Saturday, 9 August 2014

Battle for the Planet of the Apes and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes: History Repeating Itself?

Recently the latest instalment of the Planet of the Apes film series was released. Riding high on the success of the previous movie, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes opened to box office success and critical acclaim. Although not an official remake, Dawn shares more than a passing resemblance to the 1973 Apes movie, Battle for the Planet of the Apes. One of the main differences between the two films is their positions within their respective series. Where as Battle was the final film in a successful series that was facing decreasing budgets, Dawn, is the second movie in a rebooted series that is just hitting its straps. The original Apes series grew out of a movie that never intended to have a sequel, let alone four. On the other hand, Dawn is part of a pre-planned narrative cycle that moves towards the original Planet of the Apes concept and story line.

The Story Thus Far
Many people would be unaware that the Planet of the Ape began originally as a French novel, Las Planète de Singes by the author Pierre Boulle. Famous in English speaking countries for his novel and the subsequent film, Bridge over the River Kwai (1954), Boulle wrote Las Planète de Signe, a science fiction satire in 1963. Translated in English a Monkey Planet in 1964, Boulle felt the novel to be one of his minor works and potentially unfilmable. However, Boulle was surprised when in 1968, Las Planète de Singes leaped onto the big screen internationally as the Hollywood block buster Planet of the Apes. Following it’s box office success, Planet of the Apes, spawned four cinematic sequels, two TV series (live action and animated), more books, comics and a whole range of Apes merchandise. However by 1977 the Planet of the Apes franchise had seemed to have run it’s course. With the animated series finished and the last British annual and Marvel Comic being produced, the Apes phenomena was soon lost beneath the Star Wars tsunami that would soon engulf the world. Besides a series of 5 telemovies, edited together from episodes of the live action television show and a Hungarian comic adaption of the original novel, both in 1981, all seemed quiet on the simian front.

However by the late 80’s rumours of a new Apes project began to surface. By 1990 original comics based in the world of the Apes movies began to appear. Eventually a another movie adaption of the original novel appeared in 2001 and the Apes merchandising machine began to roll again. Although successful, 20th Century Fox Studios decided not to follow this movie up with a sequel but to reboot the series altogether. In 2011 Rise of the Planet of the Apes appeared in cinemas. Rise retold the origin story of Planet of the Apes. Instead of having intelligent apes from the future come back to the past to set in motion the ape revolution, Rise presented the origin of Ape civilisation as being the by product of human experimentation on apes in the search of a cure for Alzheimer’s. Drawing some comparisons with Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, the fourth film in the original Apes series, Rise was even more successful than its 2001 predecessor. Very soon a sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, was in production.

Dawn continued the story set up in Rise. Eschewing some of the Frankenstein themes raised in the first film, this movie explored the ‘fear of the other’ and the selfishness of revenge in the face of acceptance and forgiveness. Taking place ten years after the previous film, we learn that the virus, originally designed to cure Alzheimer’s and had caused the intelligence to grow exponentially in the apes, had gone on to decimate the human population. Many of the humans that were left had then turned on themselves, decreasing the human population even further. Meanwhile the super intelligent apes had continued to breed and advance, unaware that some humans still existed. It is when a group of humans enter into the ape’s forest that things become complicated. Also oblivious to the apes existence, the humans had come hoping to reactive a hydro electric damn to give the ruined San Francisco power once again. Despite the trust that develops between Caesar and several of the humans, war eventually breaks out between apes and humans. The conflict is instigated by the revenge filled bonobo, Koba (Toby Kebell) and the fear driven human leader, Dreyfus (Gary Oldman).

A Comparison of Battle and Dawn
In many ways this film is has much in common with Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973) the 5th instalment in the original series. Both films serve a similar function in the wider narrative of the Apes saga, both depicting the rise of ape society post apocalypse and the deterioration of human civilisation. In the forefront of both versions of ape society is an ape named Caesar. It is he who has lead the apes to emancipation from their human masters. However, these two versions of Caesar are radically different in origin. The Caesar in Battle is the child of Cornelius and Zira, the two chimpanzees from the original Planet of the Apes who have travelled back in time to escape earth’s destruction 2000 years in the future. The Caesar in Dawn is the child of a regular 21st century ape who has had her DNA genetically altered by being exposed to a virus that stimulates brain development. It is this virus that wipes out most of humanity and accelerates the intelligence of the apes that come in contact with it.

