Film Review: “War for the Planet of the Apes” and the End of Humanity

Warning: Full spoilers follow.

As everyone who is even vaguely familiar with this blog knows quite well, I am an avid fan of all things Planet of the Apes. Needless to say, then, I have been waiting for the release of this film pretty much from the moment that the last film was finished. I watched the most recent entry as part of a triple feature, and I also watched it on its own (in 3-D in RPX, no less). I can say, as both a fan of the franchise and as someone who loves a well-made movie, that this is a stirring, magnificent conclusion.

The film begins two years after the conclusion of Dawn, as the forces of the Colonel (Woody Harrelson) attempt to utterly eradicate the sentient apes, who have retreated ever further into the forest in a desperate attempt to survive. When the Colonel assassinates Caesar’s wife and child, he sets out–with the orangutan Maurice, the gorilla Luca, and the chimpanzee Rocket–to gain revenge. Along the way, they meet Bad Ape, another sentient chimpanzee (who is not part of their tribe), before coming across the hideous concentration camp the Colonel has staffed with Caesar’s captured troop. The Colonel manages to capture Caesar and uses him as a means of motivating the other apes to continue building a wall around the camp. Ultimately, Caesar leads his troop to a promised land, though he gives his life to do so.

The vision of the world that War presents is the logical culmination of the narrative arc begun with Rise and continued with Dawn. In other words, it is a brutal, bleak world where both apes and humans have to contend with the darker parts of their natures. The spirit of vengefulness that Koba represented in the second film continues to haunt Caesar, a reminder that, for all of their advanced cognition and increased self-awareness, the apes are never far from sliding into violence. That this affects Caesar, just as much as it affects any other character, makes it all the more explicable and, to a degree at least, understandable. When the world has fallen apart and all you want to do is survive–and that is the one thing that humanity seems intent on preventing–it would be very difficult indeed to keep from slipping into barbarism.

A large part of Caesar’s continuing charisma stems from his portrayal by Andy Serkis. It’s not just that Serkis is the undoubted king of motion capture; it’s that Caesar is a character as complex and contradictory as any human character. He has seen so much in the course of his life–the best and the worst of humanity–and he has the physical and emotional scars to prove it. He is also far from infallible; it is his decision to pursue vengeance that leads, however inadvertently, to the imprisonment and death of many of his beloved apes. Even the greatest of heroes, it seems, are as flawed as the rest of us.

While the Colonel gets a lot less screen time than I expected, he is also a man driven by a mission. Once it becomes clear that the virus that wiped out so much of humanity has begun to mutate and cause cognitive devolution, he is willing to sacrifice the lives of everyone–including his own son–if it means that collective humanity will be saved. For it turns out that the virus that exterminated so much of humanity has once again begun to mutate, and its new form works to rob its victims of both speech and their upper cognitive capacities. Brutal, utterly convinced of his own sacred duty (he even believes that his sacrifice of his son is godlike), he represents mankind’s worst impulses, a willingness to destroy any individuals who pose a risk to the collective. Harrelson endows this creation with a certain charismatic cruelty, and that is the brilliance of the role.

If the Colonel represents the end of the emotional attachments that make us human, the mute girl Nova represents a possible new beginning. Having already survived the new form of the virus, she cannot speak, but she is fully capable of emotional attachments, and she becomes particularly bonded with Maurice. While she may not attain the same heights of intelligence as her human forbears, there is a measure of hope that she represents a new, possibly more innocent beginning for the human race.

In the end, War ends on an ambiguously uplifting note. The seeds have been sown for the ultimate decline of humanity into the mute primitives that were seen all the way back when the first film came out in 1969. The apes have at last found a place where they can build their world in safety. Maurice and Rocket, Caesar’s most devoted acolytes and disciples, will be able to train his son Cornelius so that he can take up the mantle of leadership that his father has left behind. Caesar has left the world, but his benevolent spirit, represented by the final glimpse of the sun, will continue to live on among his people.

Speaking of Maurice…I know that Caesar is the film’s star, and I have cheered for him from the beginning, but to my mind Maurice is one of the franchise’s most complicated characters. There is a richness and a depth to him that always shines through, particularly in his eyes. Like Nova, he represents the brighter, more optimistic part of the apes’ nature, a source of wisdom and serenity. Just as importantly, he will, it is hinted, form the foundation for the future of ape society.

