Beastly Humans and Humane Beasts

Still from “The War of the Planet of the Apes.”

One of the primary imperatives of the Hollywood film industry is to make money, just is it would be for laxative or automobile manufacturers. Unlike the lonely art of literature that only requires a computer or typewriter to get started (or even a pen or pencil for the Luddites among us), film-making is an expensive proposition. The average budget for an independent film is $750,000, something that is beyond the means of most aspiring filmmakers. For the big production companies that will spend $80 million for a film like “American Made” that opens today, the emphasis is on hiring “bankable” stars like Tom Cruise who plays the drug dealer and Oliver North operative Barry Seal. That $80 million was almost as much as Congress voted for Nicaraguan contra funding in the year that Seal was involved in a sting operation against the Sandinistas.

Once you have the bankable star, you need to consult with the studio’s top financial geniuses who likely will recommend bankable genres that are geared to the youth market that will see a film multiple times and that consumes large boxes of popcorn given its youthful appetites. Just yesterday, when I went to see the film that is the subject of this review at a Manhattan AMC Cineplex, I decided to pick up a small box of popcorn even though I knew it was be deluged with salt—a means of luring me back to the concession stand to slake my thirst. When the concessionaire told me that it would cost $8.37, I decided against the purchase since the raw materials only cost AMC ten cents.

The youth market is drawn to two kinds of films like moths to a flame. The first are those that are based on Marvel comic books and others in this vein. The second are sequels to a successful film largely based on the Marvel comic book or videogame sensibility such as Transformers or Mortal Kombat. Closely related to this genre are remakes of classic films such as Star Wars or The Magnificent Seven that are generally inferior to the original.

Ostensibly a remake product of the bookkeeping mentality, the film I saw yesterday was the third in a recent series of Planet of the Apes films. Since I had not seen a single Hollywood film this year, I realized that I would look like an interloper at the December NYFCO awards meeting unless I came up with a few plausible nominations. Unlike my colleagues, most of whom are trying to make a living as reviewer, I am under no obligation to see something like Transformers. In fact, when I received a pass years ago to see films being shown at AMC theaters after becoming a member of NYFCO, I almost never used it.

Despite having all the earmarks of Hollywood commercialism, “The War for the Planet of the Apes” is a singular instance of art trumping commerce.

Unlike “American Made”, “The War for the Planet of the Apes” has no bankable stars unless you are talking about Woody Harrelson who plays The Colonel, the commander of a battalion determined to exterminate the apes. As was the case with the two earlier films in this series, the apes are all computer-generated. However, in terms of character development, the apes are far more complex and interesting than any you are likely to find in films geared to the youth market. The central character is Caesar, who we first met in “The Rise of the Planet of the Apes” and then again in “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”. Played by Andy Serkis, who was best-known beforehand as the Gollum in the Fellowship of the Rings films, his is a voice-over performance like you would see in an animated feature. However, what a voice-over it is! Serkis combines the sense of deep personal grievance over his abandonment from a human family, the gravitas of a statesman in his role of rebel leader, an finally an ability to transcend hatred in his dealings with the treacherous homo sapiens.

Serkis, a British citizen of Armenian descent, is a classically trained actor who started off at the Dukes Playhouse, whose director Jonathan Petherbridge taught acting according to the precepts of Augusto Boal, the Brazilian founder of the Theatre of the Oppressed that was part of the Brazilian left until Boal was exiled in 1971. As a young stage actor, Serkis performed in plays by Brecht and Shakespeare. As such he was ideally suited to a role like Caesar since both Brecht and Shakespeare had the ability to bring the wretched of the earth to life. Despite his identification with royalty, Shakespeare also created Caliban, the enslaved demon that rebuked his master Prospero:

You taught me language; and my profit on’t
Is, I know how to curse. The red plague rid you
For learning me your language!

At the heart of the films based on Pierre Boulle’s 1963 novel is the question of what separates mankind from the “lower animals”. While omnipresent in all of the films inspired by the novel, it is the lynchpin of the new series that began in 2011 with the “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”. This film maps closely to the experiments conducted on Nim Chimpsky under the supervision of Columbia professor Herbert Terrace who agreed with Noam Chomsky, the chimp’s namesake, that only homo sapiens are capable of language.

