Planet of humans
(Updated: 1353 BDT, Aug 24 2014).
Factors that have put the blog on a deep freeze are the same ones that keep me from going to the movies. And in any case, who needs movies when you have Game of Thrones and Zia Haider Rahman? Dawn of the Planet of the Apes? A sequel to a prequel reboot — the second one in a decade or so — of a 1960s movie that spawned four (or five?) sequels in the 1970s, with a confusing title — rise before dawn, were the producers observing Ramadan — is it really worth making the effort for this, I asked myself.
I am glad I did make the effort. The movie has received positive reviews, and is a box office smash. And it has generated enough bubbles between my ears to force my fingers on the keyboard. (Warning: this is not a movie review, and thus I am not confined by the ‘no spoiler’ norm — read at your own risk).
Yes, things commendable this movie has a-plenty.
Unlike the Marvel stuff, this is not action from the word go. There is a lot of touchy-feely stuff, including some superb father-son dynamics, and at least one melancholic longing for a lost childhood that would stir up a pang in the chest of any sentient being — human or ape.
In fact, it takes a while for the actions to start. But like a finely honed engine, the movie accelerates from a sedentary state to that of the maximum speed in no time. And the action scenes are simply spectacular — Koba riding out of fire with guns blazing is an apocalyptic vision that is on par with Wagner-playing American helicopter gunships.
But for all the emotion and action, it’s the politics of the movie that I want to explore.
Let me begin with this observation from a friend (a longtime reader and fellow ND contributor) in my facebook wall:
The thing that makes me hesitant about the greatness of the movie is its dependence on assholes and misunderstanding to spark and fuel the conflict vs inevitable conflict between two competing intelligent species. This is much the historiography of the origins of WW 1. Whether the powers blundered into a conflict or it was inevitable due to ambitions and dynamics of new and old powers.
I think my friend is being a tad bit unfair to the villains — whether in the movie or of history. And I wonder if these are the only prisms — great men and women with their foibles, random accidents, or some great arch of inevitability — through which we can view history.
Let’s think about what motivates the key characters who shaped the conflict in the movie. On the ape side, we have Caesar and Koba, while Malcolm and Dreyfus are the men. (An aside, three decades after Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor, an intelligent blockbuster has no interesting female character! — if I was writing a movie review, this would have been my key critique.) Here we have all four:
That’s charismatic Caesar warning the humans. He is the protagonist. The alpha chimp. The founding father. And like Shakespeare’s Caesar, he is wronged by his trusted lieutenant. Or so it might seem.
But think again.
Let’s try to see this from Koba’s perspective. See those scars on Koba’s face? Humans did it. On his body? Humans again. Koba in fact points them out, and says, humans lie. And he has actually seen the humans prepare for war, with guns. He doesn’t understand why Caesar would want to help the humans turn on the lights. Humans have guns. They get the lights, they will come after the apes. The fact that Caesar doesn’t see this makes him not just weak, but dangerously so. Apes are the weaker species here. They cannot afford a second strike. War is inevitable, and they must strike first. If Caesar, and his disciples, don’t see it, well, too bad. Doctrine of necessity. For the greater good of the community, harsh measures must be taken.
Is Koba thinking all that differently from these men?
Is Koba just an asshole? Hardly. He is much more complex than that. And the situation is more complex than bad-Koba-good-Caesar. Yes, Koba shoots Caesar, just as Brutus drew his knife. Yes, Koba meant to kill, knowing full well that it would violate the primal rule of this primate community — apes do not kill apes. Yes, Koba’s paws were uncleaned with civil blood.
But were his paws civil?
Koba kills. Not just at the Dawn, but more importantly, at the Rise.
Revolutions create radical precedence. When a nationalist major goes to a radio station and declares war on his superiors on behalf of his great national leader, another major has a precedence to go to another radio station to tell the world about the bloody end of the same leader’s despotic rule. Koba, it seems to me, is afflicted with the curse of the majors.
Koba, of course, is Stalin’s nom de guerre. And Koba’s treatment of fellow apes can easily remind one of Napoleon — not Bonaparte, but the more-equal-animal. But when it comes to the conflict with humans, perhaps it’s Caesar who resembles Stalin’s socialism in one country. After the communists were beaten back in Germany and elsewhere in Europe, didn’t Stalin essentially concentrate on building the Soviet Union (and his own power base therein)? Didn’t he spend the much of the 1930s trying to come to an understanding with the French and the British about containing the Third Reich? Wasn’t the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact a desperate attempt to buy some time after Chamberlain’s peace in our time? How different is Caesar when he thinks ‘let’s just give humans what they want so that they leave us alone’?
