The first trailer for Dawn for the Planet of the Apes is out, and it's only making fans more excited to see the final showdown between the apes and the humans.
To be specific, it’s making a lot of people excited to see what the ape leader Caesar will do next. It goes without saying that one of the most important characters in both the original and new Planet of the Apes series is Caesar. In both, Caesar is the character that starts the ape revolution, which leads to the beginning of the end of human life as we know it. Today’s Caesar – played superbly by Andy Serkis – is amazing, but if you’re a huge Planet of the Apes aficionado, you’ve probably been comparing him to the original Caesar, who was originally played by Roddy McDowall. So, since Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is on its way, let’s have some fun and analyze the original and new in the ultimate battle of the Planet of the Apes: Which Caesar Rules?
What are the core motivations of each Caesar?
Serkis’ Caesar in 2011′s Rise of the Planet of the Apes rightfully has a lot to be angry about. He realizes his “father,” Dr. Will Rodman (James Franco) is really the reason his life is a lie. It’s because of Will and his brain serum tests that Caesar is the highly-intelligent creature he is today. Will’s double-standards toward Caesar – who simultaneously treats Caesar like a human being and a pet – also makes Caesar begin to resent his life. Let’s not forget that it was the actions of Will’s former employer, Gen-Sys, that led to the death of Caesar’s mother. It’s only when he’s placed in the primate pen and abused by Dodge Landon (Tom Felton) that he begins to lose all faith in humanity and decides to free his fellow apes, giving them the same intelligence serum and enlisting them in his fight against humanity.
Caesar is fighting less for his fellow apes and more for a place where he can truly belong without feeling like an imposter. Before his dramatic switch from “son” to leader, Caesar feels like he has one foot in the world of humans and another in the world of apes. However, as the leader of his own band of intelligent apes, Caesar now feels like he can truly belong, now that he has individuals who are as unique as himself. In fact, it’s arguable that Caesar subjecting his fellow apes to the same serum is a little selfish, driven by his need to find creatures he can identify with. This Caesar’s motivations are entirely different than the Caesar from the 1970s.
In the 1972 film Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, Caesar is placed as a Civil Rights-type of socio-cultural hero. Caesar’s background makes him a threat to the human race. He’s the child of Drs. Zira and Cornelius (Kim Hunter and–surprise!–Roddy McDowall), the two apes who helped Taylor (Charlton Heston) in their timeline before escaping back in time to the 20th century. His very existence has made humanity enslave all apes and use them for brute force or hospitality services. After the death of Caesar’s guardian, Armando (Ricardo Montalban), Caesar is then forced into slavery himself, and through his 12 Years A Slave-esque experiences, he destroys human society from the inside while freeing his people.
In many ways, the film is making remarks about American’s past with slavery and the then-current situation concerning African-American civil rights. Keep in mind that during the ’60s and ’70s, the civil rights movement was quickly changing American society and the Black Panther movement was on the rise.
It’s with this real life background that Caesar is seen as a freedom fighter, someone who is aiming to give his people the inalienable rights they should’ve been given from the beginning. Looking at his mission from this point of view, McDowall’s Caesar had a much bigger reason to start a revolution than Serkis’ Caesar.
Which Caesar’s actions mean more?
The only way to really answer this question is to analyze whether the Caesars’ actions say something bigger about society as a whole. The Planet of the Apes films are entertaining, but they’re still science fiction films. In general, the goal of science fiction is to make a critique on what’s happening in society. If you know your Planet of the Apes film mythology, you might already see where the answer to this question is headed; one Caesar goes a long way in critiquing society, whereas the other doesn’t do much except react to his past and his environment.
If you take away the history of the franchise and just analyze Rise of the Planet of the Apes as a stand-alone film, what is there to take away from it? Certainly, you can assert that it’s saying what a lot of science fiction films say, which is not to try and control nature for selfish gain. But what do Caesar’s actions say in the long run? Ultimately, not much. What he does is simply react to his situation. Outside of the film, his actions don’t have much weight.
On the other hand, McDowall’s Caesar is much more relevant to the times in which he was created. McDowall’s Caesar spoke directly to the tense social and cultural themes of the late 20th century and actually turned into a kind-of folk hero. His character traits and motivations directly correlate to the mystique and social anger that fueled revolutionaries like Guevara, Malcom X, and Huey P. Newton. The parallels between Caesar and these real-life revolutionaries helps Conquest of the Planet of the Apes achieve what most successful sci-fi movies achieve, and that is to provide much needed commentary on the day’s issues under the guise of “entertainment.” There’s a reason that the Caesar-as-Che T-shirts are still popular today.
Of course, none of this is to say that Serkis’s Caesar is bad or that the new Planet of the Apes is a horrible series simply because it’s a movie that exists only for entertainment value. Everyone will have their opinion as to which Caesar is the best one, but the ’70s Caesar certainly had more to say than this current one.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes continues the rise of Ceaser and his fellow apes in July, 2014.
Images: 20th Century Fox