Commentary: Who Will 'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes' Liberate?

Jul 10, 2014

What are the Planet of the Apes films really about? It’s a question on the mind of First Coast Connect contributor Nick Michaud as the latest installment in the series is about to hit theaters.

Credit 20th Century Fox

In 1968, the Planet of the Apes shocked audiences. An astronaut (Charlton Heston), stranded on a strange world, finds himself imprisoned by talking apes. Our hero fights valiantly to free himself and the other human slaves.

Eventually, (spoiler alert) at the end, the film slaps us with the realization that this presumably alien world is really Earth! At first blush, the film seems like it may be just a fun romp through an action packed adventure with a shirtless Heston grating out pithy one-liners.

This film though is usually considered science fiction, and isn’t sci-fi usually about something deep and thoughtful? So what are the Planet of the Apes films really about?

Well it isn’t hard to see Planet of the Apes as an allegory for slavery and civil rights. It can easily be argued that the film, emerging during the height of the civil rights movement, challenged us to consider the insanity of racism.

Doesn’t the film show us how easy it could be for whites (like our hero Heston) to be mistreated, oppressed, and enslaved if racism is directed against them? It could easily be seen as a film that points out that the only thing standing between whites and the same discrimination they level against others is just numerical superiority.

Obviously, there is a problem with this reading of the film. The metaphor makes black people the apes! Not to mention that it seems like it is those apes that should be feared. After all isn’t Heston a white hero who sees what happens to his people when the metaphorical blacks gain power?

And notice, of course, that one smart white guy is basically able to topple the whole of the ape social structure. So maybe the film isn’t all that great at combating oppression and discrimination.

It is pretty easy to read the Planet of the Apes franchise as either, against racism or a revelation of whites’ not-so-secret fear of black power. Notice though, that part of what is so very offensive to many people about the Planet of the Apes allegory is the comparison of blacks to apes. There is little humans hate more than being compared to animals. Doesn’t that give us a reason to wonder, though, if our treatment of animals is all that different from racism?

That question “Is our treatment of animals like racism?” became the new focus in the 2011 reboot of the series, Rise of the Planet of the Apes. We might answer, “No! To compare racism to the mistreatment of animals is offensive… They are just animals!” Would that really change if our animal “friends” could talk like us?

Through the entire film the human hero never really learns to accept the equality of his chimpanzee friend Ceaser. Our hero simply can’t get past his own assumption that even though Caesar can talk, and is painfully intelligent, he is well, just a chimp.

So now, there is a new film, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and I can’t help but wonder who is going to be liberated or enslaved by its metaphors. Like the original, this new film has the great potential to either help us recognize the insanity of racism or further instantiate our deeply held social fears against minorities.

At the very least, the Planet of the Apes franchise reminds us that racism is not over, and we are never that far from indulging in tyranny and oppression. This new film is purported to depict and develop the fighting that takes place between the decimated human population and the growing intelligent ape community that seeks the freedom we refuse to grant them.

It makes us wonder, would it be wrong if animals did rise up against us to fight for their freedom? Good thing they can’t… yet.

Nicolas Michaud is an author and editor of numerous pop culture and philosophy books.