A Survival Guide to Summer Blockbusters

“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” and “How to Train Your Dragon 2” are sequels to two films that made it to my five best list in years past. Two nights ago I attended a press screening for the first film that opens everywhere on Friday, while the second I saw in a neighborhood theater as probably the only person eligible for senior discount to have done so. The films deal with a question that is at the heart of the human condition under late capitalism, namely how to relate to animals—the quintessential Other. Of course, dragons never really existed but in the animated feature they have much more in common with horses and dogs. Even though they breathe fire and can fly, they turn out to be anxious to be domesticated, the conceit that makes the animated feature so endearing—even to an old crab like me. Unfortunately the Dragon sequel is not nearly so good as the first in the series, a victim of Hollywood’s lust for profits. But the Apes movie fares much better, to the point of topping the original. Of course, leaving James Franco out of the sequel would guarantee that.

For those who did not see the first film, “The Rise of the Planet of the Apes” is a canny fictionalization of the questions posed in the documentary “Project Nim”. Franco plays a scientist attempting to teach the chimpanzee Caesar how to communicate after the fashion of the experiments conducted by Columbia University professor Herb Terrace on Nim Chimpsky from an early age. The animal was named after the MIT linguist who was firm in the belief that only human beings can use language, either spoken or signed.

When the experiments proved fruitless, Terrace turned Nim over to an animal shelter that like all such institutions–including zoos–were inimical to the animal’s best interests. In the film, Franco feels guilt over abandoning Caesar but sees no alternative when Caesar attacks a neighbor, who actually deserved to have his face ripped off. Unlike Terrace, Franco has managed to increase Caesar’s IQ with an experimental drug, to the point where he can play chess and speak in complete sentences. This is obviously a creature that does not belong behind bars, no more so than the millions of prisoners in the U.S. who also have such abilities.

Here is an excerpt from my review of the original film:

Caesar’s introduction to primate compound life is traumatic. He no longer sits around the pleasant dining table with Will Rodman (Franco) and his sweet-natured father who is battling Alzheimer’s (John Lithgow), but is forced to eat the slops that the sadistic keeper (Tom Felton) puts into his cage each day, accompanied by taunts. Exercise is taken in the courtyard that is like a prison’s. Like prisoners, the frustrated and stressed out chimpanzees take out their hostility on each other.

There is only animal that is on his intellectual level, a wise and elderly Orangutan who warns Caesar through sign language not to sass the keeper, since he is violently vindictive. A shocked Caesar asks the Orangutan where he learned to sign. The reply: I was in the circus once. Nothing wittier has ever been seen in the Planet of the Apes franchise.

When Caesar learns that a more powerful version of the retrovirus has been developed, he breaks out of the compound and steals a batch that he brings back to the compound to turn loose on his comrades. Once they are able to reason like homo sapiens and communicate with each other, they organize a break and descend on San Francisco, eventually having a showdown with the cops on the Golden Gate Bridge. Summer films do not come much better than this.

The first film ends with the apes arriving safely into the forests beyond the Golden Gate Bridge and carving out a liberated territory akin to the quilombos, the settlements founded by runaway slaves in Brazil in the 17th century.

“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” opens with a hunting party carefully organized by the apes nearby the village they have built on the side of a mountain deep within the California forests north of San Francisco suggesting that of the ancient Pueblo Indians in New Mexico. Clearly intending to evoke indigenous life, the apes stampede deer over a cliff just as the Indians of the northern Plains did with bison. Life within the ape village is harmonious and serene notwithstanding the rivalries between alpha males that occur universally in conditions where survival rests on the power of dominant males such as Caesar, their chief.

Their happiness is threatened when an expedition of humans enters their territory in search of a dam that can supply electricity to a colony of survivors in San Francisco who have a genetic immunity to the retrovirus in the first film that proved deadly to 95 percent of the human race. Once again, in an obvious nod to the troubled history of European colonizers in the New World, it is a virus that has proved genocidal except in this instance against the colonizers. Montezuma’s Revenge on a grand scale.


Caesar and Koba, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

The first instinct of the apes is to block the humans from entering their territory en route to the dam, and even to go to San Francisco and wipe out the survivors in a preemptive strike. Making that case most forcefully is Koba, the scarred and bitter survivor of fiendish “experiments” conducted by scientists. Although no friend of the human race, Caesar recommends that they be allowed to work on the dam since a war would cost the lives of more apes than humans.

Keep in mind that Andy Serkis, who plays Caesar, and Toby Kebbell, who plays Koba, are no different than any actor who plays in an animated film like “How to Train Your Dragon” as the apes are entirely computer-generated images. That being said, they would be my choice for best actor and best supporting actor in 2014. Koba’s role is expanded considerably in the sequel, taking advantage of his similarity to Joseph Stalin, after whom he was named.

If the film is a meditation on the clash between European colonizers and indigenous peoples, it is also a variation on Orwell’s “Animal Farm”. Like the barnyard animals in “Animal Farm” that have carried out a successful revolution that is betrayed by a cunning and brutal pig named Napoleon, a clear stand-in for Stalin, the apes are misled by Koba who is Stalin to Caesar’s Trotsky.

