“How many more of them are out there, just like that ape? All burning with resentment, all waiting, waiting for an ape with enough intelligence, with enough will to lead them? Waiting for an ape who can think, who can talk?”
So asks, rhetorically, the wicked white governor in the presence of Ricardo Montalban’s kindly circus trainer Armando in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972). For a B-grade science fiction movie, Conquest had a wickedly subversive political content. Caesar actually articulates the word “revolution,” and organizes a thoroughly oppositional revolutionary movement. That is, the movement is consciously opposed to the systemic enslavement of his class, er, species, and therefore is aimed at the system’s total overturning. The apes are referred to as “slaves,” but the slavery depicted is thoroughly modern; that is, the apes are essentially wage slaves: waiters, hair dressers, filing clerks, etc. The allegorical conceit of figuring wage slaves as apes humorously conveys the notion Marx expressed in the 1844 Manuscripts: that in capitalism what is animal becomes human and what is human becomes animal.
Next to this precursor, Rise of the Planet of the Apes stands as an insipid, depoliticized and de-allegorized piece of shit. A real Hollywood Spectacular, as William Burroughs would say. Of course, its de-politicization is actually a re-politicization. The radical underpinnings of the earlier film are stripped and replaced by weak liberal sentiments. The new Caesar forgoes forging an oppositional movement for a merely alternative movement. That is, the re-booted or re-imagined apes no longer wish to transform human society from top to bottom. They merely wish to carve out a space within that society where they can be left alone, to be free to purchase their banana frappaccinos without molestation. A positive liberty is traded for a negative liberty.
This isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy Rise. On the contrary, it was $4 of my wages well spent. And the rest of the audience liked it too. Who could help but respond positively to the utopian undercurrent of the film, no matter how attenuated or diluted? I especially found charming that Caesar’s first articulated word was “No!” How many important events have coalesced out of thin air with the articulation of a refusal long in coming? Too many to count, no doubt. Caesar’s first word brought to mind the three transformations of the spirit that Nietzsche recounts in the early part of Thus Spoke Zarathustra. First the spirit becomes a camel: it allows itself to become a slave of the values transmitted from the past generation. Then it becomes a lion: this is the moment of refusal, when the spirit throws off the burden of the past and clears a space in which it can undertake its third transformation. The third transformation is when the lion becomes a child, a truly free spirit and creator of its own values. But no such joyous “Yes!” without a preceding joyous “No!” If only Rise more vividly “re-imagined” Caesar’s first word.