Caesar, no less than Koba, knows what humans are capable of. He wants to preserve everything the apes have built — so he wants to avoid war. And Dreyfus knows what the humans must do to keep the lights on, to preserve what the humans have. It’s interesting that the human who draws the gun on his comrade isn’t Dreyfus, but Malcolm. Malcolm wants to give peace a chance.
The crucial thing is, each of these characters are making a conscious, boundedly rational, decision. It’s not a personality quark or random misunderstanding that sparked this conflict.
But was it inevitable? Is history inevitable?
What shaped the decisions of Koba-Caesar-Dreyfus-Malcolm? Experience, of course. But not just experience. Experiences, memories, were processed, analysed, synthesised into rationale that underpinned their actions. Different actions were based on different understandings, different memories, of similar, sometimes the very same, experience. Different actions of different characters were ultimately driven by different ideas. To use an oft-quoted passage from Keynes:
Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas.
One idea that drove the conflict in the movie — and throughout history, perhaps all the way back 30,000 years or earlier when the last time this planet was home to two intelligent species of primates — is clear us-vs-them distinction. Identity politics, tribalism, is likely to be older than humanity. Nationalism is just its modern, and by virtue of the technology at its disposal, the mos destructive version of that tribalism. And the movie, without being preachy or naive, highlights this — as another friend, an ally from the UV days, put it in my facebook wall:
This theme of conflict between humans and sub-humans is fantastic. No matter what we say we all did and still do categorize humanity into multiple strata. So exaggerating our own point of view(s) and anxiety towards other ‘lower’ categories makes the point perfectly.
Arguably, the war wasn’t inevitable exactly a century ago in Europe. But nor was it just an accident of history caused by a single shot ringing out in Sarajevo sky. Ideas that dominated the corridors of power and the minds of men walking those corridors led to the war. Nationalism was, of course, one major idea. But it wasn’t the only one. Arguably, the monarchs and ministers, generals and journalists, pretty much most people who dealt with ideas, had little idea about what the war might mean. Arguably, the war was a geopolitical Minsky moment.
Of course, the other idea — a pernicious one — that has driven conflict is the very notion of inevitability. Humans lie — Koba said. Get ready — Dreyfus said. But at the end of the movie, Caesar also succumbs to the notion of inevitability.
Of course, this is inevitable in the franchise — we know how this ends: remember, it’s a prequel reboot? We know the rigid, oppressive, society where George Taylor will eventually crash land. Presumably, it will be the exigencies of war that will produce that future. It will be interesting to see whether Caesar really turns into Stalin.
Meanwhile, we are seeing a variation of the movie playing out in a crowded shore of eastern Mediterranean?
A place where Jews can live safely among other Jews — this is what the protagonist in Munich — a Mossad agent tasked with assassinating the Black September leadership: a tat for the tit of the 1972 Munich Olympics incidence — is supposed to fight for, so tells him his mother, whose entire family died during the Holocaust. I believe in America — thus begins The Godfather. Spielberg’s ends on a similar note. For him, the Promised Land is not on the banks of the Jordan but on the Hudson, Zion is not Jerusalem but New York.
United States is the first country in history to be founded on a set of ideas that are not based on tribalism. Sure America is not the land of liberty in practice as it is in theory. Sure many actions taken by the American Republic betray its founding values. But when all is said and done, Spielberg believes in America as the land where black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics can live in freedom. Spielberg might believe in America, but many of his co-religionists believe in the existence of Israel as a place where Jews can return to if the going gets tough.
And whatever might have been had different options were taken, it is too late for an Israel that could exist in peace without dispossessing the Palestinians.
There is no peace at the end of this road — thus ends Munich. I am afraid peace is quite likely at the end of this road, the peace of the graveyard. The question is, whose graves? In the land of the Semite god, the end may well be that of the Aryan epic.
My friend comments in facebook:
I thought there is a good parallel to be drawn between the theme of the movie and the beginning-aftermath of WW1. But one thing I must clarify. I didn’t think Koba as one of the arseholes. I can understand his motivations and plans well. His singular drive to maintain the safety and triumph of own species is very realistic. By arseholes I meant Carver, the guy who repeatedly draws guns on apes inspite of learning that the apes are far more intelligent and capable that he previously thought, and the Gary Oldman leader character who also just couldn’t assimilate how intelligent and capable foes the apes could become. Faced with such huge uncertainties, the first instinct should be caution rather than reckless gestures.
I guess some humans just couldn’t appreciate the idea that apes could be intelligent and capable foes on par with humans.