our species--it is worth noting, as Geroulanos argues in his book, that the very some vacillation around the question of war, as natural or artificial, defines much of the history of speculation on the concept. One divides into two is not just for apes. It is worth noting, that in the first film, the original Planet of the Apes, Taylor (Charlton Heston) wonders if humanity still wages war "on his fellow man," and searches for something better out there, some life beyond war and conflict. It is not clear if this is a search for a different species, for some creature not defined by conflict, or a different social order, some utopia. 

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