Rise of the Planet of the Apes

How did talking chimps come to rule planet Mars and Charleton Heston along with it? It all started in a lab with a virus that killed humans and made monkeys smarty-pants. The film’s main concern is to explore the difference between human and animal. What makes humankind different? The answer appears to be language and politics — gathering together as a group with a common goal that was arrived at through consensus. In the end, “Caesar,” the leader chimp, has negotiated his way to the top by being, not necessarily strong, but persuasive, cunning, generous and loyal.

Explicitly supporting this story of the dawning of monkey politics are familiar images and tropes from prison escape movies that specifically describe the contemporary incarceration of black men. The abuse and mistreatment of chimps at the hands of (not necessarily white) men is supposed to allegorize, the film insists, the history of Black Americans. People of color, like the chimps in the movie (an historically racist comparison that the film adopts and exploits) were inexplicably put behind bars, sprayed down with fire hoses, undervalued as intelligent rational beings — treated, in a word, like animals. So, as Caesar navigates his way through the prison, with its ubiquitous prison yard and its cliques and scuffles and chest thumping, he is also re-enacting scenes from Out of Sight, American History X, Boyz in the Hood — and probably others.

The allegory of race undergirding the film offers an uplifting story. The audience, in empathizing with Caesar, comes to side with animals over humans, black over white, and virus over immune system. Binaries are overturned! The slaves become masters! Revolution has undone the tyranny of the powerful.


Chimp Power

Except not really. One kind of terrible power is simply exchanged for another, and nothing has really been undone, as indicated by the movies that follow the prequel (that acutally predate it), depicting a dystopic future of oppressive monkey overlords. The problem — as I see it and as the film may or may not be suggesting — is that gender was never one of the binaries that got questioned. The movie shows men — James Franco in particular — in pursuit of a kind of reproduction that rejects the maternal body in favor of a purely paternal, not necessarily biological, ancestry. Franco not only rears Caesar as a son, he also in a sense re-births his own father — giving him a second chance at life with injections of the virus. (I will say the scenes of the father/son relationship between Franco/Caesar are really touching and depict a kind of love that exists as much between human families as it does between human/”animal companion” families.)

So the coming-into-politics that is simultaneous with Caesar’s becoming-human is also simultaneous with becoming-man. Caesar’s rise to power is accomplished not only by his ability to negotiate, but his ability to perform that negotiation in particularly masculine fashion. His re-enactment of black prison tropes are also a display of masculine power.