Formally, the film is absolutely beautiful. Reeves has really matured as a director, and there are scenes that truly take your breath away: the moment when the gorilla Luca shares a bright pink flower with Nova; the bleakness of the Colonel’s camp; the sweeping vistas all combine to make this a truly astounding film. Michael Giacchino’s score, more subtly orchestrated than Dawn’s, contains allusions to the original film and also ably conveys the operatic grandness of the film’s narrative.

War for the Planet of the Apes is a fitting conclusion to this trilogy, a means of forcing 21st Century humans to confront the uncomfortable questions about what, indeed, makes us different from the other primates with which we share this planet. The films’ answer seems to be pretty unequivocal in many ways: not that much. War in many ways marks the definitive moment at which the planet has definitively turned aside from the path that humans once took. Given the amount of wanton cruelty that the humans have shown–both inside the film and outside of it–it’s hard not to feel that that isn’t such a bad thing after all.

Book Review: “War for the Planet of the Apes: Revelations” (Greg Keyes)

Two years ago, I had the pleasure of reading Greg Keyes’ movie tie-in novel Dawn of the Planet of the Apes: Firestorm, which detailed the efforts of the chimpanzee Caesar and his fellow apes to evade the attempts by humans to eradicate them. Now, Keyes is back with a novel that serves as a bridge between the events of Dawn and those of the forthcoming War, entitled War for the Planet of the Apes: Revelations. 

The novel narrates the events that immediately precede those in the forthcoming film, in which the human forces (led by Colonel McCullough) come to San Francisco and have to confront the reality of the ape presence. Meanwhile, Caesar and his apes must contend with both the increasingly brutal human military force and dissent from within their own ranks.

The novel switches frequently between several viewpoint characters both major and minor, but it pays the most attention to Colonel McCullough, Ray the orangutan, and Blue Eyes, Caesar’s eldest son and putative heir. Other characters include Cornelia (Caesar’s wife and, in her brief time in the novel, a true badass), John (the Colonel’s son), and of course Caesar himself. All of them increasingly find themselves caught up in the increasingly large-scale conflict between the human survivors of the Simian Flu and Caesar’s apes.

Of course, nothing is easy for either side. Caesar must continue to deal with the fallout from Koba’s rebellion, including a number of apes who harbour resentment toward him, including both Red and Silver (the former of home will come to play a large part in the upcoming film). The Colonel, meanwhile, is depicted as a man of honour but also as a brutal military mastermind who is absolutely convinced of the rightness of his actions. Steeped in the military traditions of the past–he references The Iliad, Beowulf, and numerous other texts–he sees in the conflict the stage for both the salvation of humanity and, just possibly, his own chance at greatness.

One of the most fascinating things about this novel is the extent to which it shows us the gradually-evolving consciousness of its ape characters. Many of them still remember a time before the awakening, when apes still inhabited a consciousness that was powerful but qualitatively different than their human counterparts. Keyes has a remarkable ability to allow us to inhabit the minds of the non-human characters, particularly Ray and Blue Eyes. Ray has a desire to move beyond the limits of the corporeal, and he is clearly something of a mystic, someone who sees something that others do not. Likewise, Blue Eyes has the makings of a great leader, if he is able to overcome his own sense of inferiority and embrace his inner strength. Both must also contend with the fact that the world is not nearly as simple as they would like it to be, that there is much about politics, life, and death that they must contend with as they move inexorably into adulthood. The world that they inhabit is a dangerous one, and it is likely to grow more so as the years progress and humanity struggles (probably vainly) to rebuild its vanished civilization.

More importantly, it also suggests that the war that is about to unfold between the brutal colonel and Caesar and his allies is one that will determine not just the fate of the two species, but also the future trajectory of history itself. Both leaders, in their different ways, recognize the stakes of what are about to unfold, but they have very different outlooks on what the future will be like. The Colonel, in keeping with his repeated references to the wars and soldiers of the past–the heroes at Troy, his ancestors who fought in America’s conflicts, etc.–sees life as a brutal battlefield with winners and losers. Caesar, while recognizing the need for battle, is deeply wounded by the knowledge that such battle will mean the death of many of his apes. He bears the scars of leadership, and he knows that the confrontation with the Colonel will be the one that determines the future of his people, possibly for decades to come.

