Planet of the Apes

I loved the original Planet of the Apes and all its sequels so much as a kid that I balked at seeing any of the new ones until this week, when I caught a matinée of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. I admit, I was checking my texts during some of the fights, but I was otherwise thoroughly entertained. What nostalgia I felt wasn’t for my boyhood icons Cornelius and Taylor: The tiny theater had a 3-D projector, which made the film look like a moving image inside a View-Master.®


I don’t know which writer to thank, and which to curse, for this installment, which was co-written by Mark Bomback and the husband-wife team Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver. Silver is the granddaughter of Sidney Buchman, the screenwriter of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and victim of the McCarthyist blacklist, who made an ill-fated return to the business on the Cleopatra debacle in 1963, the same year the Frenchman Pierre Boulle published his sci-fi novel La Planete des Singes (Planet o’ Simians). Boulle had previously won an Academy Award for the screenplay version of his novel Bridge on the River Kwai, even though he quite obviously didn’t write the script – he got the credit for two blacklisted ghostwriters – because, in fact, he couldn’t speak English. He is credited with the shortest ever acceptance speech, “Merci.” But I digress.

I like the thought that Amanda Silver is responsible for the bleak political message of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, because her success at straddling the line between commerce and politics would vindicate the crappy deal her grandfather got – although, if we were adapting that story, we’d have to make her grandpa one of the ghostwriters on Kwai, and not just a victim of the same common enemy, wouldn’t we? Family stories are often about vindication. That’s why Hollywood sticks the family front and center, even in stories about the apocalypse.

I don’t mind seeing Caesar the ape leader toppled in a coup d’etat, and for his son to lead the charge of vengeance. I DO mind a human engineer who ventures with a convoy into ape territory to see if a hydroelectric dam can be salvaged not only bringing his epidemiologist wife along, but – oh, why not? – his teenage son too. With all the sometimes clumsy, often brilliant plot turns that make the conflict escalate, we pause for this damn family. In one maddening scene, the good humans bring Caesar to the abandoned home he grew up in – See, before the simian virus wiped out most humans and your father became the Lord and Master of all the apes in Muir Woods, he was the beloved pet of a kind primatologist in San Francisco, presumably with rent control. – and there, on the table, is a Canon DV camera with just enough battery power left for Caesar to watch a few seconds of his idyllic childhood.

"Get your subplots about the nuclear family off me, you damn, dirty screenwriters!"

“Get your subplots about the nuclear family off me, you damn, dirty screenwriters!”

The original Apes movies from the ‘70s were always awkwardly political, with metaphors for the time that were appropriate yet unspeakable, since it’d be plain tasteless to equate apes with African-Americans. And yet they undeniably addressed Civil Rights and national liberation movements, sometimes fearing them but often sympathizing. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes re-imagines the setup for the era of the oil wars and global warming. When the dust settles, there is the lousy fact that the interspecies breakthrough can’t stop the bigger conflict, and that makes Dawn of the Planet of the Apes a bold and bleak statement for a Hollywood film. As the plot winds on, Caesar finally learns to resort to, shall we say, extra-Parliamentary means, and that speaks to our political frustration. The American Right would accuse President Obama of being the American Cromwell, if they knew who Cromwell was, and this film argues that maybe that’s what the times call for: an enlightened despot.