A postcolonial view on Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Luckily for the message of the film, none of the the apes are Bonobos who have a much more liberal view on sex and are known for settling disputes by intercourse – both hetero- and homosexual...

The following contains spoilers.

The first film in the reboot of the Planet of the Apes franchise, The Rise of the Planet of the Apes, lets us meet with the bright ape Caesar and other apes as they slowly evolve into something more than the ordinary simians they used to be and eventually start an uprising which ends with the apes disappearing into the woods to lead their lives free from human influence. It is a very good film raising questions of human nature, animal testing and the closeness between humans and apes.

The sequel to Rise… is entitled Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and it takes place ten years after the first film. A virus, which began spreading towards the end of the first film, has now almost eradicated humankind apart from smaller groups of people, with one living in an old quarantine zone in San Francisco. Meanwhile, the apes have thrived in the woods and use their increased intelligence to lead a life similar to that of hunting cavemen living in simple huts using simple tools and resenting modern human technology. Caesar is still the leader of the group, but as humans come in contact with the apes Caesar’s more peaceful approach is resented by Koba, an old ape scarred from years of medical testing and understandably more skeptical to all things human. From here on the film becomes a standardized story of advanced versus primitive, western versus non-western and with an all-too common admiration for the simple savage, in the same style as for example James Cameron’s Avatar.

In Avatar we as viewers are supposed to feel admiration for the primitive, close-to-nature, Na’vi who are portrayed as the good in the film compared to the evil technologically advanced humans who only wants to destroy nature. To make sure we as viewers see them as closer to nature the Na’vi are given characteristics of groups of people seen as primitive by western standards; they are tall and slim, of different colour, have braided long black hair, stretched ear lobes and wear primitive jewellery. In Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the apes paint themselves, decorate themselves with primitive jewellery and live under what can best be described as simple human conditions and at one with nature. They can talk in very simple sentences but need to use sign language to fully express themselves. Their ability to survive out in the wild without the use for electricity and lights creates admiration among the humans and even their family values are of the simple traditional kind, with males and females living together in monogamy producing offspring. Luckily for the message of the film, none of the the apes are Bonobos who have a much more liberal view on sex and are known for settling disputes by intercourse – both hetero- and homosexual – have non-monogamous relationships and even use oral sex as a form of greeting. All the other species of apes are in the film, but not these, our closest relatives, since that could have messed up the portrayal of the traditional monogamous nuclear family. The admiration of ape life hardly even stops when Caesar’s female nearly dies in a fairly common disease, treatable by antibiotics. This “Disneyfication” of animals – giving them very human characteristics – and exotic portrayal of the simple other are quite common in mainstream movies and as can be seen, Dawn… is unfortunately no exception.

Another similarity to Disney films lies in the portrayal of the conflict within the group of apes itself. In for example Disney’s Aladdin or The Lion King the hero, even though not supposed to be western, show clear characteristics of being exactly that. Aladdin’s skin has a lighter complexion than evil Jafar’s, their noses are shaped differently and Aladdin even looks different from all the other men in the city who all are drawn with more Arabic characteristics. The same goes for Simba, the hero in The Lion King, compared to the villain Scar.

In Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the good ape, Caesar has a Latin name, can speak with a fairly good American accent and is the chimpanzee with the whitest complexion. The evil ape, in comparison, is named Koba, a more oriental or exotic name, he is not as good at expressing himself through speech and his accent almost sounds sub-Sahara African and his complexion is dark. It is amazing that the filmmakers actually got away with that portrayal. Koba is also a very deceitful ape that cannot be trusted, fitting in even more with the portrayal of the other, such as the evil and selfish Jews in older literature and Arabs in more recent. He does however use the dumb ape cliché to his advantage when putting on a comedic performance to be able to steal weapons from the humans, but since he is so obviously supposed to be the evil other, the scene is sadly reminiscent of the racist old dumb house negro stereotype, with Koba making fart noises instead of crying out “Lordy, lordy” all the time.

While the first film raised valid questions about humankind and our relationship with other species, the second one instead plays out like material for a beginner’s course in postcolonial studies with pre-colonial admiration for the primitive and portrayal of the westerner as rational and thoughtful and the non-westerner as deceitful and emotional. That is sad, because the apes are impressive and the idea of using humans as more of a supporting cast to Caesar and his tribe could have worked out great.

Written by Mattias Danielsson, 2014-08-12