Despite the fact that the outcome of the larger conflict is, to some degree already known, what remains to be seen is just how many tribes of apes will eventually split off from Caesar’s original founding colony. There is no question that there are many who still see their first leader as ultimately a failed effort to co-exist with humans. Perhaps there will be a series of peaceful revolutions, but it is far more likely–given the path that many apes have already taken–that there will be as many violent confrontations between apes and others apes as there are between apes and humans. These apes are very different from humans in some ways, but in others they are far too much like us for comfort.

Revelations gives us a sense not only of the brewing conflicts that will probably take generations to resolve but also the various tribes of apes that are already taking shape at this early stage. While the chimpanzees and bonobos emerge as the clear leaders in this universe, the orangutans (as characters such as Maurice and Ray make clear) are the philosophers and the gorillas, for better or worse, are the muscle (they even refer to themselves as the wall that protects the village). I greatly appreciated the fact that Keyes had clearly done his research into ape behaviour, and it is this level of research that gives all of his ape characters such a profound sense of depth and individuality. Each of them represents a possible path forward for the heterogeneous ape culture, and it will clearly be a struggle–though a worthwhile one–for them to find unity in their difference. As Caesar himself would say, “Apes together, strong!”

I don’t know if Keyes plans on continuing to write books within the Apes universe, but is my fervent hope that he does so. He is one of those rare authors of tie-in fiction who actually knows how to write a taut, compelling story that nevertheless breathes and sighs with at-times lyrical beauty. If anyone is capable of ensuring that the stories of Caesar and his descendants are given the justice they deserve, it is surely Greg Keyes.

Film Review: “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes” (1972)

Continuing onward with our exploration of the original Planet of the Apes film series, we come to what has always been one of the most genuinely disturbing and frightening entries in the franchise, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. In this film, Zira’s and Cornelius’s son (originally named Milo by his parents but renamed Caesar by the circus owner Armando), is brought to the (unnamed) city, where he witnesses the horrible treatments that apes endure at the hands of their human masters. In the years since his parents’ death, cats and dogs have been wiped out, replaced by apes who moved quickly from being pets to being servants. In this strange, disturbing space, apes fulfill the menial jobs previously filled by humans. Caesar, as the lone talking ape, is the spark that ignites this smoldering powder-keg of a world.

It does not take long for the film to show us that this is a stark and totalitarian vision of America’s future. The apes have already been degraded to the point where they are dressed according to their species, a key means of ensuring that they remain separated from one another, unable to form the bonds of solidarity that would, any good Marxist leads knows, lead to the revolution and overthrow of the existing power structure. However, even in this early point in the film their latent dissatisfaction is obvious, as it takes a great deal of human-inflicted violence to make them fully quiescent.

Indeed, Armando represents in the film’s imagination one of the few humans who actually possesses a sense of compassion, and his death at the hands of government-sponsored interrogators stands for Caesar as the final piece of evidence that there is nothing remotely redeemable about the world that man has created. Caesar knows that he only has two options:  he can either fulfill his destiny as the harbinger of ape revolution, or he can embrace the death that surely awaits him at the humans’ hands.

Thus, one cannot really blame Caesar for eventually leading the rebellion. Who could not, seeing the tremendous cruelty that humans continue to perpetrate against their ape slaves, ranging from the everyday abuse they suffer at the hands of their human masters to the more extended rigors inflicted at the Ape Management Center? The humans, in their desperate attempt to keep their simian cousins under control, end up producing the very catastrophe they so assiduously sought to avoid. Even at the level of narrative, humankind reminds trapped in a mesh of its own creation.

Formally, this is a tremendously complex and compelling film, and it certainly makes the most of an obviously-decreasing budget. The half-hour or so of the film is shot in very stark lighting, with the austere office buildings and too-bright light showing us that this is a world that has already slipped precipitously into totalitarianism. Humans have gradually abrogated any of their moral superiority, and by the time the night of fire and death arrives, we can’t help but cheer for our own downfall.

Governor Breck, the film’s primary antagonist, may be an absolutely disgusting and terrifying tyrant, but he is an utterly compelling villain. Like his predecessor Hasslein in Escape from the Planet of the Apes, he recognizes something fundamental that eludes most of the other characters; he knows that part of the reason that humans have enslaved apes is because they recognize in their simian cousins the aspects of human nature that he most wants to abolish and control. Within every human, he knows, lurks the dark, primate doppelgänger just waiting to leap out and wreak havoc. Caesar, for better and worse, is merely the inverted reflection of his archenemy Breck.