The two stories start with an ape society beginning to codify its morality, embodied in it’ most sacred law ‘Ape shall never kill ape’. It is in keeping this law that the apes believe sets them apart from humans, who have effectively wiped themselves out as a species through nuclear holocaust in Battle and un-elaborated global conflicts, post virus, in Dawn. One major difference between the two films is that Battle presents a fledgling ape society where humans are also present. It appears that various sympathetic humans have joined with the apes only to find themselves as a tolerated underclass struggling to find acceptance amongst the three other primate species. Caesar, although good friends with human adviser, Bruce McDonald (Austin Stoker), still wrestles with the role that humans should play with in his newly formed ape society. It is at this point that McDonald alludes to the fact that the future may rely on a change in ape/human relationships. Before long the two, in the company of an orang-utan scientist, Virgil (Paul Williams) head into the irradiated ruins of the nearby human city to gain access to recordings made by Caesar’s parents after their arrival from the future. McDonald hopes that the recording will alert Caesar to the dangers of ape/human hostilities and that unless otherwise mended, could end in the destruction of the earth in 2955. It is in the ruined city that the group comes into contact with the mutants who still live in the city. The mutants are lead by Kolp (Severn Darden), the former chief government interrogator from the previous film who still wants to see the apes subservient again.

In Dawn, the apes have created a human free community which is thrown into fear when a group of humans arrive looking for a dam control center. Caesar in both films has experienced the positive side of human ape relationship, and despite tensions between the groups, soon begins a friendship with Malcolm, the leader of the human party. Shocked by the arrival of humans after so many years, Caesar and hundreds of apes travel to the human city and declare that they only want peace and demand that they be left alone. Frightened by the ape’s show of force, Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), the human leader begins a stock take of the human armoury in preparation for an ape attack.

At this point in the plots of the both films we have a divergence. In Battle it is ape/human society seeking information about the future that stumbles into the home of the ‘other’. The other in this case is the mutant survivors of the nuclear holocaust that ended 12 years before. In Dawn it is humans in search of their society’s future, through the access to electricity, which brings them into the world of the ‘other’, the fledgling ape society. Both films present that moment well known from history, human history that is, when two vastly different cultures come face to face, each assuming superiority over the other. Despite those with in each culture who seek peace, both societies soon fall into conflict based on fear of the different. What hope does a future of peace between ape and human have when humanity couldn’t event live at peace with itself?

'Every Caesar has their Brutus.'
Both movies depict a Caesar who is wisely attempting to guide his new found society in a direction of pacifism. ‘Ape has never killed ape’ is the basic tenant of this ideology and it is this idea that apes believe separates them from humanity and it’s history of conflict with itself. However in both narratives Caesar faces opposition from a rival ape, a symbolic Brutus, who has a score to settle with humanity to the point where he is prepared to break the most sacred ape law. In Escape to the Planet of the Apes, Cornelius reveals that in ape legend it was an ape named Aldo who was the first to say ‘No’ to his human masters. In Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, we come across an ape named Aldo, a government messenger chimp beaten by police after getting spooked by an anti-ape labour demonstration. It is this incident that causes Caesar to yell out in defense of Aldo, thus arousing suspicion that he may be the child of the talking apes from the future. It is this moment that set in place the events that lead to the ape revolution. In Battle, Aldo, now portrayed as a gorilla general, is the leader of the gorilla army and bitterly resents Caesar’s inclusion of human’s in his new society. He plots to arm his troops, destroy all humans and to overthrow Caesar. Unfortunately Caesar’s son, Cornelius, over hears the plot and is pushed out of a tree and mortally wounded by Aldo. Aldo then raids the ape armoury; rounds up all the humans in the ape village into the coral, just as an army of human mutants begin to attack the ape city. Following the defeat of the mutants, and the slaughter of the survivors by Aldo’s gorillas, Caesar confronts Aldo in relation to the death of his son. This confrontation fittingly ends with Aldo falling to his death from a tree at Caesar’s hand. The question is then asked by Caesar if one murder should be repaid with another. Here Caesar realizes that violence and hatred of ones brother is not just the domain of humanity but of ape as well.

