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Science fiction often has some of the most deep subtexts of any film genre. To paraphrase writer Junot Diaz, sci-fi often pulls haunting historical and cultural tensions from the background into the foreground. It makes our “silences” more palatable, and provides proxies where we can address taboos while imagining we are talking about something different.
Movies about aliens invaders are underlined with the fear of being colonized. We use Hunger Games tournaments, wasteland Westerns, and zombie apocalypses to ruminate on how humans will react when pollution, overpopulation, and the negative effects of climate change spurs us to fight over scarce resources. Epic wars in faraway galaxies show us what it feels like to be immigrants, exiles, political prisoners, or to rebel against a dictatorship.
This is why, it seemed obvious to me that Planet of the Apes was more than a film about intelligent apes taking over the world. I’ve seen all of the PotA films, but haven’t always been equipped with conceptual tools or terms (like tropes, subtext, anthropomorphism, connotation, etc.) to critically analyze film.
But being privy to an array of world history at a young age, and coming from a somewhat cinephilic family (my grandmother shelved an entire room of movies), the subtext of PotA seemed so obvious to me that to say it out loud felt superfluous. Unless one is adamant that this or any film can be “just” a film, I’d surmise that most folks aware of the figurative language of cinema see PotA as an allegory about the underlying fear of the indigenous and colonized (probably Black people) rebelling against Western, white hegemony. It imagines a world in which the racialized power structure is flipped.
In his book “Black Space: Imagining Race in Science Fiction Film”, professor Adilifu Nama writes about how freedom movements and the “sociopolitical transformation” of the 1960s was the backdrop in which PotA became sci-fi cinema’s “most powerful allegorical response to the conundrum of American race relations.” Eric Greene’s book “‘Planet of the Apes’ as American Myth” analyzes the racial politics in the original film, and how it was created in a moment of white anxiety over the Black Power movement.
One thing that struck me while seeing the latest installment, War for the Planet of the Ape, was how the racial and historical subtexts jumped out at you, essentially to the point of being explicit. For instance, ((SPOILERS)) I was disturbed by a few scenes, particularly the whipping scene. As a Black person, watching Caesar and others getting flogged tapped into painful historical and cultural memory. It was hard to sit through, and that scene haunts my emotional analysis of the film.
The film has many tropes and metaphors I could unpack (Koba as oppressed people’s fear of being the “savage” colonial society says they are, the “donkeys” as proxy for co-conspirators or overseers in their group’s oppression, subtext of Caesar as Moses figure, diversity as a contagion, white woman as the dystopian Eve, the use epithets in “us versus them” ideation, and many more), but I really wanted to look at one in particular.
Late in the film, the leader of the human army, the Colonel, reveals that the “simian flu” had mutated, causing those infected to lose their voice and other faculties that “made them human”. To him, containing the virus at all cost was an end that justified any means, including enslaving the apes and killing humans who were infected or rebelled against him. The Colonel asks Caesar repeatedly not to “take it personal”, and (to paraphrase) “What would you do if you were in my shoes?”
War for the Planet of the Apes tries to frames the “human” tactics such as murder, assassination, torture, and enslavement as “survival”. Writer James Baldwin once called whiteness a “metaphor for power”, and when thinking about Western, white global hegemony, power becomes the terms in which history is understood, recalled, and reframed. It is a dominating ontology the imperial West used and uses to justify plundering the Global South. To hold power is to survive, to lose it is to die. Using power becomes less of a political choice, and more like the law of gravity.
But even as a fictional sci-fi blockbuster, this captured Eurocentric, colonial Darwinistic logic perfectly. It can only imagine a future where the once oppressed become the new oppressors. Its logic can only predict a “role reversal”, as opposed to a society reconstructed to distribute power in ways that aren’t along rigid hierarchies. It can’t imagine that if the playing field was level, indigenous people (which the Apes are proxy for) would simply just want to be left alone. Why else didn’t the conflict end after Caesar extended an olive branch? Why else is this story an apocalypse where two sides go to war and only one side survives? Why didn’t they imagine a better use of their resources would be to find a cure for the new strand of simian flu? Why couldn’t humans simply just leave the apes alone?
Through this lens, the Colonel assumes “anyone” would do what he did. This mainly blurs the lines between individual and state or military power, but also between civilizations, cultures, genders, etc. It begs the question, how would the creators of PotA rewrite the story if they imagined the human survivors and their leaders as majority indigenous women? And if the creators of PotA were indigenous women, how would the central conflict, if there was one at all, be reimagined? Watching the film made me question how much the “inevitability” of war after apocalypse could be rooted in the Western, capitalist, patriarchal imagination.
Darwinism is a big theme in all of the PotA films, both literally and figuratively. War for the Planet of the Apes was a heavy film with a rich and complex subtext. And it was often jarringly candid about many racial, cultural, and historical themes and topics.