The Politics of the Planet of the Apes

By Dan Hassler-ForestAugust 26, 2017

The Politics of the Planet of the Apes
IN HIS MOST RECENT book, Futurability (2017), old-school Italian radical Franco “Bifo” Berardi speculates about the actual possibilities for radical change in our current “age of impotence.” What he sees as the left’s lack of political potential is not merely the result of three long decades of neoliberalism; our collective despair is fueled by the fact that capitalism marches on relentlessly in spite of the fact that we no longer believe in it. And while this basic lack of faith may well open up an abstract desire for meaningful change, the stifling contours of capitalist realism have made it notoriously difficult to even imagine such a thing.

We are, therefore, in dire need of revolutionary narratives. As part of the fabric that makes up our pop-cultural vocabulary, we need accessible and appealing tales that reject the utter nihilism of Game of Thrones–era neoliberal culture. More specifically: The left needs stories that foreground political organization in the face of exploitation and oppression. It needs popular myths that revive solidarity and compassion as crucial components of progressive political struggle. It needs casts of characters that are radically inclusive, fully embracing the fundamental intersections between feminism, anti-racism, and anti-capitalism. And it needs grand utopian horizons that don’t shy away from the promise of a future that is better — or, at the very least, different.

That’s a pretty tall order — especially for a global culture industry supposedly dedicated to maintaining the political status quo. And yet, we’ve seen a surprising number of recent Hollywood blockbusters grapple provocatively with these very issues. The Hunger Games, for all its problems, reminded millennials that the odds are never in their favor. Snowpiercer offered a crash course on class-consciousness, ultimately reminding us that our only hope lies in wrecking the capitalist machinery. Rogue One emphasized that even in a galaxy far, far away, the anti-fascist struggle isn’t fought by blonde-haired, blue-eyed white boys, but by black, brown, and queer bodies whose sacrifice is ultimately what opens up a new hope for a different future. And Mad Max: Fury Road illustrated vividly that in a world without any outside, confronting the brutal reality of capitalist exploitation provides our only possible road to utopia.

But Hollywood’s most provocative contemporary dramatization of political revolution is the resuscitated Planet of the Apes franchise. While the first film in the original cycle famously ends with one of the most iconic images of post-apocalyptic catastrophe, the Apes saga insistently combined Swiftian social satire with allegorical depictions of civil rights issues, the unholy alliance between science and the military-industrial complex, and political activism.

Unlike Tim Burton’s truly lamentable 2001 “Wahlberg of the Apes” reboot, the new film trilogy has firmly (if somewhat miraculously) embraced the radical political spirit that infused the older films. The trilogy gives vibrant new allegorical form to radical thought, providing valuable narratives, characters, and images that articulate possibilities for political resistance. Going directly against the grain of gritty world-building grounded in a politics of cynicism, Rise of the Planet of the Apes gives dramatic expression to the kind of “moment of possibility” that Berardi tries so hard to identify. This startlingly intelligent Hollywood blockbuster combines its uncompromising indictment of capitalism’s monstrous exploitation of animals with a flexible but thoroughly radical metaphor of political oppression.

The key to the film’s uncanny ideological power lies in the ape Caesar’s ability to organize resistance and — ultimately — revolution by teaching other primates about their common enemy, and organizing this movement in a way that propels even the most cynical apes out of their deeply ingrained sense of helplessness and impotence. More than the 1968 film’s satirical intellectualism, Rise channels the explosive political sensibilities of the most radical film in the original series, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972), whose lead character, Caesar, provided the template for the new trilogy’s protagonist. In one key scene, the sympathetic black character, Malcolm MacDonald, reminds the enslaved ape that he is himself descended from slaves. In response, Caesar expresses poignantly that revolution is the only true option for the enslaved — even if this rebellion seems like a hopeless one:

MacDonald: How do you propose to gain this freedom?
Caesar: By the only means left to us: revolution.
MacDonald: But it’s doomed to failure!
Caesar: Perhaps … this time.
MacDonald: And the next.
Caesar: Maybe.
MacDonald: But you’ll keep trying?

In this brief exchange, the vital idea that political mobilization against oppression, exploitation, and injustice is necessary and meaningful, even if it appears to be doomed to failure, resonates strongly in these futureless times of ours. Therefore, when Rise builds to its profoundly cathartic moment of revolutionary violence, it helps us imagine the overcoming of our ingrained inertia and opens a pathway toward a set of radically new futures.

But winning a single battle isn’t enough to create the possibility of meaningful political change. The system’s power is derived from its existence as a disembodied network that cannot be physically encountered or overturned. The film cleverly acknowledges this in its darkly comic coda, as the end credits play over an animated depiction of the lethal virus’s rapid spread across the globe, an uncanny visualization of the virtual networks that make up global capitalism. And while this appropriately morbid joke heralds a genocidal end to humankind, we realize at the same time that the sequence is giving us a symbolic death rather than one we should take literally: the avian flu branching out across the maps on the screen with the speed of a computer virus plays on the networked nature of financial markets. The metaphorical demise it suggests is therefore not that of real human beings, but rather the suddenly inevitable downfall of financial capitalism’s global network of systemic exploitation and oppression.

The second film in the trilogy, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014), had a much bigger hurdle to leap, given that positive depictions of post-capitalist societies have been in such dramatically short supply. And indeed, taken as a stand-alone episode rather than the middle section of a longer narrative, Dawn is easily the most disappointing, both in terms of its politics and in its formulaic narrative structure. Residual human groups are juxtaposed with emerging ape society, as an uneasy peace treaty is predictably disrupted by embittered individuals on both sides. It’s easily recognizable as that well-worn reactionary position, holding that any political revolution will inevitably be corrupted by unreliable “radical” elements — so why bother in the first place?

