Over thousands of years, humans have survived various challenges that have tested our ability to adapt. From harsh environmental changes to disturbances in the sociopolitical climate, we've always adapted in order to survive. And yet our ever-changing civilization also harbors an array of social stigmas that have been addressed in films such as Planet of the Apes, and the modern-day prequel trilogy inspired by the 1968 sci-fi phenomenon.
While the original #PlanetoftheApes was a commentary on racial discrimination and the horrors of slavery, 20th Century Fox's reboot reintroduced us to this world through the eyes of Caesar (Andy Serkis). Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes both explored the inequality of a class system, but also shone a light on how the protagonist's tragic flaws reshaped society. So as director Matt Reeves has sought to bring Caesar's dramatic arc to a close with War for the Planet of the Apes, let's dig deeper into the philosophy and symbolism behind the acclaimed prequel trilogy.
Rise: The Birth Of A Flawed Revolutionary
In our society, flaws are generally associated with weakness, but Rise shows how a flaw can also serve as the connective tissue between characters. For scientist Will Rodman (James Franco), it's his inability to create the ideal medicine for his father's disease. Meanwhile, Caesar's defect is his heightened intelligence. The tragic degenerative illness of Rodman's father not only pushes him to strive for a solution, but is also the cause of Caesar's capture.
With imperfection as its foundation, Rise of the Planet of the Apes focuses on the actions of biotech company Gen-Sys and explores the sadistic social hierarchy that humans have created by monopolizing the necessities of life. So despite having a bond with Caesar, Rodman lacks compassion and continues to treat chimps as lab rats, while Caesar uses his enhanced intellect to provide the equality his species deserves.
In the manifesto Catechism of a Revolutionary, author Sergei Nechayev described the revolutionary as a singular entity of pure force. As the revolutionary has surpassed the laws of society and morality, the revolution has become their religion. Nechayev writes:
The revolutionary is a doomed man. He has no private interests, no affairs, sentiments, ties, property nor even a name of his own. His entire being is devoured by one purpose, one thought, one passion - the revolution. Heart and soul, not merely by word but by deed, he has severed every link with the social order and with the entire civilized world; with the laws, good manners, conventions, and morality of that world. He is its merciless enemy and continues to inhabit it with only one purpose - to destroy it.
A being who had been held back his entire life, Caesar's rise from timid infant to nihilistic rebel is fascinating to watch unfold. He initially pines for Rodman, but as soon as he understands his line of work, despite all the pain, Caesar severs all ties with his "stepfather." His urge to establish equality then forces a new societal order among his fellow simians. It isn't until Caesar forms a family in Dawn that he learns to love again.
Caesar's ability to speak by the end of Rise can be considered a metaphor for free speech, a gift he later shares in order for his species to stand as equals against the humans. With the final battle, he frees his fellow primates from the shackles of human imprisonment and literally crosses the bridge in order to establish a new world order.
Dawn: A Shakespearian Tragedy
"Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown." — Henry IV, (Act III Scene I), Shakespeare
While the characters in Rise were connected by circumstantial flaws, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes binds them together with loss. The film's central characters — Caesar, Koba and Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) — have each endured personal tragedies, yet they showcase a varying degree of values as a result of their respective losses. Although they are all searching for their purpose in life, their individual struggles have caused them to have drastically different world views.
Since Dawn's themes rely heavily on the topic of leadership, Caesar's conversations with Maurice and Koba are centered on decisions they should make for the entire pack. During an interview with Slash Film, Reeves touched on Caesar's arc and the internal turmoil the character feels as the pack's leader:
"The whole idea of Caesar’s arc is so grand. You know, he starts as this kind of discarded little being who is essentially supposed to have been wiped out. And someone shows him kindness, and it’s a human. He’s raised as a human, but he’s not human. And then he’s thrown in with apes, but he’s not quite ape because he was raised by a human. As Andy [Serkis] always so beautifully put it, he said he was sort of like part of both communities but an outsider to both communities. That, in the idea of Dawn, was this way in which he was a bridge to both. And he becomes this leader in this next one."
Although Caesar must deal with a number of internal conflicts, the turning point of his leadership — and therefore the fate of the Earth — comes with Koba's mutiny. The agony of Caesar's past and his urge to settle things peacefully causes a disastrous oversight that defines his namesake as he follows the Shakespearean path of a tragic hero:
- Ascension: He rises above the masses due to an advantageous defect (the hereditary bond with the ALZ-112 virus).
- Misstep: His tendency to trust Koba spoils the only chance he had to form an accord with the humans.
- Downfall: He tumbles from grace due to his inability to create a bond with humans, thus putting the lives of everyone in his community in danger.
However, it's this act of psychological failure that teaches Caesar to choose a side, thereby putting an end to his dilemma in regard to his true heritage. Dawn doesn't provide the characters or the audience with a solution to the conflict between these factions. Instead, it takes us on a journey of failure to achieve peace — something that Caesar loses all hope for by the end of the film.
War: A Biblical Figure In Ape History
As you can see by his intimidating glare, Caesar experiences a series of dramatic changes throughout his life, ultimately leading him to become the hardened figure we see above. Caesar is pushed into critical situations, by humans and his own kind, which changes his character indefinitely. In War for the Planet of the Apes, his outlook will be radically different because he has chosen to take a stand against mankind.
Reeves explained how the extremities of this war will push Caesar to embark on a personal journey of revenge against the Colonel:
"In War, we wanted to push him to this place where he would be pushed to extremes. And we would go deeper into his nature. And as a result, he’d be tested in a way that he would either fail or not fail, and it’s what he does in this movie that in our minds, makes him the seminal figure in ape history.If somebody was tested in this way, if somebody was this central to the creation of the ape world in the human story, that person would be like a god. So that’s how the whole idea of trying to create him as sort of a Biblical epic story."
It seems that Caesar's messiah-like stature in the upcoming installment is also infamous among humankind, with one frightened soldier who encounters him treating Caesar almost like a demigod:
"You're him. You're Caesar. We've been searching for you for so long."
In terms of Caesar as an almost biblical figure, there's a stark contrast between his leadership and that of the Colonel's. Caesar has always been portrayed as a leader who fights side by side with his compatriots. On the contrary, it's evident from the trailers that the Colonel (Woody Harrelson) is a boss who sees his army as expendable pawns.
Unlike in Rise or Dawn, Caesar has a clear-cut goal in War for the Planet of the Apes: The territorial possession over Earth. So despite polar opposite ideologies of warring factions, it should be fascinating to see how Caesar handles all-out war now that he's seemingly given up on the hope for peace and coexistence.
Although we still know nothing about the Colonel, fleeting imagery of the character's men infiltrating Caesar's base is proof that it'll be a war to remember. Reeves has already established himself as an expert in balancing action and emotional drama, so fans can look forward to a conclusion that is reminiscent of the saga so far. More than anything, the film is likely to give a fitting send-off to Caesar and paint him as the quintessential figure of the Planet of the Apes franchise.
War for the Planet of the Apes hits cinemas on July 14. Are you excited for the final installment in the franchise? Let us know in the comments below.