Hidden Meaning in War for the Planet of the Apes

The first shot of War for the Planet of the Apes is a group of soldiers walking through the jungle towards an ape village. The words “Monkey Killer” stand out on a helmet. The viewer is meant to see things from the human perspective at this point. But everything turns on its head in the next few scenes; you start rooting for the apes. And that is what makes it a good movie.

Most science fiction movies have a human protagonist(s) fighting against a non-human entity. Very rarely do they urge us to see things from the opposite side; District 9 and Avatar did. But both these movies were more than just science fiction. District 9 was an Apartheid metaphor and Avatar is about being oppressed and conquered for natural resources. And that is what helped them get their audience to support the traditional villain. But both these movies have a human protagonist who has metamorphosed into the other species.

War for the Planet of the Apes takes things further. The protagonist is not human. He has characteristics that we attribute to humans like intelligence, compassion, leadership, and mercy, but he remains an ape fighting humans. How does the movie get you to root for the traditional post apocalyptic villain? It is very much like getting you to cheer the zombies from World War Z or I Am Legend. I believe there are two things that have contributed to this.

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First, character development. We have seen Caesar grow up to the ape he is now. We have seen him from the time he was an infant. We have witnessed the torture that he (and other apes) had to go through, and how he rises to power as the leader of the apes.

The second, and more importantly, is the audience understanding his reason to fight. The movie is compelling not just because it has established protagonist, but because it tugs at a deeper chord. The fight against oppression, the fight to create an individual identity and co-exist. Both these are not alien to the modern moviegoer.

The moviegoer audience has changed over the years, as can be seen in the graphs below (taken from 2016 Theatrical Market Statistics Report by the Motion Picture Association of America).

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International Box Office by Region

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US Box Office Frequent Moviegoers (Millions) by Ethnicity

The number of moviegoers from countries (or ethnicities) that were colonized or conquered (and have a history of their people fighting the oppressor) has increased. The change in the audience demographic is one of the reasons why Hollywood is making more movies about oppression. It resonates with this new audience more. A majority of the audience can relate to Caesar’s cause and hence, support his guerrilla war against the technologically advanced humans.

This gets you to understand Caesar’s point of view. But to get the viewer to mentally rally behind him, the movie (trilogy) turns to subject of coexistence. War for the Planet of the Apes is a metaphor for the human struggle for coexistence. We have been led to believe that it is always “either us or them”; something right wing politicians are preaching all over the world. And therein lies the human point of view (in the movie) – the apes are stronger and more intelligent, and so they will replace us. It is the same fear that has led to immigration bans and talks of building walls. The movie gets us thinking about the recent refugee/immigrant crisis, and through strong character development and a compelling narrative, gets us to side with the metaphorical refugees/immigrants.

In the end, we are left wondering, “Would things have not been better if the humans were ready to coexist with the apes?”

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