On Rise of the Planet of the Apes

There are going to be spoilers abound in this post, so be warned. I’m not going to retread the film, so read a plot synopsis here 

I think that Rise of the Planet of the Apes is the best movie I have seen this year. It is magnificently paced, I was never bored, and it presents an amazing case for an ethical calculus that includes animals without beating the viewer over the head with an ANIMAL RIGHTS NOW! message, which makes it infinitely more palatable to a general audience.

I’m not sure why the academic blogosphere hasn’t exploded over this movie. It certainly did with Inception, a smart movie designed to make the viewer feel smart, but I think that Apes has so, so much more going on with it, including multiple ways to interpret Caesar’s quest for “home.”

I think that is where some of the most rewarding analysis of this film can occur: what does “home” mean? The film presents us with several ideas of home, the first being the literal room that Caesar grows up in. Apes does a great job of creating a constellation of symbols and meanings around the idea of home for both the viewer and Caesar; home means: the window, the leash, James Franco, John Lithgow, and, in the beginning of the film, security.

This constellation of symbols is shattered in the second act of the film, and that’s where I think that it really hooked me emotionally. Caesar, seeing the neighbor beating his “grandfather,” is understandably enraged, and in that moment unleashes the full potential of his body. If we’re going to talk like Marxists, he has been alienated from his body, and in that moment reaches into himself and pulls out something that obviously horrifies him. What is interesting to me is that the rage was immanent, and that potential was barely sublimated under a veneer of sign language and clothing.

The same process occurs when he is imprisoned in the Primate Sanctuary. Caesar it totally stripped of his “humanity” and then, and only then, can he make the decision to never go “home” again. But we need to be careful here–speaking of Caesar’s struggle in terms of “humanity” or “civilization” can lead us down a fucked-up path. Instead, it needs to be made plain that all of those things are shown to fail Caesar. Only his being-ape is dependable or is politically solvent for him.

There is a fine line between being politically awakened and being stripped of all rights and “being-ness.” The former does not automatically mean the latter, but the film certainly makes a connection for us–the use of resistance imagery is especially telling. Caesar has a strong hose used on him, strongly evocative of Civil Rights protests, and soon after that comes to an very political conclusion: one ape is weak, many apes are strong. The example used, that of twigs, is rooted in the very definition of fascism, which I was shocked by. That becomes the only political alternative for Caesar and his ape compatriots: a resistance against oppression with every bit of their bodies and minds. The fact that the hose is later used to kill Draco Malfoy only solidifies the ideology that Caesar presents: the master’s tools are the tools of revolution.

And so we come back to home. As I said earlier, “home” in the film transitions from the childhood home of James Franco to the jail cell where Caesar if forced to live, but the symbology perseveres. In drawing the window on the wall of his cell, Caesar makes an appeal to the “home”–he wants to be back there, and attempts to pretend that it is somehow possible to get there. This is reversed when he erases the symbol, of course, and it is that moment that he realizes that “home” is in a political ideology of revolt.

So the end of the film gives a lot of things. We see some humans justly killed for being total shits, we see a plague occurring that will presumably wipe out the human animal, and Caesar is “home.” But wait a second. We see, on the side of the road, a sign with graffiti on it in the shape of the window that Caesar painted on his cell wall. James Franco’s home has become a pure symbol, divested of its original meaning, now standing in only for revolt.

So we’re left with a destroyed world at the end of Rise of the Planet of the Apes. The apes will take human technology and appropriate it and speak and begin where human beings ended; that is the nature of that story. I think this film will be analyzed again and again. There’s the obvious psychoanalytic angle, the hubris angle, the proletarian revolt angle. It’s a teachable film, certainly.

Anyway, that’s what I thought about it.

(I have made a second post about this film here.)