As one would hope for and expect in any intelligent work of literature, a villain must be a compelling figure. The characterization of Koba succeeds on its own summer blockbuster terms, a villain nearly as complex as any crafted by Shakespeare. In one of the most brilliant scenes in the film, Koba strolls into the human’s armory as if he was lost. When he approaches the two heavily armed guards, he pretends to be an ordinary chimp, smacking his lips, rubbing his belly, and generally acting like a clown. After they decide that he is a harmless creature and relax their guard, he wrests a machine gun from one of the men and blows both to kingdom come.

Pierre Boulle wrote the novel “Planet of the Apes” in 1963. Understandably, it has led to a number of film adaptations since the theme is timeless, namely how human beings and the animal kingdom can co-exist. Not so long ago, I had the opportunity to watch “The Roots of Heaven” for the first time since 1958 when it premiered. The film told the story of a band of nonviolent guerrillas determined to end elephant poaching in French Equatorial Africa. Like Boulle, Romain Gary–the author of the novel that it was based on—was a member of the French Resistance. In a key scene, he puts his own words into the mouth of one of his animal rights fighters, a scientist named Peer Qvist. They not only apply to elephants, but all creatures large and small, especially the gorillas, chimpanzees and orangutans threatened by capitalist “progress”:

My duty is to protect all the species, all the living roots that heaven planted into the earth. I’ve been fighting all my life for their preservation. Man is destroying the forest, poisoning the ocean, poisoning the very air we breathe with radiation. The oceans, the forests, the race of animals, mankind are the roots of heaven. Poison heaven’s roots and the tree will be done and die. The stars will go out and heaven will be destroyed.

If you’ve never seen “How to Train Your Dragon”, my strongest recommendation is to watch the DVD from Netflix or on Amazon streaming—especially with your kids even if they are college age. Along with “The Iron Giant”, “Ratatouille”, and “Princess Mononoke”, it is an animated film that can be enjoyed by people from 9 to 90. From my review:

Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) is the young son of a Viking warrior named Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler) who sees him as a kind of screw-up whose ability to turn into a dragon-slayer was limited at best. Hiccup is in a training program with other young Vikings who seem much more bloodthirsty than him, including a girl named Astrid (America Ferrera) who eventually becomes his love interest. Despite the fact that the characters are Vikings, they tend to speak in Scottish brogue that actually works well despite being anomalous.

One day Hiccup discovers a flying dragon in the bottom of a ravine that is trying desperately to fly away but keeps failing because part of his tail has been chopped off, courtesy of a Viking no doubt. Seeing the creature as vulnerable, in a way mirroring his own Milquetoast tendencies, he decides to take pity on it and treat it decently. This involves raiding his parents’ icebox (literally) and bringing back a fish that Toothless, his name for the dragon, devours. Showing his gratitude the way that a cat might offer up a dead mouse to its master, the dragon regurgitates the tail end of the fish that Hiccup is expected to eat. This he does to great comic effect. I should add that I found Jay Baruchel, the voice for Hiccup, totally engaging even though I could not stand him in the Canadian indie titled “The Trotsky”. As is so often the case, the script is key. “How to Train Your Dragon” has a great script and “The Trotsky” did not.

At a certain point the Vikings decide to raid the lair of a super-dragon that has the other dragons in thrall. The dragons have only resorted to raids on the Viking camps in order to steal food that they must deliver to their master. In the rousing climax of this movie, a group of Viking youth who have been converted to Hiccup’s pro-dragon orientation join the battle flying the creatures in Avatar fashion. This is about as thrilling a ten minutes of animated action as you are ever going to see and worth sharing with your kids or enjoying on your own, even if you are a 66 year old kid like me.

The sequel—alas—was not worth making. Probably it was only made to exploit the popularity of the original and boost the studio’s bottom line. Since the original was entirely about the struggle conducted by Hiccup to convince his fellow Vikings that dragons were harmless, a sequel that dispensed with this dramatic tension had little to work with. When the film opens, Hiccup introduces the audience to the wonders of his village where every household owns a dragon. Like Caesar’s village in the Apes sequel, bliss is universal.

Before long, Hiccup discovers that the evil Viking Drago Bludvist is intent on destroying his village with an invasion force of dragons that are not susceptible to domestication. His secret weapon is a super-dragon called the Alpha that is capable of controlling the minds of ordinary dragons. He is called Alpha because he is a dominant male but unlike Caesar he is bent on destruction. Alpha is a perfect match for Bludvist who has been driven mad by a dragon attack on his own village that killed his wife and children and left him without an arm. Like Captain Ahab, he is determined to kill his mortal enemies, any dragon or human being that resists the army that he and Alpha command. In other words, he is the film’s counterpart to Koba the demonic chimp.

With this as a set-up, the film boils down to one confrontation after another between good and evil dragons that will certainly pass muster with anybody—young or old—who is addicted to video games and gets a kick out of the “Transformers” franchise.

It left me cold.

Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.


Louis Proyect blogged at https://louisproyect.wordpress.com and was the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviewed films for CounterPunch.