It’s summer, and I don’t need any other excuse for this post.
I just saw “War for the Planet of the Apes,” the last of a reboot trilogy that’s probably my favorite science fiction franchise in recent years. It’s smart, emotionally gripping, and character-driven, all without sacrificing the kind of eye-popping realism that’s made motion-capture CGI imagery (and Andy Serkis) famous. Along with “The Life of Pi,” Disney’s live-action “Jungle Book” remake, and a hand full of other flicks involving digital animals, these will probably go down in Hollywood history as markers of computer animation’s coming-of-age.
Despite taking its name from a film that came out nearly fifty years ago, “Planet of the Apes” has a strikingly original premise: apes inherit the world, not because they evolve in the wake of nuclear annihilation (as in Charlton Heston’s original), but because they’re gifted with freakish intelligence by human scientific hubris (more along the lines of “Jurassic Park”).
That description belies the almost Shakespearean drama that unfolds between the series’ characters. There’s love, betrayal, murder, and epic Henry V-esque speeches aplenty. But it also understates just how much Christian imagery made it into these films. For movies about anthropomorphic primates, they’re surprisingly saturated with allusions to Scripture and religion.
The main character, a chimpanzee named Caesar, is the original test subject for a retro-viral Alzheimer’s treatment. That virus (of course) ends up mutating and spreading, wiping out most of the human race, but enhancing the intelligence of apes who contract it. As a result, the global balance of power shifts dramatically in the apes’ favor, setting up a post-apocalyptic conflict between the two races. It also means apes must form their own societies, write their own laws, and face the kinds of questions that have always haunted humans. Especially one question: What separates good people from evil people?
Caesar is an obvious messiah figure. He is the first of his kind to “wake up,” receiving intelligence or ensoulment–a sort of Second Adam. He leads enslaved apes to freedom across San Francisco Bay in an unmistakably Moses-versus-Pharaoh’s-army sequence, which ends with the apes entering a kind of promised land. He hands down commandments (“ape not kill ape”), and rules his people with benevolence, keeping their natural prejudice toward humans in check. Caesar reminds them that not all humans are bad. Eventually, he discovers that not all apes are good.
In the second film, Caesar’s Christ-like traits are sharpened, as he tries to keep the figurative powder-keg between his apes and the remaining humans from igniting. He plays the peacemaker, but ultimately suffers betrayal at the hands of his own Judas, a warmongering and spectacularly ugly chimp named Koba. Caesar sees this son of perdition off to a fiery end, but must still fight the war Koba started.
The final chapter subjects Caesar to temptations for revenge, as the last human holdouts display the worst of their nature. More of his apes desert him out of fear, giving up their “humanity” to become slaves, again. Captured by his enemies while attempting to free his people, Caesar endures a sham trial, mockery, flogging, and is lifted up on a cross (I’m not kidding). Strategic Bible verses are scrawled in graffiti throughout various points in the film, the villain is a religious fanatic intent on preserving the chosen race (humanity) at any cost–even through a parody of substitutionary atonement, in which he explains he sacrificed his only son.
More subtle is the exchange of dominion which takes place over the course of the story, recalling Romans 11 and other passages about the cutting off of unbelieving Israel that the Gentiles might be grafted in. Humans, it might be said, are the chosen race, possessing unmatched intelligence and the power of the word–of speech. Caesar, one of the few apes who speaks on a regular basis (most of them rely on sign language and simian sounds), challenges the uniqueness of this human trait, and consequently the uniqueness of the human race. The implication throughout these films is that humans have mismanaged their dominion over the planet, which will now be taken away from them and given to a people producing its fruits. Those people, of course, are Caesar’s apes.
The final film raises these stakes when the plague responsible for the human die-off and the apes’ awakening mutates again, robbing infected humans of their power of speech. This leaves them, in effect, humbled to the former estate of apes, while the apes–who speak more and more frequently–are exalted to the former place of humans. But their rise as the new rulers of Earth is not without hiccups. Like the Talking Beasts in C. S. Lewis’ Narnia, they constantly face the temptation to return to their savage ways, and to embrace the greed, hatred, fear, and hubris that led to humanity’s downfall. Many do. And Caesar is almost among them. But he chooses instead to take pity on his enemy, treating speechless humanity with greater kindness than humanity showed him when he was speechless.
Romans 11:19-21 might make a fitting epilogue: “Then you will say, ‘Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.’ That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear. For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you.”
Am I prone to seeing Christian parallels where the writers and directors of “Planet of the Apes” didn’t intend them? Perhaps. But I’m not the only one. It’s obvious to a lot of people that much of the religious imagery in this series is deliberate. These films aren’t some kind of sneaky Gospel presentation, so much as creative uses of Christian motifs–echoes of a Story Westerners have all heard, and which some of us barely remember, but which still rings true in our ears, even when it’s covered in fur and swings through the trees.