Many films have used non-human characters as their protagonists. Pixar films have famously animated various things from toys, cars, bugs to even emotions with narrative agency and made us love every moment of it. We have rooted for toys to return to their homes, fish finding their family, cars regaining their glory, or even emotions achieving a balance. However, the recent Planet of the Apes films have achieved a further distinction in not only creating non-human protagonists that we can root for, but in making their quest for survival come at a direct cost of human characters. By turning the humans as the main antagonists, these films have achieved something of a landmark in post-human cinema – conceiving a fictional world where we can step out of our position of dominance and see the overwhelming impact we have had in shaping the world. Although this reflection still occurs in very human terms, where the protagonists are not replacements of humanity but inheritors of what it essentially means to be human, this reflection opens a new line of questioning about the effect of the cinematic image.
This cinematic image of the heroic ape riding a horse bareback, and still capable of wielding a machine gun when the situation demands it leaves the audience thrilled and excited. Here is a hero who is able to overcome the face of the oppressive overlords that we have faced in our own lives – that of humans in positions of authority and seemingly unending power. But our response to the heroic overthrower of human authority also makes us wonder if there is something essentially problematic with the seductive power of a film that can compel you to hate your own ‘kind’. Is it too close to propaganda films that totalize the human enemy into a monolithic figure-head deserving all our hate? Despite featuring sympathetic and likeable human figures in all three movies, are the Apes films in their own way – racist [against humans]? Do they bait our compulsive beliefs about cruelest and worst aspects of humanity and turn our justifiable anger against individual figures of tyranny toward all humanity?
A close look at the films show that these questions are not entirely baseless. The apes have all the narrative agency that has for long remained the domain of human or surrogate protagonists. Caesar, a noble leader who simply wants to find a space for his people, and preaches co-existence when it is possible strikes at the heart of our aspirations for a modest hero – one who would not look for a fight for its own sake, whose heroism always evaluates its cost. The more aggressive and violent among the apes are still largely justified in their anger as they had sustained years of abuse at the hands of humans. Caesar’s own outburst of anger in the third film marks the peak of unwanted human aggression and at many moments in the film we cheer on as he defies the humans.
Contrarily, the human characters are presented as monstrous and ruthless beings who are so deeply entrenched in their own desire to continue their domination of the world, that they disregard the changing landscape of evolution that had put them in a dominant position in the first place. Gary Oldman’s Dreyfus in the second film is motivated by his survival instinct and goes to war only when provoked. Woody Harrelson’s Colonel in the third film is a raving megalomaniac whose opposition to the ape-kind is motivated by his belief in human superiority and the need to destroy competition. There is a rapid advancement of Ape-technology and a simultaneous degradation of human technology that makes the human position of dominance unsustainable, and they fight tooth and nail before they are dethroned. Even though all three films have a ‘good human’ figure in James Franco, Jason Clarke and Amiah Miller – they are progressively less influential in the narrative. Where Franco’s scientist is clearly more powerful as he directly turned Caesar to an intelligent ape, Clarke’s human survivor and his band of humans play a much-reduced part in the relationship, as they are equal who seek co-existence. Miller’s mute little girl in the third film reduces her position even further as she is completely under the protection of the apes, almost like a cherished pet.
However, such a reading of the films as positioning the viewers against humans misses a larger point about the film, or any post-human cinematic protagonists – the protagonists are not human replacements but merely human surrogates. The Pixar movies were successful because they dealt with human experiences even though the characters were non-human. They deal with relationships, success and failure in human terms, much like the Apes franchise. The Apes films may have turned humans the villains, but they have created a new type of humans in the apes, where the protagonists are human and humane in their behavior – in terms of their strategy, motivation and action. When we see the intelligent apes behave as humans do, we are not worried about the apes taking over, but rather see that the feature that has enriched the apes is their new-found humanity. And for this reason, we will continue watching a good overcoming-the-odds narrative regardless of the color of the skin or shape of the face of the protagonist.
SARAVANAN MANI is editor and contributing writer here at ScreenEthics.com. He is a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, pursuing a PhD in English focusing on American Crime Television.