The World Turned Upside Down:
Words: Jack Brindelli
Rupert Wyatt (Rise of The Planet of The Apes) and Matthew Vaughn (X-Men: First Class) are similar in a number of ways. The British film-makers both directed fine films in 2011. Both used clever threads of social commentary to grant two of Hollywood’s biggest sagas a new lease of life – after poor cinematic outings seemed to have driven the franchises to the brink of oblivion. Both were unceremoniously binned by 20th Century Fox for their efforts.
If it was anything to go by, the flaccid claw-waving spectacle that was X-Men: Days of Future Past left me with little hope for the Apes franchise. Bryan Singer’s confused and ill-advised attempt to bury Vaughn’s freshly reborn X-Men: First Class took a butchers cleaver to the series, which had until then promised a subtlety and finesse all too rare in the superhero genre. Singer took the character Magneto, for one, who had become well-rounded and relatable, with goals and methods we could at least understand – and transformed him back into an erratic mentalist in a funny hat. Magneto became but one pawn in Singer’s own unhinged game, as he attempted to literally live out the plot of Days of Future Past by trying desperately to erase the shameful chapter in history that was X-Men 3 (2006).
Similarly, Rupert Wyatt took what had been broken by Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes (2001) and rebuilt the franchise from the ground up. Ten years after that disastrous outing, his reboot Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) was not only visually stunning, emotionally engaging, and dramatically compelling – it was a biting satire. Telling the story of how apes first became intelligent, and rose up against their human captors, suddenly the story takes on a whole new angle – and we could relate to our simian relatives like never before. The apes were brutally exploited – even when they demonstrated a higher intellect. Indeed, their masters often ignored the apes potential in order to justify all manner of cruelty directed at the ‘lowly animals’ – who they relied on exploiting to line their pockets. That was when the apes became human – became us – rather than the men and women who owned them. In that moment they became the poor, the beaten and oppressed – those who are dehumanised in the eyes of our governing elites, and treated as vermin in our inequitable and brutal society.
Look to Gaza now, and consider the chilling commitment Israel’s government displays toward the shelling of schools, hospitals, and civilian targets of all kinds, and you will see what I mean. The unashamed, matter-of-fact malice directed toward the Palestinian people is traditionally the preserve of abattoir owners – because both forms of slaughter sustain someone’s way of life. It should be enough to turn any rational human being’s stomach. Yet it is often difficult to see around this dehumanisation – as it is such an integral part of the ideology that dominates our society. We have learned to see it as natural as we have lived amid exploitation and murder for so long.
And that is what makes Wyatt’s Apes film so beautiful – because it took that ideological assumption – turned it on its head, and exposed its horrific nature to the audience. We suddenly found ourselves in the unexpected position of rooting for those “damn dirty apes” as they went all October 1917, organising and overthrowing their overseers. We suddenly saw through the eyes of those deemed ‘inhuman’ and saw that they were more human than any of the onscreen barbarians in suits or lab coats.
The film was a critical and financial success. The franchise was revived, revitalised and respected once more thanks to its new direction. Why then, was Wyatt about to meet a similar fate to Matthew Vaughn? In a recent interview, Wyatt simply stated, “I had a take on the sequel which didn’t marry with the Studio’s.” What can we read into that? That his ‘take’ had been useful in resurrecting the Apes series – but now the studio had a successful box-office recipe, so the more radical aspects of Wyatt’s plan for the story became an unnecessary nuisance to them. The aspects of his project that conflicted with the studio’s world view were jettisoned by Fox’s conservative hierarchy, who found a more experienced (or perhaps manageable) film-maker in Matt Reeves.
That is not to say Reeves’ effort is without charm. Indeed, compared to the stinking farce that was Days of Future Past, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a veritable art film. Predictably, Andy Serkis steals the show once more as lead-chimp Caesar, who we follow as he attempts to build a new world for his group of fellow primates. The key tension in the group is how to go about dealing with a troop of humans (lead by the criminally underused Gary Oldman) who are set on restoring their own society after a deadly pandemic. As the two groups expand, their paths and interests inevitably conflict – despite the best efforts of Caesar to keep the peace.
Things come to a head when his former ally, a bonobo named Koba, takes it upon himself to defy Caesar, and eradicate the surviving scraps of humanity for the alleged safety of the group. Interestingly, ‘Koba’ was the pseudonym often used by Stalin before the Russian Revolution – and the way he utilises the apes love of Caesar (who in the first film was basically Lenin with hands for feet) to lead them into committing horrific atrocities is a clever, if slightly common analogy of Stalin’s betrayal of the aims of the Russian revolution. The apes whose loyalty Koba commands line up to slaughter ordinary people, who never had any say in the oppression of the apes, whilst those who voice dissent (like the intellectual orang-utan Maurice) are imprisoned or murdered – and all in the name of Caesar.
Amid the drama, the way the apes function as a group is compelling viewing – maintaining the similarities between apes and humanity from the last film in order to suitably tug at our heartstrings, balanced with enough brutality to avoid a complete lapse into mawkish Disney-esque melodrama. However, and it’s a big however, whilst there is some continuity between the two films and how we view the apes, there is a marked difference in how their similarity to us is conveyed. Having already mentioned Disney, Dawn is rather like The Lion King (1995), in so far as it is riddled with problematic assumptions about the way intelligent beings would order their society. Constructs often accepted in our human reality as common sense, like male-dominated hierarchies (the females we see produce and raise offspring, and that’s about it) are recreated by characters who, as they happen to be covered in fur, serve to naturalise them, along with the social Darwinian assumption that greed and exploitation of the weak are also natural and unavoidable phenomena – even amongst a group of highly evolved beings. That means there’s no collective decision making here either – which doesn’t seem particularly fair on the hundreds of apes who invested just as much as Caesar or Koba in their struggle for freedom.
The satirical element in Reeves’ sequel is reduced to a simplistic “shoe on the other foot” capacity as a result. Unlike in Rise, where we learn to identify with those we previously thought subhuman, now we are lead to see them as inescapably flawed, just like us, and for those flaws to be considered natural. We now fear for the lives of the ‘actual’ people who are treated as vermin by the apes – and the film is far less provocative for it. It also strengthens the myth that people benefit uniformly from the exploitation of certain second class citizens.
Rise broke down thematic barriers between us, exploited in our everyday mundane 9 to 5 lives, and other demonised, dehumanised sects of society – and built a feeling of solidarity instead. It destroyed the false sense of superiority not dissimilar to white workers in the era of slavery – some of whom, while they were exploited, at least remained loyal to their white bosses out of some fictional notion of united domination of blacks. Instead, we cheered as the apes overcame the same money-grubbing oppressors responsible for our own misery.
Dawn rebuilds the mythological walls akin to this; simplistically telling us to be thankful we’re not on the ‘other side’ of such a poisonous relationship – and little more. Without the vibrant and determined vision of Rupert Wyatt at the helm, the franchise lapses back into received conservative wisdom and old cinematic clichés. Despite its stunning special effects and superb acting and enviable set-pieces, it’s a criminal waste of another franchise that was initially rebuilt with radical ideas. The reborn Apes, like X-Men, was commodified and bastardised the moment it climbed down from the trees to stand on its own two feet. Frustratingly (though perhaps not surprisingly), like the uncaring corporate types in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, 20th Century Fox don’t really seem to care about wasted intelligence or challenging ideas, whilst the money is rolling in. It leads to Rise suffering from a lack of creative freedom, and feeling like a missed opportunity, because these films could have been so much more than that. It’s enough to drive you ape.