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.)