In that film, Caesar is removed from the home of Terrace’s counterpart, a scientist played by James Franco (perhaps being separated from Franco is not the worst fate?), and sent to an ape sanctuary where he is cruelly mistreated just like the other beasts. Using the intellectual powers—including speech—that was made possible by an experimental drug Franco’s character has developed, he organizes an escape of the apes from the sanctuary that leads next to the liberation of their brethren from the city zoo. The film climaxes with a mammoth battle between ape and man on the Golden Gate Bridge in which man loses. The happy conclusion shows Caesar and the freed apes in the forest north of the city, thankful for their deliverance.

Three years later “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” was released. In that film, the liberated apes have to fend off attacks by the small number of human beings that have survived the Simian Flu. Finding an ally in a human being named Malcolm, Caesar seeks a non-aggression pact with his traditional enemies but is thwarted by Koba, a Bonobo chimp that has a burning hatred for the human race after suffering terrible pains in experiments they carried out on him. Some critics, including me, considered the possibility at the time that Koba was supposed to represent Stalin since Koba was his nickname. But upon further reflection, that might be unlikely since Stalin was far more interested in non-aggression pacts with evil military powers than any communist past or present.

“War for the Planet of the Apes”, still playing in theaters everywhere, maintains the high quality of the prior films, no doubt a function of the fine screenplay co-written by Mark Bomback and director Matt Reeves. Bomback, who was a Film and English literature at Wesleyan University, was asked by “Scripts and Scribes” about how that helped him as a screenwriter. His reply: “The undergraduate film program at Wesleyan was, for me, invaluable, mostly because it was theory-driven as opposed to overly focused on production. It taught me not only how to talk about film but how to think about film, and it instilled in me a profound appreciation for the medium as an art form that I’m not sure I would have come to otherwise.” The medium as an art form? If only other screenwriters thought in those terms, Hollywood would be capable of much better films.

The latest film, like the prior two, hinges on battle scenes between ape and men, where you inevitably root for the apes. The crowning irony of all of the Planet of the Apes films, except for the very first that is based on Boulle’s novel, is that humans are bestial and beasts are humane. Caesar’s values are found in all the great religions such as mercy, justice and compassion. He respects the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Unfortunately, class society tends to be inimical to the Golden Rule as European colonizers tended to regard the colonized as less than human. In the first film in the series that starred Charlton Heston, we loathed the apes because they were so much like the human beings that were responsible for the war in Vietnam, racism and cruelty towards animals.

The three films of recent vintage take place before the apes become rulers. As such, the apes are much more sympathetic despite the presence of Koba and his followers or the apes who have decided to throw in their lot with the Colonel as traitors to their race. Called “donkeys” by the soldiers, they function as porters (hence their name) and guard over the apes their masters have enslaved.

In the beginning of the film, Caesar leads a counter-attack against the Colonel’s incursion into his base camp. Later on, another attack led by the Colonel himself results in the death of Caesar’s wife and older son. This leads him to the conclusion that peace will only be possible if he kills the Colonel. Like Koba, he becomes obsessed with the need for revenge, only tempered by the belief that co-existence might still be possible once the mad militarist has been eliminated.

On the way to the Colonel’s camp, Caesar and his three lieutenants discover the bodies of three soldiers under his command who have been left to die. One, who is near death, is mute. We eventually learn that the Colonel has begun to kill all men and women who have been exposed to a Simian Flu mutation that robs people of their ability to speak and to reason except on the most primitive level thus referring to the plot of the first film made back in 1968, where human beings are no longer capable of speech.

What is the difference between homo sapiens and the rest of the animal kingdom? According to Engels, it is the ability to use tools but studies of chimpanzees as well as crows indicates that they too have such an ability on at least a primitive level.

On June 10th of this year, an appellate court ruled that chimpanzees are not “legal persons”. Steven Wise, an attorney with the Nonhuman Rights Project, sued to have them granted the right of habeas corpus in order to facilitate their removal as pets from private owners. In ruling against the plaintiff, Appellate Judge Troy Webber wrote that “The asserted cognitive and linguistic capabilities of chimpanzees do not translate to a chimpanzee’s capacity or ability, like humans, to bear legal duties, or to be held legally accountable for their actions.”

Legally accountable for their actions? Apparently Judge Webber had not been following the subhuman patterns of the current president of the United States.

Louis Proyect blogged at and was the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviewed films for CounterPunch.