Nearly every Rise of the Planet of the Apes review that I have read has zeroed in on the rather banal conclusion that the film’s crucial message is that “messing with nature” doesn’t pay. If that is the case then writer/producers Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver appear to have accurately gauged the movie going public’s desire to be mindlessly entertained by the same tired pandering. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time; their earlier films Eye For an Eye (1996) and The Relic (1997) are both reactionary genre re-treads. For my part though, such obvious and unchallenging conclusions always conceal something deeper, and as Rise of the Planet of the Apes is released just in time for Christmas I decided to take a closer look at the film.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Rise) is of course, just a remake of the fourth film in the original series, 1972’s Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. That film told the origin story of the whole franchise (somewhat revised from Pierre Boule’s novel) in which domesticated apes become aware of their relative position in the human hierarchy and rebel. Conquest was made at a time when American culture was undergoing a major upheaval, and it makes quite blunt and intentional allusions to contemporary social conditions, namely resurgent Black political identity and unrest. Conquest could afford to explicitly critique U.S. racial conflict because it was not made by Americans. The film is so explicit in its narrative, and so sympathetic to the apes that it is literally impossible to watch it without seeing this. As a derivative, it is also nearly impossible for Rise to divorce itself from those politics.
Like its source, it starts with ‘primitive’ apes it adds intelligence, social awareness, and personality quickly and as in Conquest, the apes in Rise are constructed as a Black racial other, their specific difference merely acts as a convenient cover. Rise has to be much more subtle because in our “post-racial” cultural milieu, admitting the continued existence of White Supremacism is rather taboo, but there are a number of dead giveaways. Nearly every ape whose character is developed in the film conforms closely to Black archetypes identified and described most poignantly by film historian Donald Bogle in his book Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in Film and Marlon Riggs in his film Ethnic Notions: Black People in White Minds. They and other writers have traced the persistent appearance of these stereotypes from the earliest days of Jim Crow through our contemporary media.
Racialized human characters in Rise lend additional weight to this argument and act, like the obvious difference in species, as a foil for the racial overtones of the film. The Sikh cab driver and Latino family who appear briefly serve to create the superficial appearance of diversity. More telling is Mark’s girlfriend Caroline who in addition to being the only female character, serves a double duty. Like the Sikh and Latinos, she adds color to “our side” of the story, making the primary conflict appear to not be about race. Yet Caroline also lacks depth, and despite minor instrumental value, she has no role in the narrative. She is clearly a woman of color, however she is given zero cultural background (or character development) leaving her essentially undifferentiated, assimilated and with no identity of her own. She is effectively de-raced and thus serves again merely as a visual distraction and as a convenient reassurance that Will is not concerned about race.
The only exception to this lack of color depth is Will’s boss, the Steven Jacobs character. Yet he too is merely a stereotype. Instantly identifiable by his accent as a foreigner (a Britton), and his quickly changing moods, especially hostility, identify him as untrustworthy. Furthermore, his insatiably greedy and over-reaching CEO is concerned with power and profit recalls the recklessly ambitious pusher/gangster stereotype we’ve seen over and over in every genre. In this case he really is selling drugs, regardless of the dangers to public health. Both he and Will engage in dangerous experimentation, but Jacob’s blatant immorality and dark blackness identify him as profoundly “different” and again highlight Will’s temperance and good intentions.
Will’s morality is an important point because the message that is delivered at the end of the film would otherwise be a hard pill to swallow if it wasn’t for his benevolence and desire to recreate the normal family (a universal metaphor for “normal” society). In the end, our protagonist comes to the same conclusion held by all the other characters; namely that “apes” cannot be safely integrated into our society. The fact remains that throughout Rise, we’ve been (successfully) led to sympathize with the apes. Thus, because we ostensibly care about them, we cannot help but agree with this reluctant endorsement of segregation because it is for their own good. This is further driven home when the revolutionary figure of Caesar, leader of the Other also concludes that separation is “natural”. The apes, carefully established as Black have now returned to their correct, natural and separate place.
It is quite possible of course for one to enjoy a movie that makes feel-good conclusions so simple. For that reason, I too was captivated by the visuals in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. However, by letting a film (or any other pop culture media) spoon feed us such offensive moral and cultural norms without questioning them is to become a passive recipient and thus liable to perpetuate and re-inscribe the messages (good or bad) that we receive. The assertions made by Rise are not new; they’ve been present in cinema since The Birth of A Nation insisted that Black savagery and inherent primitivism would presage the collapse of white civilization. In that sense, Rise is nothing more than an unoriginal but sparkly return to a “rational” racism.
Author’s statement on the use of terms:
I agree with a number of well known writers who contend that it is the job of the cultural critic to uncover the messages in pop culture, and that is what I have tried to do however haltingly at my site Lost Video Archive and here at Paracinema. Of course, I knew that some of the words that I chose to use in the original version of this editorial are offensive. I decided nevertheless to use them because by directly naming what I believe the film is trying to slip through, I could strip away its disguise. To not directly confront these White Supremacist notions (as we would face-to-face with an individual acting in a similar manner) is to allow them to remain unchallenged and thus to accept them. While I sometimes make mistakes in my analyses, I hope that Paracinema readers understand that I never meant to offend, though I apologize for having done so. As always I welcome your feedback.