Conservatives may neglect Hollywood, but it retains the power to shock. Example: War for the Planet of the Apes depends on the moral rhetoric used by the Puritans and then Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. This is all about Exodus: God liberates the chosen people from bondage, and they attain the Promised Land. Appealing to Millennials while recalling the Boomers’ Sixties heyday, the rhetoric of civil rights is nowadays both on sale and on trial at the movies. And America emerges from them tarnished at best.
The The Planet of the Apes story was originally a Sixties’ sci-fi allegory. It questioned our human nature, to humble our pride. It warned, Science will doom us. Proud American men, looking to discover the universe and the future in their spaceships, the very spearhead of the enterprise of modern science, discover a future worse than any past: a nature impervious to artificial powers. Apes enslaving humans, who are bereft of mind or speech: This allegory was part of the New Left’s politics and liberalism’s holier-than-thou attitude. The question was slavery itself, and how would you like to be on the receiving end, white America!
Well, it’s dejà vuall over again two generations later, with far more polish and more hysteria about science dooming us. This matters because Americans hold, or once held, their rights to come from Nature and their Creator. The goodness both of science and of man had divine sanction. From their nature, men could scientifically deduce their equal freedom and then strive to live well in light of that knowledge. They had natural rights, as we used to say. Science, natural and political, was supposed to help us secure them.
People changed their mind when they thought natural science proved that there was no human nature, or that it was nothing good or special. That is why the cinema of violence now dominating young Americans’ imagination forever rehearses the question “Is life providential? Or cannibalistic?” Does God defend us from the worst in ourselves and in our world? Or are we evil incessantly, from youth? Human nature looks so depressive at the movies because the meaning of science has changed.
For the Boomers, science meant both spaceships and atom bombs. Kennedy was sending Americans to the moon at the beginning of the Sixties! Confidence and power still pointed to something good and noble for mankind. But there were doubts: What if man’s cosmic destiny was really the consequence of his self-destruction by the atom bomb? America had already used nuclear weaponry pressed by necessity, but in Kennedy’s time, America herself was threatened with Soviet missiles from Cuba. What would America do in case of a nuclear attack? America would launch rockets not to reach the moon but to render the earth uninhabitable. Gradually, the ambiguity of the rocket was resolved in favor of despair and fear: Think not Mars, but MAD.
Cold War hysteria about nuclear energy had the same origin. The atom bomb was a symbol. It spelled the end of the age when men would wage war in person, risking their own lives without risking the survival of all of mankind. The atom bomb rendered heroism or honorable war obsolete. But this would not lead to peace except, as the moral rhetoric of unconditional pacifism suggested, in death, and well deserved! With no more future for human beings, the movies went for a post-human future, in a desperate attempt to save some kind of life or morality from this scientific predicament.
At the movies, proud American men are not going back to the stars. Science for Millennials means biology, not physics, and it creates monsters as much as men.
That’s how we got to, among other things, the new Planet of the Apes movies, in which mankind is wiped out by a medical mistake — a disease created by science. Scientific confidence becomes hubris, and mankind in his endeavor to conquer viruses defeats himself instead. The effort to build the most sophisticated power, immortality, out of the simplest life form, endlessly mutating viruses, turns out to ruin man’s own complexity. Our fear of death, which drives medical advances, also turns to paranoia. At the movies, proud American men are not going back to the stars. Science for Millennials means biology, not physics, and it creates monsters as much as men. Scientific power no longer carries moral conviction for us, so we get the fantasies of self-destruction we deserve. At least we find them plausible: We would not keep showing up for such dark stories if we did not secretly fear that we were our own undoing.
But couldn’t all this darkness be limited by the luminous part of the story — civil rights and its Biblical rhetoric? The writer-director team say they’re looking to dignify their apes by giving them a founder: a Moses. Their movie really is Exodus redux, and it’s worth learning what has come of that once-proud feature of American political rhetoric. Only the movies make use of it anymore. Certainly no politician dares quote the old Biblical stories once considered part of America’s political imagination.
Blacks embraced Christianity in America and organized as Christians. They found the Old Testament an important source of hope and wisdom in the civil-rights struggle, which was a happy reprise of the theme of the chosen people, liberated from Egyptian slavery. As much as the adventure of scientific innovation is about individualism, the rhetoric of the chosen people is about community. So this should be a great occasion to tell both the particular story of liberation from Jim Crow and the broader story of America’s destiny. How come it all ends up tarnished? Something in this rewriting of civil-rights rhetoric is strange: God is absent.
Without God, mankind in this movie is left to plague itself. America is now Egypt. Man, not God, brought on the virus-plague that wiped out mankind. The only human ruler in this story plays a kind of Pharaoh, starting with the shaved-head, anti-natural aesthetic of Egypt and ending with his killing his son: the plague of the death of the firstborn. The hardening of hearts is here the loss of the power of speech. The afflicted can no longer communicate.
This Moses is without Commandments. Hollywood tells us, We’re all Philistines now, and we pay the price: Not even our hero-apes can evolve from slavery to freedom.
Meanwhile, the moral actors, the apes, are passively caught between warring human factions, witnesses to our species’ suicide. They only want to escape to the Promised Land, led by a Moses who has to learn to kill and to refrain from killing his utmost enemy, to save the lives of his kind and to die without entering the Promised Land. Even the swallowing of the armies of Pharaoh is reenacted, though without much cohesion to the plot.
But this Moses is without Commandments. In Exodus, he led the Israelites out of Egyptian slavery by the long way, to avoid the land of the Philistines. That was his judgment on their character. But, Hollywood tells us, We’re all Philistines now, and we pay the price: Not even our hero-apes can evolve from slavery to freedom. They just have a real-estate problem: The war could have been avoided had they been a few dozen miles from their arbitrarily determined current location. The apes have no new revelation; they confront no ancient threat. Their story lacks moral seriousness and the potential for high drama.
This leader should evoke MLK or Mandela, whose moral rhetoric was stentorian, all about delivering freedom to an oppressed people. Yet, in a show of breathtaking blindness to the very civil-rights rhetoric he evokes, the Moses figure in War of the Apes never gives one good speech. Apparently his people’s epic migration does not require intellectual effort to comprehend and express. These writers who play with America’s most dignified rhetoric about liberating slaves have nothing worth saying, having never reflected on American history in light of the very principles and precedents that Lincoln and MLK referred to. Having chosen to go down another path, they reveal to us, at the end of a long trilogy, a dead end. We have learned nothing new about human dignity, whatever we may have forgotten meanwhile.