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Culture Warrior: Rise of the Planet of the Allegories

By  · Published on August 9th, 2011

Culture Warrior

Warning: this editorial contains spoilers for Rise of the Planet of the Apes (and, for that matter, the original Planet of the Apes). Consider yourself warned, you maniacs!

The original Planet of the Apes lends itself quite readily to allegory. 1968, the year of the film’s release, was the peak of one of the most tumultuous eras in American social history. Martin Luther King, Jr. was gunned down in April of that year, and Robert F. Kennedy’s death followed a mere two months later. Student resistance and campus demonstrations grew increasingly violent in their opposition to the Vietnam War, the Chicago DNC broke into an all-out war, and racial discord mounted.

Of course, none of this had happened yet when Planet of the Apes went into production, but the intersections of intent and circumstance that permit the film to be read so heavily, so variously, and so often in allegorical terms enrich the original film and its sequels with resonance that outlives whatever else may date it. Beyond entertainment value, the Planet of the Apes series has lingered in the popular imagination not because of any strong connection to a specific associative meaning, but because of the many possible allegorical readings it is capable of containing. One of several reasons that Rise of the Planet of the Apes succeeds where previous reincarnations of the series did not is its reclaimed capacity for allegory.

Planet of the Apes

That Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling, who often used fantastic genres as a template for exploring humanist political themes, was at one point a screenwriter for this film points to its potential for allegory from its inception. Planet of the Apes was arguably the gateway film that gave way to a humanist strain of pre-Star Wars 1970s science fiction that addressed evolving social and cultural concerns (later titles include Silent Running, Logan’s Run, the Body Snatchers remake, and other Heston vehicles The Omega Man and Soylent Green).

Certainly, there are allegorical aspects of Planet of the Apes that are so blatant as to indisputably involve intent. One is the film’s denunciation of nuclear proliferation realized in its famous climactic moment where Charlton Heston realizes the planet is a future Earth long-destroyed by the hubristic “maniacs” who blew it all to hell (a hark back to the allegories of atomic age sci-fi). The other is the tensions between evolution and of religious ideological rigidity, exercised throughout as Heston’s arrival brings all that the apes thought they knew from their culture’s sacred text into question, to the satisfaction of their scientific community.

But the film’s central and most pervasive allegory – that is, what to make of its reversal of traditional domination/subordination hierarchies – is where the metaphorical territory becomes both messy and interesting, as this is the arena in which a variety of meanings that speak specifically to 1968 and resonate beyond come to life.

Planet of the Apes’ high concept is basically a narrative exercise in John Rawls’ hypothetical ethics scenario “the veil of ignorance,” in which he argues the only way to form a just society is to imagine that society irrespective of one’s particular degree of privilege within it. This mental exercise requires readers to imagine a veil in which one does not yet know their position within society beforehand. Planet of the Apes, in essence, lifts the veil and in the process reveals what the dominant caste (in terms of race, gender, opportunity, education, class, privilege, species) takes for granted by reversing the weight of power between groups, thus calling into question any previous social assumption of inherent superiority (that’s quite a haul coming from a film adapted from a book by a French colonialist).

The polemic of Planet of the Apes is its promotion of empathy and understanding through the dismantling of assumed social roles. In retrospect and most certainly at the time, this urgency for empathy was a mirror reflecting a period in which people were divided by political understanding, generation, race, gender, and sexuality, contending with each other over beliefs previously assumed to be unquestioned, self-evident truths. However, the most obvious allegory, the one that has been explored time and again, is the film’s racial allegory.