Now, there is one thing you should know about this film:  there are actually two very different endings, depending on which version you watch. The one that actually reached theaters was a more hopeful ending, in which Caesar declared a measure of mercy for the humans that he had just overthrown, sparing Governor Breck’s life rather than allowing his fellows to have their vengeance. In this vision, there is hope, however frail, of a rapprochement of sorts between the humans and the apes. It is one of the few moments of optimism in an otherwise quite bleak film series.

The restored ending, however (now available on the Blu-Ray), has Caesar unabashedly proclaim his desire to take the reins of power from the humans who, he knows with certainty, will one day bring about their own destruction. Breck is then beaten to death by the gorillas that have surrounded him.  This version also features a great deal more blood, as well as a scene in which human bodies are heaped on one another in the aftermath of the revolt (a scene eerily reminiscent of the hunt of the very first film). Being the person I am, I actually prefer this version, precisely because it denies us the optimism that so often acts as a opiate, dulling our awareness. If you can, watch this version and embrace its visceral bleakness.

Next up, I’ll cover the last film in the original film series, Battle for Planet of the Apes, in which the future fates of humans and apes will at last be decided.

Film Review: “Escape from the Planet of the Apes” (1971)

Since I’ve already written reviews of the first two Planet of the Apes films, I thought I would keep things going by jotting down some of my thoughts on the third installment, Escape from Planet of the Apes. In this film, Cornelius and Zira (Roddy McDowall and Kim Hunter) have managed to escape the conflagration that consumed Earth in the previous film, along with the genius chimpanzee scientist Milo (Sal Mineo, in one of his final film roles). They crash land on the Earth of Taylor’s time, and once there they are taken into custody by the U.S. government, setting in motion a chain of events that will have tragic consequences for everyone involved.

For better or worse, Escape from the Planet of the Apes has always been my least favourite of the original Apes films. Part of this has to do with the very comedic element that suffuses the majority of the film. While this has always struck me as somewhat odd (given the somber, even bleak tone of the preceding films), it’s only fair to acknowledge that some of the film is actually quite funny. For example, in a tense scene in a courtroom in which the two apes are being interrogated, Cornelius is asked, obliquely, whether he can speak. With a delivery that could only come from McDowall, he says, “Only when she lets me.” It usefully breaks the tension, but it also sets the stage for the tragedy that gradually unfolds.

In keeping with its predecessors in the franchise, the film does ask some troubling philosophical questions. During a heated debate between Dr. Hasslein and the U.S. President,  the latter expresses the belief that perhaps it wouldn’t be such a bad thing after all if apes displaced humans as the dominant species. After all, he points out, humans haven’t done such a great job as stewards of their own planet and besides, perhaps it is beyond the ability of humankind, even the (arguably) most powerful man in the world, to prevent the workings of fate. Hasslein, of course, remains unconvinced and it is his belief–which the film encourages us to understand as sincere–that leads to his unrelenting pursuit of the talking apes who represent, for him, the extinction of the human race and all it holds dear.

There are a number of other things that I always enjoy about this film. One is Armando, portrayed by the inimitable Ricardo Montalban, the owner of a circus that shields Cornelius and Zira from the avenging government agents out to sterilize them and abort their offspring. He also, it turns out, shelters their children, ensuring that the very future Hasslein fears with such panicked intensity will come to pass.

For me, though, the most powerful thing about this film is its tragic ending, in which both Zira and Cornelius are murdered by humans, the final shot of the film taken from overhead, capturing their last embrace. It’s a heart-wrenching end to the film, especially that we have been with these characters through two previous installments. It also serves as a brutal reminder of the cruelties of which man continues to prove himself utterly capable.

Though somewhat marred by its tendency toward silliness and comedy, the third installment in the venerable Apes franchise does, nevertheless, manage to set the stage for the struggle that will eventually lead to man’s self-immolation and his supplanting by the apes that he will ultimately seek to enslave and bend to his will. The irony, of course, is that Hasslein’s relentless pursuit of Zira and Cornelius is itself the manifestation of mankind’s relentless desire to dominate and control both his fellow creatures and his own future, two forces that always seem to find some way to confound those very desires.