Aldo’s equivalent in Dawn is a badly scarred bonobo named Koba. In Rise, Koba is a lab ape who carries the marks of years of mistreatment across his face and body. Initially loyal to Caesar, he becomes incensed when Caesar befriends the humans who have come searching for the dam. Believing that Caesar loves humans more than apes, he follows the humans back to their city, finds their armoury and raids it. Driven by the need for revenge, Koba shoots Caesar, and convinces the apes that it was perpetrated by humans. Soon Koba is leading the apes, armed with stolen guns, in an attack against the human city. During the battle, Koba demonstrates his willingness to kill any ape who disagrees with him, throwing a chimp, Ash, to his death when he refuses to shoot an unarmed human. This and other actions soon begin to polarise the apes, especially those still loyal to the memory of Caesar, including Caesar’s son, Blue Eyes. Fortunately Caesar is not dead, and after being nursed back to health by Malcolm and his family, is able to regain the leadership of the apes through the help of Blue Eyes. Once again we are presented with a scene where Caesar confronts his rival in a battle to the death. This time, rather than a tree, it is the remains of a multistory building from which Caesar’s rival falls to his death. As Koba looks to Caesar to save him from falling, he appeals for mercy saying, ‘Ape shall never kill ape’, to which Caesar replies, ‘Koba is not Ape’.

The Simian Loss of Innocence
Here we have an interesting contrast in the narratives of the two films. Where as Caesar in Battle recognises that both apes and humans can be guilty of violence and hatred, Caesar in Dawn insinuates that any ape who deviates from the great law, ‘ape shall never kill ape’ is no longer ape and therefore has no place amongst their number.
These divergent outcomes reflect the place these films play in the narrative of the series. Battle is a film that is attempting to wrap the up the Ape series with some kind of conclusion. In the end Caesar chooses to include humanity in his new ape society having seen that evil is no respecter of great ape species. The narrative itself is presented as a flashback sequence, a tale told by the Ape Lawgiver, 600 years after the events of the main story, to an audience of humans and apes living in harmony. It is a film that has taken the story of The Planet of the Apes as its starting point and has attempted to move the narrative to a place which is more optimistic. Despite the final ambiguous, but ominous, image of a weeping statue of Caesar, the suggestion is that things have changed for the better on the planet of the apes and men, at least for the time being. Dawn, on the other hand, is a part of a narrative that is working toward the events of The Planet of the Apes. It ends with Caesar’s sad realisation that further war with the humans is now inevitable. Rather than finding a place for humans with in his ape society, he must continue to protect and strengthen his community so it truly will be a place where ‘ape shall never kill ape’, despite the forces that threaten it from with out.

'Who Knows the Future?'
It will be interesting to see where the creators of Rise and Dawn take the Apes narrative next. The follow up to Battle was a TV series that was set 415 years after the scenes with the Lawgiver, in an a future where once again apes were the dominant species and man was a slave class. It is, however, unclear whether it was set in the the same fictional Apes universe as Battle.  Pictures of a futuristic New York City depicted long after the destruction of civilization as portrayed in the movies makes continuity with the film series difficult. It may have been that the creators of the television series merely wanted to set there story in an Apes world where lost astronauts could face the latest ape villain of the week with out worrying about tangled time lines and changed destinies. For all intense and purposes the original Caesar narrative has come to it conclusion at the very same point that the new Caesar narrative is beginning to take off. Dawn may easily be construed as a remake of Battle but the next installment will be breaking new ground in the ongoing story of the Planet of the Apes, as it heads to the point where the original series began. This also something that effects the overall tone of the movies. If the future at the end of Battle is an open book, the future in Dawn is preordained and pessimistic. Dawn's narrative is working its way towards that moment when Colonel George Taylor collapses before the half buried Statue of Liberty on a beach two thousand years in the future. Both films tell the story of ape society’s loss of innocence and its first conflict with its former oppressors since the initial revolution. However with out the insight passed down by apes from the future in Battle, the Caesar in Dawn has to fight to create a future for his ape society rather than trying to avoid a particular version of it that may end in a global mushroom cloud. Either way, it will be a future where the evolved exploits of humanity's closest relatives will continue to thrill audiences, as they have done since Boulle first unleashed his dystopian tale upon the world in 1963.