This is precisely the kind of “post-ideological” neoliberalism that has been a major stumbling block in recent years, not only for articulating and organizing social and political alternatives, but also for the field of speculative fiction. This need for shared narratives of political revolution is precisely what motivated weird fiction author China Miéville to publish October, an exciting retelling of the Russian Revolution. Despite its significance as one of the most important political events of the past century, the utopian possibilities of Russia’s 1917 revolution have been overshadowed by the horrors of Stalinism and the dangerously reductive Orwellian specter of communism-as-totalitarianism. In so many ways, capitalist societies have been haunted the Russian Revolution for the past hundred years, and as Miéville said in a recent interview, “We need its memory in these bleak, sadistic times.” Miéville’s book is therefore an important attempt to salvage and reclaim those moments of possibility that emerged so palpably in that year, and his breathless and immersive writing reminds us not only of what was, but above all of what could have been.

But if Rise could indeed be seen as a pop-cultural conjuring of a similar political energy, it was all the more important because its two sequels followed through on this promise. There is certainly no shortage of popular narratives that start off with a similar kind of energy, only to evaporate into the kind of hand-wringing “both sides are to blame” false equivalence that typifies Hollywood liberalism.

Fortunately, this summer’s War for the Planet of the Apes proves to be that rarest of things: a trilogy finale that is better than either of its predecessors. In some ways, War even redeems the fatally ambivalent Dawn by following through on the conflict between moderate ape leader Caesar and his more radical and uncompromising lieutenant Koba. As aesthetically refined and as technically impressive (if not more so) as the previous installment, War finds humans and apes in full-blown conflict; all earlier hopes for appeasement or peaceful coexistence have been abandoned. As the film opens, Caesar’s once-Edenic Ape village in the forest has become increasingly precarious and embattled, with the human army seemingly dedicating itself to eradicating the apes as a last-gasp attempt to stop the now-mutated virus from spreading.

In spite of the many unsubtle references to Apocalypse Now, the third film is much less of a war film than its title suggests. Instead, War returns to the first film’s stirring embrace of the original film series’ civil rights allegory, this time by depicting the ape community first as fugitive refugees, then as slaves exploited and brutalized by the prison-industrial complex. These sequences play up the franchise’s greatest strength, as the apes embody what Sherryl Vint has described as a form of animal alterity. In this case, the primates don’t even remotely represent a kind of subjectivity that is non- or post-human. One might rather say that the charismatic, morally grounded, and deeply sympathetic apes provide an identification point that allows the film’s privileged audience to empathize with human bodies whose humanity is denied by those in power.

While the Apes films therefore have little interest in exploring how advanced primate communities might be radically different from ourselves, the films nevertheless make great use of the ape as the figure Giorgio Agamben described as homo sacer: those who are violently excluded from society and branded variously as refugees, terrorists, undocumented immigrants, unemployable laborers, sexual “deviants,” and so forth. By drawing on SF tropes and the legacy of a genre classic, the new Apes film trilogy therefore ambitiously reflects the crisis of the left in this age of impotence, while also exploring some of the possibilities opened up by revolutionary action.

Unsurprisingly, this is also where War tends to shoot itself in the foot. As Eileen Jones has pointed out in her thoughtful review, those who like their entertainment truly radical may be disappointed; she accuses this last installment of “fatal chicken-heartedness.” Understandably, she sees the film’s retreat from the all-out war suggested so strongly by the title as a form of ideological capitulation, retreating into cliché instead of giving us “complete, uncompromising, feel-good revenge.” But I would argue that this sensation is precisely what Rise already delivered — and what the events in Dawn tried to show in a different light. Rather than caving in to genre cliché, War embraces a more difficult task by attempting to follow the first film’s revolutionary spark with a narrative that makes room for compassion and solidarity alongside the first film’s undeniably powerful fervor of violent revenge fantasy.

Jones, however, is correct to point out that War’s briefly glimpsed utopian paradise is almost laughably dumb. Unlike the stark visual poetry that marks the rest of the film, the imagery in these final scenes is trite and even banal. And the striking absence of speaking female characters speaks yet again to the urgency of having more women involved creatively in these franchises. By the same token, the sense that this emerging ape society constitutes a weirdly reactionary return to a more pure and authentic “natural” straight primitivism always lurks uncomfortably in the background.

But to return once more to the words of the great “Bifo,” “History is the space of the emergence of possibilities embodied in subjectivities endowed with potency.” And as absurd as this may sound, that is precisely what these weird, unruly, fascinating Apes movies give us. Of course, these films are primarily commercial works of popular entertainment — commodities produced to create financial profits for terrifyingly powerful and insanely wealthy media corporations. But they are also cultural texts whose characters, narratives, and imagery give expression to our shared understanding of “futurability” in this dark and unstable age of post-democratic impotence. Together, they tell a story that doesn’t just embrace the legitimacy of a political revolution by the oppressed — it dares to follow through on this impulse and build toward the kind of utopian ending that has been in such desperately short supply.


Dan Hassler-Forest works as an assistant professor of media and cultural studies at Utrecht University.

LARB Contributor

Dan Hassler-Forest is an author and public speaker affiliated with Utrecht University in the Netherlands. His research is focused on the ways in which popular media reflect changing social relations in late capitalism. His most recent books are Janelle Monáe’s Queer Afrofuturism: Defying Every Label and Janelle Monáe’s “Dirty Computer.”


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!