If you’re a Millenial or older, then chances are that you saw at least one of the films from the original Planet of the Apes franchise. I remember watching Planet of the Apes (1968) while experiencing a mixture of awe at the material and confusion at how Moses (Charlton Heston, of The Ten Commandments) had become an astronaut. Based on the French novel, La Planete des Singes by Pierre Boulle, the original Planet of the Apes (1968) was an exposition of intergalactic exploration gone wrong, when a group of astronauts crash-lands on the planet, and are later taken into captivity and essentially forced into the same sort of exploitation and abuse that people of the African diaspora have suffered for hundreds of years here on Earth. While being a truly original film, Planet of the Apes (1968) was deeply ironic, in it’s portrayal of (White) humans as the victims of the apes, on a planet where they were unwanted and uninvited. The deep sympathy and compassion that this is supposed to evoke in the audience was one that various communities and civilizations of people of colour(PoC) across this planet have yet to receive. Our countries were raided, looted, and the people exploited, as they continue to be to this very day, but heaven forbid a White man becomes anyone’s hostage. The entire premise of the film, while original, is also deeply, inherently hypocritical. Rise of the Planet of the Apes remedies that.
A reboot based loosely on 1972’s Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (in which Americans have adopted slavery once again, only this time with apes as their property), Rise of the Planet of the Apes tells the origin story of a chimpanzee named Caesar (Andy Serkis) who would become the leader of a revolutionary ape rebellion starting in North America. Caesar is informally adopted as the son of biologist Will Rodham (James Franco) of the San Francisco biotech company Gen-Sys. Will is working hard to find a cure for Alzheimer’s disease, which his father, Charles (John Lithgow), is currently in the early stages of (dementia), but as with most pharmaceuticals, the viral-based drug he’s working with, ALZ-112, needs to be tested. That’s where Caesar’s mother, Bright Eyes, comes in. The wild, captive, and (unbeknownst to the humans) pregnant chimp responds positively to the drug, exhibiting greater intelligence and memory retention almost immediately. This should be good new for Gen-Sys, but when Bright Eyes is forced to leave her cage and goes on a rampage, Will’s boss, Steven Jacobs (David Oyelowo) demands that she and all the apes associated with the project be put down.
Will is so overcome with guilt that, when he learns the reason for Bright Eyes’ violent outburst was to protect the baby whom she’d recently given birth to, Will takes the baby chimp home, a secret closely guarded by him and the assistant who’d discovered Caesar, Robert Franklin (Tyler Labine). Will loves Caesar when he is young, cute, innocent, and wholly unaware that, for all his kindness, Will is the enemy. Both Will and his father love having Caesar around. Besides his natural gregariousness, Caesar also acquired AZ-112’s effect on his mother, in utero, essentially rendering him a chimpanzee with human intellect and comprehension. However, as Caesar grows older, and begins to ask questions, problems arise.
Caesar starts to question his identity and, more importantly, his relationship to Will, the man who calls him son, several years later (in chimp adolescence) when he is taken on a trip to the redwood forest and sees another family with their dog on a leash, just like him. Caesar loves Will and Charles, but hates the very valid notion that he is really nothing more than a glorified pet. When Caesar injures a neighbour’s dog in defense of Charles and is subsequently placed in a primate shelter, he realizes just how right he was about his position in the “family”. Will only makes matters worse when he brings a leash to take Caesar back home. This interaction, with the only father he’s ever know, brings an epiphany to Caesar and sparks a fire within him. He wants more than to be an accessory in Will’s life. Conditional tolerance in Will’s world is no longer enough. He wants respect. He is no longer willing to accept crumbs of autonomy from humans like Will anymore than he is the outright brutality of his guard at the shelter, Dodge Landon (Tom Felton). Caesar wants freedom, by any means necessary, for himself and all apes.
Caesar’s independence from well-meaning, but ultimately toxic Will, his road to winning the respect of his fellow captives at the primate shelter, and their hard journey towards liberation for all the other apes in surrounding areas are inspiring to watch. There is so much that people of colour (PoC) could stand to learn from this group of apes: that we are stronger as an exclusive group, that there should be no compromise when it comes to our civil rights, that anyone who benefits from the systems and ideologies of your oppressor at your expense is not and never will be your ally, that living in harmony with your oppressor is naught but a foolish pipe dream, and that freedom can only come from total separation from the societies of your oppressor and full investment to uplifting your own communities. More importantly, to how groups of PoC treat one another, Caesar continues to set another brilliant example. He does not want to be a king or a dictator over the other apes. He wants all members of his ape society to have equal rights, and does his part to ensure that by exposing them to the same drug that he was, putting them all on the same intellectual playing field. Caesar does not hate the humans or want to destroy them, but he understands that they do not want liberation for him and his kind, and doesn’t lament the human casualties of a war that humans started. He values the lives of the apes over the feelings and parasitic societies of the humans, making Caesar true revolutionary and visionary.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes is inadvertently intersectional and social justice oriented, a tale of complete decolonization, making it easily the best film in the entire franchise, and one overflowing with parallels to how the passive oppression doled out becomes incredibly aggressive any time PoC demand our full civil rights. Any time we venture out of the positions of entertaining or joyfully serving White people, we are accused of “complaining”. How dare we not want them to set the rules for our lives? How dare we not let groups like the UN set the rules for how we govern African, South American, and Asian nations? How dare the Indigenous peoples of the Americans demand sovereignty and liberty on the land that was stolen from them? How dare we demand that they stop killing us?!
In the case of Caesar and the other apes, how dare they not want to be used as medical tools or objects of human amusement? Although he later develops the ability to speak English, Caesar is not about talk. He isn’t here for sitting down and having demeaning conversations with is abusers about how they have hurt him, or begging for tolerance. Caesar and his ape army are heroes because they don’t ask for justice. They take it.
I give this one 5 stars.