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15 Responses to On Rise of the Planet of the Apes

  1. Jason Read says:

    Hi, I like your discussion of the film, especially the ambiguity of “home” and the symbol of home. I also posted about the film in my little corner of the academic blogosphere:

  2. Fred says:

    Excellent post, Cameron. I left the movie feeling that the filmmakers had perhaps too deftly toed the line between thrust and depth–to me, it seemed that there were too many “big questions” and analytical approaches merely intimated and not satisfactorily explored. I still feel that way in some respects, but your post has convinced me that perhaps there was more actually going on (not merely latent) in the film than I originally thought.

    • kunzelman says:

      I mean, there’s only so much that you can do in a summer blockbuster. Beyond that, I would much rather the film lay some ideas on my and let me work them out later rather than beat me over the head with them. There’s something rewarding in analysis.

      Another thing that I thought was interesting was the nonviolence of the uprising–Caesar is shown several times preventing other apes from killing humans.

      • Fred says:

        I think you’re probably right about letting the film “lay ideas” on you and letting (forcing?) you to analyse it on your own. You could probably relate that rapport to the film’s treatment of interiority–in other words, can we really get inside the monkey’s head? The film’s answer to that is fairly obvious, I think.

        At the same time, too much “laying down” and not enough exploration can in some cases lend a sense of hollowness, though perhaps not here.

        Also, agreed on the (from my viewing, difficult-to-explain) nonviolence of the uprising, especially in light of Caesar’s earlier altercations with Lithgow’s assailant and with Draco Malfoy etc. Why does Caesar choose nonviolent means? Is that Caesar’s “baggage” or is the film making a claim of its own?

        • kunzelman says:

          There’s something strange going on with the nonviolence–the way that Caesar deals with Lithgow’s assailant clearly disturbs Caesar, and I think the murder of Draco Malfoy is an “accident” in that they didn’t mean for him to be electrocuted to death.

          I think the nonviolence probably has something to do with Caesar simply desiring a separatist utopia. He wants to go “home” and take all of the apes with him, and in doing he does not desire the death of humans. I think it’s a weird misstep in the film, and I think it also comes from the film being PG13. I think a much more realistic scenario would have been apes tearing the faces, arms, and legs off of people.

  3. B says:

    Interesting post, I’d like to make an addition/correction of sorts; when Caeser uses the analogy of the twigs, it does appear at first to relate to fascism but it is actually more accurate to say it is a reference to Roman symbolism, which is where Italian fascists borrowed the symbol in the first place. Because we are still closer to facism historically and as a cultural reference it is easy to miss the Roman origin as I also did at first when I saw the film yesterday. I have to say I didn’t expect to enjoy the film much at all but it was actually very well done and a lot more subtle and clever than I gave it credit for initially. It was also more thought provoking in a deeper way than the aforementioned Inception which wanted to shout its ‘smartness’ from the rooftops, and was lacking as a result.

    I liked your post on the film btw, just came across your blog and I intend to read some more of it. B

    • kunzelman says:

      You’re absolutely right about the twigs, but I think it echoes far more of fascism than anything else–the twigs are called “fasces” after all. Being historically closer to Italian fascism does inform the way I read the scene, though, and it’s good to ground the symbol a little better in historical context. Thanks for your comment, and I hope you like the blog!

      • Simon Pasini says:

        Very interesting reference to fascist symbolism, doesn’t the birthmark on Caesar’s shoulder resemble the ‘Fascio’ too?

  4. Pete says:

    This film has many levels and you have touched on just a few.the pharmaceutical compies only interested in making money and willing to destroy any living thing to gain a sellable product.Man trying to “cure’ itself
    recognizing the rapid destruction of of men’s minds,the willingness to go beyond ethics. Is this the eventual evolution of our planet? We try to create something good but end up creating something that will eventually destroy us .Is violence contageous,learned? Mankinds inability to control technology. Man’s inability to control power and seen by the ape caretakerwho abuses rather then nourishes the apes in bully behavior.Ceasar becomes the leader not by brute force but through his knowledge and ability to communicate.the james franco scientist

  5. I realize I’m coming to the discussion a bit late, but I tend to wait for movies to come out on DVD. 🙂 I found your post in a search related to the symbolism of the movie (I was mostly curious whether the window symbol that Caesar draw on his cell wall was used in the original films).