Like the other Apes films, Escape suggests that human (and, I would say, ape) agency remains caught up in a double-bind of its own creation. In attempting to prevent the future from happening, the various humans and apes who try to forestall the day of their doom end up hastening its arrival. It’s a rather bleak understanding of the way the world works, but one entirely in keeping with the angsty nuclear age that produced it.

Film Review: “Beneath the Planet of the Apes” (1970)

Since I watched Planet of the Apes in theaters recently, I’ve felt the familiar urge to revisit the other entries in the original film series. So, of course, I began with the sequel, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, in which another astronaut, Brent (the absolutely delicious James Franciscus) crash-lands on the titular planet, only to discover (as Taylor did) that he is on Earth. In the process, he finds himself caught in the middle of a war between the apes and a race of telepathic mutants inhabiting the ruins of New York City.

While many critics find this one of the weakest entries in the series, I actually think it’s the strongest next to the original. This is due to three factors. One, the continued intractability of Dr. Zaius, who cannot see beyond his own understanding of the world and who thus inadvertently brings about its destruction. Zaius, brought to nuanced live by the late, great Maurice Evans, will always be one of my absolute favourite Apes characters. Two, General Ursus, showcasing the wonderful talents of James Gregory (and who could ever forget the incredible line, “The only good human, is a dead human!) In many ways, he represents the darker strain of ape society, the (dare I say it) almost human drive to conquer and destroy those that are different.  Three, the terrifying vision of the future of humanity amid the radioactive ruins of New York City. While they have some power, they also recognize their own fragility in the face of the brute force that the apes possess.

I always feel a pleasurable thrill of terror when I first see the ruins of New York City, as Brent wanders through its underground remains. There is something, I think, sublime about seeing the remains not only of one of the world’s greatest cities, but specifically of the bastions of man’s economic and enlightened achievements (hence the appearance of both the Stock Exchange and the NYPL). Similarly, it’s hard not to feel a mixture of horror and utter captivation when you realize that the telepaths have taken over St. Patrick’s Cathedral in order to offer their adulation to the bomb that could, literally, bring all life on Earth to an end. The fact that they have so thoroughly interwoven the most destructive weapon known to man into their religious life is one of the film’s more brilliant inventions, as is the fact that they only reveal their “inmost selves” to their “god” (though they normally wear masks and wigs to make themselves appear normally human, they reveal their mutated selves during worship).

Of course, it’s rather easy to read the telepaths as being more than slightly ridiculous in their worship of the Alpha/Omega bomb, but I personally find those scenes to be intensely, viscerally disturbing. I suspect this has to do with the fact that in this world the bomb has become indissolubly wedded to the divine, man’s ability to co-opt God’s destructive capabilities is indeed terrifying to contemplate. This is hardly surprising, especially if (as I have) you have studied the period and know that, indeed, there were many who saw in the bomb the incarnation of a divine power. The film tempers this somewhat by allowing Taylor the final triggering of the bomb, though to my eye it remains unclear whether he does it as a final thrust of revenge toward the intractable Zaius or whether it just happens to be where he falls after his fatal shooting (to my eye, it remains ambiguous).

In many ways, the vision of the world offered by Beneath is even more terrifying than its predecessor. In this world, humans occupy two equally unpalatable positions in this world:  either utterly devoid of the basic patterns of civilization or reduced to dwelling in a ruined city whose wreaked visage matches their own. There is really no hope for redemption, except for the perilous, ultimately fatal one offered by the detonation of the bomb.

Even the ending is, in its own way, bleaker than the original film. While there was at least hope that civilization and the future, even if ruled by apes, would continue (such was Dr. Zaius’ hope when he had the signs of man’s former dominance destroyed) in the first, at the end of this one we know that the entire planet has been effectively rendered a dead wasteland by the Bomb. The dreary intonation at the end, pithy and matter-of-fact, suggests that, in the end, the Earth is but an unimportant part of the universe.

Truly, a terrifying proposition.

