Human beings as a race have constantly lived in the shadow of a harrowing existential crisis, risen partly out of the everyday struggle for survival and partly from the feeling of ‘unfounded reward’ – Why did nature choose us to be at the forefront of civilisation? Why did we, of all the millions of creatures in the world, become the masters of this planet hurtling through space? As if to vent out this unsatiated gap in our understanding, writers have imagined parallel worlds where a minute tweak in the history of time produces a butterfly effect completely changing the fate of the world, essentially handing it down to a seemingly lesser species. We have seen this broader idea in several forms be it in films like Jurassic Park where, despite all the technology, Isla Nublar is overrun by the gigantic genetically re-incarnated dinosaurs; or through films, like I am Legend which operated at the other end of the spectrum where a mutated cancer virus wipes out humanity, turning people into blood-thirsty savages.
Planet of the Apes or La Planète des Singes was a 1963 novel by French writer Pierre Boulle, also known for his seminal work Le Pont de la Rivière Kwai or The Bridge on the River Kwai which was adapted into a film in 1958, garnering no less than seven Oscars including Best Picture. The idea for the Planet of the Apes came to him when he observed apes making human-like expressions in the French zoo, perhaps instigating the age-old question in his mind – “If man and ape descended from a common ancestor, what if nature had found it fit for them to inherit the planet and not us?”. This was a fascinating idea, considering how similar we are to our counterparts in our DNA makeups and how far we are from them in rationality. There on, several film-makers tried to make a big screen adaptation including Tim Burton whose 2001 film Planet of the Apes featured actors like Mark Wahlberg, Paul Giamatti and Helena Bonham Carter. However, for several reasons, the lack of realistic CGI/motion capture being one, forced him to work mostly with special effects makeup which resulted in an ‘Ape civilisation’ which was unconvincing, to say the least.
It wasn’t until Rupert Wyatt’s 2011 film Rise of the Planet of the Apes that we saw a story which approached the subject with the maturity that transformed it not only into a classic science-fiction adaptation but also a metaphilosophical one wherein our claim over the planet is suddenly brought into question through a new ape species which is as intelligent as us, if not more. After this highly successful (grossing $480 million against a budget of just $90 million) reboot of a forgotten franchise, Matt Reeves, who incidentally would be directing the upcoming solo Batman flick, elevated it into the epic journey of the becoming of a leader and his transformation from a genetically modified ape in a lab into a battle-hardened protector of his people. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes tackled perspectives that its predecessor had merely hinted at, such as the bloated sense of hubris and superiority complex humans carried towards their ape counterparts. Koba, one of the staunch opposers of Caesar’s proposition of ape-human cohabitation, used this very complex to make the first attack on the humans, effectively starting the war that the sequel converges on.
War for the Planet of the Apes opens into a battle-ravaged world where all-out warfare has broken out between the apes and the humans. Simian flu is now widespread and is turning humans into a de-evolved form of themselves – unable to speak and express themselves. To contain the spread of the virus, military factions have now descended upon ape-territories in order to wipe them out of existence. Led by the defector Red the gorilla, Koba’s erstwhile right-hand man, forces of the Alpha-Omega group constantly try to capture Caesar for their leader, a mysterious army veteran who they keep addressing as ‘The Colonel’.
Anticipating further insurgency, Caesar and his fellow-apes have moved their families deep into the forest and now live inside caves, hidden beneath roaring waterfalls. This very premise of a species being persecuted just because they are different is uncomfortably close to the Nazi era when anti-semitic forces were hounding Jews and taking them prisoners. Harassed and exasperated with this bloodshed, Caesar and his council members decide that in order to give a safe future to their women and children, they would have to leave these parts and move as far away as possible. Before they could prepare themselves to undertake the strenuous journey across the desert, their homes are attacked in the dark of the night, killing several members of the clan including Caesar’s wife and his eldest son Blue-eyes. Burning with rage and vengeance, Caesar orders his men to escort everyone away from the godforsaken place, as he readies himself to go after the Colonel. Accompanied by Maurice the wise orangutan, Luca the gorilla and Rocket the chimpanzee, Caesar starts his journey that would ultimately decide the fate of his people and perhaps, the planet.
The narrative takes on a much darker tone when, after several days of travel, Caesar finds the Colonel’s military base. As they inch closer, Caesar sees marks of the Colonel’s abject disregard for his kind through the bodies of dead apes propped up on wooden exes as a precursor to their imminent fate. Reaching the base, they are horrified to find that their families had been captured and imprisoned without food or water, in giant cages akin to the concentration camps at Auschwitz. The dejection on seeing the plight of his people is expressed in a single emotion as Caesar breaths out in a heart-rending sentence – “What have I done!”. It is in this precise moment that the enormity of Caesar’s character becomes evident. Here’s an individual who has just lost his beloved wife and his eldest son, but all that matters to him is how he had failed to protect his people, allowing them to fall into the hands of a mass-murderer.
Oskar Schindler’s character from Spielberg’s Nazi-era classic Schindler’s List stands very close to the substance Caesar is made from. He doesn’t express much but feels deeply responsible for what the future entails for his clan. The similarities with the Nazi-noir doesn’t end here. Woody Harrelson’s character, The Colonel, is a direct reflection of the psychotic Nazi Commandant Amon Goeth who started his mornings with a healthy breakfast and shooting some Jews through his bedroom window. The Colonel is even more uni-dimensional about his objective which is reinforced by the fact that without him standing in the way, the Simian flu would encompass the entire planet turning humans into savages making the apes their masters. The very idea of “lesser animals” ruling over mankind is abhorrent to him, as is Goeth’s loathing for the Jews and the idea of their assimilation into Aryan society.
One of the characteristic elements of Spielberg’s narrative was the “little red girl” who appears for a short time on screen and captivates our hearts with her innocence. In this heartbreaking scene, we watch the little girl walk on a street rent apart by chaos as Nazi officers force Jewish families out of their homes to live in the ghettoes. As Oskar Schindler sees the little girl, he is humbled by the injustice that his people had been cast into while he stood by as a privileged spectator. It was this moment that becomes instrumental in the making of Schindler the Messiah who made it his life’s purpose of saving as many Jews that he could.
This character and the symbolization of this little girl also finds its counterpart in the little girl in War for the Planet of the Apes. On his journey to find the Colonel, Caesar’s party adopt a little girl into their group, unable to leave her alone in the freezing cold without anyone to take care of her. In the midst of all the atrocities that the humans were perpetrating, the little girl stood as a reminder that there was a good side to them as well. Here, too, she stands as a personification of the innocence and the benevolence that mankind once possessed.
War for the Planet of the Apes is a triumph of the persecuted. It is a testament to the fortitude and will of a people to stand up against evil. The scene where Caesar allows himself to be captured and put alongside his people, and as he awakens hope into their eyes just by joining his knuckles, which even we as an audience recognise to mean – “Apes together strong !”, is an exhilarating portrayal of the freedom of the spirit. Even though the Colonel has a point as an antagonist, Caesar inspires enough in all of us that we want him to win, going against our own species.
And here, I leave you with this beautiful scene from Schindler’s list that can very well be applied to Caesar and his people as he saves them from genocide:
Ben Kingley as Schindler’s Jewish Accountant Itzhak Stern – “It’s Hebrew from the Talmud that says – ‘Whoever saves one life, saves the world entirely’.”
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