If the big box office is any indication, a lot of you have already seen Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the franchise reboot/prequel that explains how monkeys first began to take over the world. I had low expectations for the film, but I found it surprisingly engaging — I was impressed that the filmmakers actually got me to care about Caesar, the CG-created chimpanzee at the center of the story. More surprising, though, was the complex moral conundrum I was left processing for hours after seeing the film. Was it okay that I was rooting for the primates? (WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD.)
You see, Rise of the Planet of the Apes asks you to do a funny thing: sympathize with a small army of apes as they revolt against humanity, kill off various police officers, and generally terrorize San Francisco. On the one hand, I actually wanted the apes to escape their sad existence — they were experimented on constantly, horribly mistreated, and kept in prison-ish cages. I don’t wish that fate upon any animal. At the same time, though, I wasn’t totally on board with their efforts to take revenge on my own species. (Even if the humans in the movie never feel like fully articulated characters.)
Normally, I have no problem empathizing with onscreen animals. I felt awful for Buddy when Josh tried to make him run away in Air Bud. I cried when Simba couldn’t wake up his dead father in The Lion King. I really did want Sassy, Chance, and Shadow to reunite with their family in Homeward Bound.* But those benevolent animals weren’t threatening humanity.
The apes in Rise of the Planet of the Apes are calculating and angry. They kill quite a few people — some bystanders are just collateral damage, but others are offed malevolently. Theoretically, as a loyal human, I should have been disgusted by this violence to my own kind, but if I’m being honest, I found the action scenes exhilarating. I oohed and when the monkeys took down a helicopter in a fiery blaze. I laughed when the gigantic gorilla chucked a parking meter into the moving cop car. Go apes! Get to the forest! It wasn’t until after the movie that I stopped and thought, “Hmm, that was actually kind of messed up.” (It’s similar to the way I felt when I realized that the “good guys” in Ocean’s Eleven are all terrible.)
Granted, the monkeys in Rise are genetically enhanced, so that their brains function on a human (or almost human) level, and primates are our closest ancestors. But at the end of the day, they still aren’t humans, so should I really have been rooting for them to escape into the forest and ultimately take over the world? We know that this film takes place about 2,000 years before the original Planet of the Apes, which presents a world entirely inhabited by humanoid apes. So, in a way, to support the chimps in Rise of the Planet of the Apes is to support the (fictional) end of humanity, you know?
Thankfully, all the ambiguity is part of what makes this franchise compelling, and director Rupert Wyatt approached these questions delicately, never allowing the film to feel preachy in either direction. “As a human audience going in, the natural instinct is certainly to root for the humans,” he told EW last week. “We wanted to make sure that we weren’t going to portray the humans in a bad or evil or negative light — it’s much more naunced than that. Our main approach was to approach it much like Spartacus. We’re telling the story of those slaves in revolt, rising up against an empire and a civilization that is not necessarily bad, but is dominant — it is one that is looking to exploit their closest cousins and use them for their own benefit.” I can get behind that idea!
Honestly, I’m probably being too serious about the whole thing — it’s not like my little moral quandary is going to keep me from seeing the sequel in a few years — I mean, Caesar talked! Of course I’ll go see the next film… and then ask myself this same cycle of questions all over again! Did any of you find yourselves feeling weird about rooting for the chimp revolt? Sound off in the comments!
*Notable exception: I felt nothing for the horrible, disobedient dog who died in Marley and Me. That constantly barking, furniture-chewing, annoyingly rambunctious dog had it coming. Good riddance.