“Planet of the Apes” and the Phenomenology of the Theatrical Film Experience

As a film scholar whose work examines the importance of technology to the way in which spectators experience the cinema and the world around them, it’s always something of a pleasure to see something actually in a theater. Part of it is the sociality of the space, seeing a film (whether a classic or a new release) with others who have made the effort and spent the money to see the same film you are and (hopefully) have some measure of investment in it. But an equally important part is the experience of the big screen itself. We in the world of academia refer to this study of the sensory and bodily appeal of cinema as phenomenology, that is, how we experience, often at the level of our bodies, the world around us.

While it can sometimes be difficult to experience older films in their original theatrical format, there has been a recent spate of re-releases by theater chains, including an ongoing partnership between Fathom Events and Turner Classic Movies. Fortunately or me, they recently had a showing of Planet of the Apes (the one and only original), and I was more than pleased to be able to attend.

Now, Planet of the Apes has long been one of my absolute favourite films. As chilling and mind-bending as ever, I truly enjoyed watching it on the big screen and this experience convinced me, once and for all, that sometimes yes, it is indeed better to see the film in an actual theater rather than relying on seeing it on TV (yes, even if you’re lucky enough to have an HDTV). There is just something about seeing it in a multiplex that forms a link between me, sitting in the theater in the present day, with those who would have seen it when it was originally produced and even, terrifyingly enough, with the hero Taylor as he struggles to make sense of this baffling world in which apes are the intelligent form of life while humans struggle at the bottom of the ecological hierarchy.

Industrially, it’s important to remember that these films of the pre-VHS/DVD/Blu-Ray era were especially designed to be seen on the big screen. (Geoff King has a fascinating discussion on this very issue, if you’re interested in reading about it further). Seeing things on a larger scale allows not only for a greater amount of scrutiny of the formal composition of the screen space, but also a greater sense of immersion in this profoundly unsettling and challenging world. And for a film like Apes, this immersion can prove to be profoundly unsettling at a deeply primal, psychological level.

Seeing it in a larger format also allows for a more nuanced appreciation of the formal complexity of this film. From the perpetually unsettling score (one of the finest ever produced for a feature film, IMO), to the way in which the onscreen space is often organized around blocks and and obstructions that separate Taylor from those who inhabit this world, the diegetic space mirrors his own fractured consciousness and invites us to inhabit it as well. Further, there are some particularly brilliant moments when we see Taylor/Heston’s countenance brought into close-up, even as he reflects on (and is forced to acknowledge) his own smallness in the vastness of space and in the world that no longer truly has a place for him. The human, in the film’s imagination, is both centered and decentered.

Furthermore, the film makes some truly (a mark, no doubt, of the films production after the advent of the New Hollywood, which posed significant challenges to the earlier conventions of Hollywood style). There is a lot of very jumpy camera movement, as well as a few key scenes (such as Taylor’s attempted escape from Ape City), where the camera actually turns the world upside down. It’s not necessarily a subtle bit of cinematography, but it is effective. Coupled with the disturbing film score–which often mimics the sounds of the apes–it really does serve to disorient us as viewers and make us reflect on how fragile and precarious our own superiority truly is.

All in all, this was truly a tremendous cinematic experience, and I’m glad I took the time to do it. The hilarious interview between TCM’s Ben Mankiewicz and “Dr. Zaius” was a fond, tongue-in-cheek send-up of the film’s most notorious, sanctimonious villain. It was certainly one of the most absurdly bizarre (in a good way) interview that I have seen on Turner Classic movies. While I enjoyed it, I do wonder what was in the minds of the producers when they decided on that particular avenue. Still, the definite queer edge made it a little extra special for me (as you know, I’m always on the lookout for the queer side of things).

So, if you have the chance to see a classic Hollywood film in theaters, do it. You won’t regret it.

Film Review: “Jurassic World”

I have to confess:  I was unashamedly excited about the release of Jurassic World.  In fact, they had me at the sight of that Mosasaurus eating the dangling shark.  And, given my expectations, the film didn’t disappoint.  While not nearly as brilliant nor as terrifying as the original, I still found Jurassic World to be an intensely entertaining action film with enough pop culture philosophy to give me something to think about while I was watching.

