Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

16 July 2014

Planet of the Apes. Now with Even More Apes!

I will confess that I am having trouble keeping the titles of these Planet of the Apes movies clear in my head. The new one is called Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and the last one was called Rise of the Planet of the Apes, but look: not much of this matters, because this series is actually well done. What you need to know is that this is Apes 2 and it is good.

Andy? Are you in there?
Perhaps most remarkable of all, this new Apes does without an A-list star. Andy Serkis, the actor whose face one never sees in anything, gets top billing in Dawn and he deserves it. The other actors are Gary Oldman (the only remotely famous performer), Jason Clarke (who was in Zero Dark Thirty and Gatsby), Keri Russell (Dawn's director was also a director on Felicity back in those days), Kirk Acevedo (who was so good on Oz back in those same days), and little Kodi Smit-McPhee (the kid from The Road is now 18).

But Apes has great characters. I find myself absolutely loving the main chimp, Caesar, and I am totally invested in all of his struggles and abilities. It is to the film's credit that scenes with Caesar and his mate or Caesar and his son are taken completely seriously and are also seriously compelling. I am always interested in what Caesar will decide to do, how he will handle his son's rebellion, how he will deal with the other apes in his clan, etc. These things are fascinating – and not just because he is a talking chimpanzee, but because this "animal" is a person, a character struggling with ethical dilemmas and important decisions about the lives of the other persons around him. And he is just so cool.

The other thing that is awesome about this is how stunning visually it is. Dawn is filled with surprising images: the chimpanzees riding horses on the poster are the least of it. Because we are dealing with apes, this is an action movie that is able to move off of the ground in ways that many action movies (even ones with flying robot suits) cannot even manage. It is a movie where the perspective of the fights, attack sequences, and camera angles has literally been rethought from the ground up. This is almost always intriguing.

There are missteps, too, of course: Jason Clarke is not very compelling as the main human character – he's simply neither dynamic nor striking as an actor. (The folks I was with got a little miffed at me when I called him the poor man's Josh Lucas, but it's true.) And really almost all of the interactions between the humans are uninteresting. When the film veered off into their plotline all I could think was let's get back to the apes. (It wasn't as bad as the human storylines in Godzilla, but you know what I mean.) I also sort of found the apes' English grammar inconsistent and therefore annoying. (I don't want to belabor the point because it is not very interesting, but there is literally no reason for any of the apes ever to use the first or second person, yet they do about 40% of the time, and when they did I was annoyed.) The film's third act is also way too long and too slow, even though it packs in quite a bit.

More importantly, this is also a thinking-man's action movie. It is a film that really deals with ethical questions – xenophobia, violence, nationalism, and civilization in particular. And I want to spend a little time thinking about the film's perspective on these right now. See, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is about nationalism and the value of identity. The film asks the questions: Is it more important to be true to the group with whom you have a genetic identity or to be open to the possibilities of coalition across genetic and other differences? Ought there to be an ultimate prohibition on murder? Or perhaps simply a prohibition on murder within one's chosen identity group? When does war become acceptable? What makes a being in the world worthy of personhood? Who grants or ought to grant this personhood?

Don't read any further if you don't want some of the plot spoiled for you.

What is fascinating about Dawn to me is the stance it takes on this question of the prohibition on murder. Throughout the film, the apes live by the rule Ape not kill ape. Koba, of course, does attempt to murder Caesar, and Koba also kills Rocket's son, Ash. So perhaps all bets are off, but Caesar does still hold to the prohibition on murder for his own ethics. (There is no prohibition against killing humans or other creatures who are not apes, bears, elk, etc.) So when, at the end of the movie, when we have all collectively decided that it is too dangerous a risk for Koba to continue to live, Koba reminds Caesar that ape not kill ape. Yet Caesar will kill Koba, and his justification is (and this is what troubles me) that Koba is no longer an ape. What I find so difficult about this is that this is the kind of racist justification for murder that everyone else uses, as well. It has been much easier, historically, for us to kill those who are not part of our perceived identity group, and many, many violence theorists have noted the ease with which we remove those outside of our own identity group from the very category of the human.

So, what Caesar does when he kills Koba is performatively remove Koba from the category of "ape" so that he can kill him. Koba is no longer an ape because Caesar wishes to kill him, and Koba can be killed because he is no longer an ape. But he is only able to be killed because Caesar is willing to kill him. If Caesar wished for him to live, Koba would still be an ape. Would it be possible for Koba to cease being an ape but still be allowed to live? I daresay such a thing is possible, but the two things go together in Caesar's new society – Koba is juridically removed from the category of ape and this coincides with his murder.

For the most part, the humans, we should note, are no better. Gary Oldman's character would kill the apes simply because they are not humans and he would rather humans live than apes live. What I think is so fascinating here is the way Dawn of the Planet of the Apes makes so colorable the ways that violence is justified through the simple exclusion of a person from the identity category in which he or she was initially included. Ape not kill ape. But who is allowed to be an ape? And who does the allowing? For that matter: Who is allowed to be included in the category of human? And who decides this?

If Koba is able to be removed from the category of ape it is because he has, in fact, been tortured by humans. He has lost his ape-ness (simianity? oh, let's just say his humanity) because of the behavior of the humans who enacted repeated violence on both his body and his psyche. It is not Koba's fault if he is no longer an ape. Koba's tragedy is that he never even had a chance to be an ape.

The film hasn't thought these things through completely, but I think this is perhaps ok. Dawn asks more questions than it can answer, and this is not a problem at all. Meditations on xenophobia and jingoism, even when coupled with an action-movie plot and computer-generated chimpanzees, are still valuable when done thoughtfully and intelligently. In short, this is a big-budget Hollywood picture worth seeing. And Caesar is as compelling an action-movie hero as you will find at the cineplex this summer.