Compassion, Destruction, and Rise of the Planet of the Apes

By Gareth Higgins 08-26-2011

Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a surprising addition to the typical summer blockbuster canon -- for one thing, it manages to entertain and challenge, without resorting to gratuitous violence to make its point. But there's a deeper subtext that is even more unexpected -- for this is a story in which we start to lose.

It was fashionable in the late 1960s and early '70s for science fiction films to attempt to out-dystopia each other -- see for example the notion in Soylent Green that post-industrial humanity snacks on itself to survive, the suggestion that only robots can be trusted to look after creation in Silent Running, and the climactic revelation in the original Planet of the Apes that a few generations from now, the nuclear arms race will end in mutually assured destruction. All these point to a simple philosophical idea: that humans cannot be trusted to care for ourselves or the planet we steward.

So you don't go to a Planet of the Apes film for a lark -- although the new prequel is tremendous cinematic entertainment (a phenomenal motion-captured performance by Andy Serkis as the ape Caesar, a magnificent action set piece on the Golden Gate Bridge). The film is interested in asking questions about our place in the universe -- "playing God"; investigating the implied conflict between wanting freedom and wanting peace; the pure motivation to alleviate pain colliding with the breakdown of community relations. It's fascinating that the key plot axis in Rise of the Planet of the Apes is possible only because two characters who live next door to each other haven't spoken for five years and therefore are less likely to show empathy when something goes horribly wrong.

We the audience are turned on by scenes of compassion and destruction alike -- we are moved by John Lithgow's portrayal of an Alzheimer's sufferer who may be helped by the ape-experimented treatment, just as we are enthralled by the fight on the bridge, and a particular coup de cinema when Caesar takes an evolutionary leap. And yet, we're being entertained by the story of our own destruction. We know that after this prequel ends, Charlton Heston will travel forward in time, and discover that the Statue of Liberty is made of a very hard-wearing metal. And things won't look too good for human beings then. But we still laugh and cheer with the apes. Maybe it's because we want to take the side of the underdog, maybe it's because we need to laugh at things that frighten us, maybe most of all it's a knowing response to a necessary path: the one of working very hard to tell the difference between God and us.

Gareth Higgins is a Sojourners contributing editor and executive director of the Wild Goose Festival. Originally from Northern Ireland, he lives in Carrboro, North Carolina.

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