The film takes place in the same universe, and on the same island, as the 1992 film, with the original park largely abandoned and a newer, glossier, and fully function park now in its place.  Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) is in charge of drumming of financial investments, while Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) is a raptor trainer and expert.  When the incredibly intelligent Indominus rex–a genetically created dinosaur–escapes its enclosure, it sets off a chain reaction that seals the fate of several people on the island, including park owner and John Hammond disciple Simon Masrani (Irrfan Khan) and Vic Hoskins (Vincent D’Onofrio), the chief of security.  Meanwhile, both Claire and Owen attempt and succeed in rescuing Claire’s nephews Zach (Nick Robinson) and Gray (Ty Simpkins).  In the end, the I. Rex is defeated by the combined efforts of the humans, the T. Rex, and one of the raptors, before being definitively devoured by the park’s resident Mosasaurus.

At times, the film seems to struggle with the legacy of its predecessor.  Though it largely ignores both The Lost World and the more reductively titled Jurassic Park III (leading to this particular author to refer to it as a “selective sequel”), the original film looms large.  The founder John Hammond is alluded to (including in the name of a building), the sweeping and triumphant John Williams score is often in evidence, Zach and Gray stumble on the ruins of the original park (where they manage to jumpstart one of the old jeeps) and, perhaps most notably, it is the T. rex and a Velociraptor, the original villainous dinosaurs, that manage to take down the I. rex, the most visible and dangerous sign of the park (and the franchise’s?) increasingly hubristic ambitions.

Further, it is precisely its allusions to its predecessor that threaten to undermine the stakes that this film raises.  All told, Jurassic World is much less terrifying than Jurassic Park, precisely because it takes place in a fully-fledged theme park with all of the resources that such an institution can command.  Despite the truly frightening I. rex and its chaotic reign of terror, as well as the dive-bombing pterosaurs–which are inadvertently released when the Indominus careens into the aviary–the body count of fully-fleshed-out characters is actually relatively small compared to the original.  What’s more, there are few moments in the film where it feels as if everything could fall to pieces; the closest is when the I. rex manages to establish itself as the alpha among the raptors.  Yet even then we are never made to feel as if the main characters, nor indeed most of the hordes of people currently visiting, will not escape.  Paradoxically, it is precisely this mass of human bodies that keeps us from ever truly feeling a sense of genuine fear or existential angst.

To give credit where credit is due, however, it is worth dwelling for a few moments on what makes the Indominus rex (despite its silly name, which even Owen Grady mocks), such a terrifying creation.   In many ways, the Indominex Rex emerges as a terrifying female id that the film struggles (sometimes unsuccessfully) to contain.  From the first sinister images of the baby I. rex clawing its way out of its shell to the chilling revelation that she ate her sibling, the film seems intent on showcasing a specifically gendered dangerousness to this genetically modified dinosaur.  What’s more, her confinement and lack of socialization ensures that she does not possess a fully refined sense of her own place in the food chain, and it is even hinted that human DNA may be part of her make-up, given that she begins hunting for sport rather than for food (after all, humans are one of the few species that does so).  In that sense, she is like so many other inscrutable (and therefore dangerous) feminine energies that haunt the horror film.  Who could ever forget the monstrous mother of Alien or the radioactive maternal MUTO in the most recent Godzilla?  Or, for that matter, the “clever girl” Velociraptor in Jurassic World?  Clearly, the blockbuster cinematic imagination remains haunted by the dangerous undisciplined power of the feminine.

In that sense, she finds her human counterpart in Claire, whom the film also seems intent to punish for daring to be so focused on her career rather than on her family (for instance, she cannot say with any certainty how old either of her nephews are).  A key component of this transformation is her growing realization that the dinosaurs are actually animals rather than mere assets, an illumination brought home when she encounters a dying Apatosaurus (which, by the way, is probably the saddest animal death since Little Foot’s mother died in The Land Before Time).  The film seems intent on bringing her back into the fold of the traditionally feminine and maternal, by showing how her nephew’s endangerment (and the death of her assistant) is due in large part to her being too busy to properly care for them.  Again, however, we have to give credit where credit is due, for it is ultimately Claire who releases the T. rex and thus triggers the ultimate battle that vanquishes the I. rex and saves Owen, Zach, and Gray.

In the end, I’m not entirely sure how seriously I take the film’s avowed criticism of our current obsession with with making things bigger and better.  Nor am I entirely comfortable with its rigorous heternormativity and almost frantic recuperation of the nuclear family (everyone is reunited at the end, and Owen and Claire walk off into future happiness).  Still, there is something profoundly wonderful about the film’s final scene, in which the triumphant T. rex roars out its triumph over the ruined park, a potent reminder of the limits and the destructive potential of human hubris.