In his essay “Signifying Monkeys,” Richard Von Busak claims the race allegory was hardly obvious to the filmmakers, but was undeniably evident to black audiences who read volumes into the powerful reversal of the white man as subordinate opposite the grossest of stereotypes he once perpetuated literalized here as his oppressor (172). This is admittedly problematic territory (further complicated by the film’s own stereotypical depiction of its sole African American character), since even assuming this direct of an allegorical connection today is difficult to endorse without cringing a bit. But as Von Busak points out, it’s hard to imagine audiences experiencing the moment where Heston is violently hosed down by the apes without thinking of the iconography of the hose on the streets in 1968. According to Joe Russo and Larry Landsman, Sammy Davis, Jr. called Planet of the Apes the best statement of the relations between blacks and whites he’d ever seen (4).

Planet of the Apes as a discourse on race was certainly understood by filmmakers in later films as the associations became more explicit in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972), modeled after the Watts riots, and Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973), which addresses fears of the Black Power movement (Greene 1). In Planet of the Apes as American Myth, Eric Greene points out that while the original film’s timely racial allegory spoke to many audiences, other subordinate groups throughout history have been “primitivized” through cultural slurs, contributing to the film’s allegorical elasticity which feeds its continued resonance (5–6).

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Where the original film asks us to experience a reversal of power experienced by a character in a seat of assumed power, Rise of the Planet of the Apes asks us to do the exact opposite in identifying with a species initially oppressed by the hierarchical structures to their resistance against the oppressor. As the film from its very first scene settles us into the perspective of Bright Eyes and later Caesar (the film literally zooms into the head of an ape); as its human characters are (for the most part) hardly compelling; and as the simians’ manifestation of resistance in the third act is so damn compelling, Rise of the Planet of the Apes might be one of the most audacious Hollywood films to be released in recent years in terms of asking audiences to root for – or, at least, empathize with – the dismantling of dominant society.

One could argue that the simian protagonists of Rise seek not to overtake all humanity, but only the most rotten of its very bad apples (David Oyelowo’s bloodsucking capitalist, John Lithgow’s rage-aholic emotional infant of a neighbor, militant police power, Draco Malfoy), but Ceasar’s “mercy” in distinguishing the true oppressors from functionaries in an oppressive system retains an understanding that even benevolent participants are still complicit in a subjugating system. The “good” ape wrangler, then, is not killed, but simply placed in the very prison – and social place – the apes themselves previously occupied. In the film’s final moments , when James Franco’s Will tells Caesar that it wasn’t his fault, the obvious naivety of this statement assists Caesar in justifying his decision to consider even his former caretaker at least part of the enemy class (if not a direct enemy).

In Domination and the Arts of Resistance, James C. Scott discusses the differences in social transcripts within hierarchies of power. “Public transcripts” consist of understandings of reality imposed by the dominant class, while “hidden transcripts” pertain to knowledge shared between members of the oppressed class unknown by their oppressors. When a hidden transcript is uttered in public, it disrupts the status quo:

“The first open statement of a hidden transcript, a declaration that breaches the etiquette of power relations, that breaks an apparently calm surface of silence and consent, carries the force of a symbolic declaration of war” (8).

The best sequence of Rise in my opinion is in the ape prison, where the film illustrates the pedagogical potential of the prison setting to demonstrate how hierarchies of power and oppression can be understood and thus overcome. Caesar’s declaration of “No” is shocking not only because of its evolutionary impossibility, but rather because it illustrates the disruption incurred and prospective usurpation of power wielded when the hidden transcript is finally made public.

Instead of presenting us an instantaneous glimpse of what may lie behind the veil of ignorance, Rise asks us to witness the violent, arduous process of a dominant class losing its grip on power. While the veil narrative allowed various (racial and otherwise) allegories to follow Planet of the Apes from 1968 onward, Rise of the Planet of the Apes speaks specifically to 2011 through entirely different allegorical possibilities. The 21st century has already witnessed the threatened dismantling of many things previously taken for granted as a continuous part of American life: print newspapers, the country’s AAA credit rating, icebergs, reliable weather, levees, the permanence of skyscrapers, and even our country’s status as a world superpower. It’s hard to watch a film where humanity is shocked to learn they may no longer be the dominant species without thinking about what other “self-evident truths” have been taken for granted.

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