    Enjoyed the discussion here, and just had a comment related to Caesar’s repeated sparing of human lives. I noticed it, too. Although you could look at this as odd or out of place in a bestial mind-set (or in a revolutionary), it worked for me. I saw it as two things:

    1) Caesar was raised with love by humans and this made a lasting impression. While he eventually realized that they (humans) were not his people and did not see him as equal to them, he did not see them as The Enemy and treated them with the same “humanity” (respect for life) that he was raised with.

    2) It’s a popular belief that the “higher functions” of the brain — higher reasoning, higher intelligence — include and/or result in some moral virtues. Not based on religion, but on an awareness of your own sense of self and an intuitive understanding that others also have this sense of self… and therefore an understanding that if you don’t like it being done to you, then you shouldn’t do it to others.

    So I figured the movie was saying or assuming that with higher intelligence comes more “civilized” behavior that regulates the “baser” bestial impulses like murderous rage.

    Anyway, just my two cents. Nice to have a place to talk about the movie. Saw it last night and really enjoyed that it wasn’t as heart-wrenching nor as gory as it could have been.

    Thanks for the link to Jason’s blog — that was a good read, too.

    • kunzelman says:

      I think that’s smart commentary. I haven’t seen the movie since my initial cinematic experience, and since I was recently given the flick, I will probably watch it and post again about it.

      I think that both of your points are salient, but i think what might be going on in the film with the sparing of lives is that Caesar is able to recognize his sovereignty. I mean this pretty literally; Caesar recognizes that he has the ability to decide who lives and who dies. It makes sense–he is the leader of his new ape nation, the “executive” branch that decides who lives or die.

      So I’m not sure it’s the development of a self and “finding the golden rule” that suppresses his impulses. Instead, I think that it might be the recognition that he has power–sovereign power–over the lives of the humans in the film when he is awakened to his being-ape.

      But it’s really just a matter of framing. I think your comment is insightful. I will be really interested in what critics have to say about the film in the next five years.

      • Interesting take. Where are you getting your concept of “sovereignty”? (Not a challenge, a question, as I’m mostly unfamiliar with the intellectual bases for the discussions I see happening here. You guys read different books than I do.)

        I think Caesar did recognize his sovereignty — his power to make the choice of life and death for someone else. But I don’t think that sovereignty itself was the root cause or reason for choosing to spare the life (or let them die, as in the case of Jacobs in the helicopter). It’s the power he’s wielding, but not the reason for wielding it mercifully.

        Allowing people he discerns as “good” to live and others he discerns as “evil” to die, is a value choice, isn’t it? The question (if I’m looking at this right) is: Where is that value coming from?

        Of course, most individuals (ape or human, ha!) aren’t that self-aware. Take a guy off the street and give him power of life and death over those around him, and it could easily boil down to “I like you, I let you live” and “I don’t like you, I’ll let you die”. There are values based in personal experience (“you were nice to me”, “you weren’t nice to me”) and then there are values based in abstract societal / inter-relational concepts (“I should be nice to you because I want you to be nice to me” and “I will be nice because when everyone is nice to each other, the world is a better place”).

        Along the lines of “framing”, which I take to mean “what the movie-makers meant to say or emphasize or imply by Caesar’s sparing of certain lives” (or what we can take away from it, whether they meant it or not), then I agree that it could simply be a way of emphasizing to the viewer that the apes now have the power of life and death over humans. The transition of “top of the food chain” or “master species” from humans to apes.

        Looking forward to future posts. Enjoy your re-watching!

        • kunzelman says:

          I am using sovereignty in both the political and personal sense–Caesar rules over the apes and rules over himself, recognizing no higher authority.

          We’re basically in agreement in everything about the movie. I would say that what you call a value is just a byproduct of sovereignty to me. Self-awareness has to come first (what I am calling his being-ape), and it’s a self-awareness that recognizes that the self is powerful. It isn’t so much a question of who lives or dies in the film for me, but instead it is a steady process of Caesar recognizing that he has the power to decide who lives and dies.

          Thanks for the discussion!

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