The Surprisingly Complex Pleasures of Puppy Bowl XI

And, we’re back!  I know it’s been several weeks since I released an actual post to this blog, but I was busy doing my work on Metathesis, as well as my Prospectus (the next draft of which is due at the end of this week), but hopefully I’ll be able to get back into the swing of things.  And what better way to get back into my queer groove than by blogging about the ironic humour of my favourite January sporting event, the Puppy Bowl.

While over 100 million Americans were tuning into the Super Bowl, I was tuning in to what is, in my opinion, the real highlight of the January sports season, Animal Planet’s “The Puppy Bowl.”  Now, I know it might seem counterintuitive to suggest that a puff-ball special about a bunch of puppies running helter-skelter all over a make-believe stadium, with a Tweeting cockatiel and hamsters in a plane and on an exercise wheel, would have anything significant to say or a terribly complex way in which to say it.  And normally, I think you would be right.  This year, however, the annual special seemed significantly more self-aware than usual, a particularly noteworthy achievement for a mock sport event hosted on one of the most hopelessly bizarre of the plethora of branded cable networks.

I think my Mom (always a source of unexpected sagacity) said it best when she noted that the special (which she distinguished from Hallmark’s competing Kitten Bowl), did not take itself too seriously.  As she put it, we as the audience are always in on the joke with the Puppy Bowl.  And I would agree.  Even though it is as glutted with advertisements as the Super Bowl, I can’t help but chuckle a little at the absurdness of it all, and I think that the show wants me to do so.  After all, how seriously can you take a carpet cleaner ad when it’s being used to clean up fake turf in a fake stadium in a Super Bowl played by puppies?

This is not to suggest, however, that the Puppy Bowl doesn’t have its moments of seriousness, both implicitly and explicitly.  Increasingly, many of the puppy players are mixed breeds, a tactical move no doubt designed to remind potential dog owners that buying exclusively pure-bred pups from breeders leaves many, many shelter dogs unadopted, living out their lives in already-overcrowded shelters and rescue homes.  Just as importantly, the show frequently highlights the stories of the puppies as they have made their way to the Puppy Bowl.  Many of these puppies are indeed the products of shelters and abandonment, a sobering reminder of the alleged expendability of animal life and an urgent call for us to do better by our canine compatriots.

What really surprised me, however, was the way in which the show toggled between the serious and sentimental to the self-reflexive.  One of the key changes this year was the introduction of Henri the Existential Cat to the halftime show, which has in previous years mostly consisted of kittens (often reluctantly) playing with confetti and other toys.  Henri’s laconic (and entirely French) commentary on the utter banality and absurdity of sporting events is a cunning swipe not only at the Super Bowl–which is, let’s face it, one of the most hysterically and hyperbolically banal and absurd mass culture events in all of the blessed USA–but also at a culture that would produce a highly-popular television special featuring dogs playing a very fast-and-loose version of football.  We are simultaneously invited to have fun and to laugh at the antics of the puppies (which are, if I do say so myself, almost TOO cute) and to laugh at ourselves for laughing at them.  This is postmodern irony at its finest, made all the sweeter and rich due to its completely unexpected location.

Of course, all of this doesn’t negate the fact that the Puppy Bowl, and Animal Planet as a whole, remains thoroughly human in its outlook.  How could we expect anything else from a network whose tagline is still “Surprisingly Human”?  Still, we can’t entirely dismiss “Puppy Bowl” as mindless entertainment, especially now that is has begun to appeal to the more complex thinkers among us.  It may be a surprisingly human enterprise, but it also happens to be a surprisingly complicated, one might even say contradictory, one.  What’s more, we shouldn’t let its seeming simplicity blind us to the myriad ways it calls on us to spectators to engage in the mass cultural products with which we constantly engage.

What Do Maroon 5 and Camille Paglia Have in Common? Or, How I Know Rape Culture Exists

The answer, surprisingly, is a lot.  Or at least that’s what one might think seeing Maroon 5’s new video for the song “Animals,” as well as Paglia’s recent column for Time.  Viewers and readers alike no doubt emerge from their engagement with these texts with the idea that a.)  Men are primarily animals and beasts, driven by base lusts that cannot be controlled b.)  It is women’s responsibility to learn how to not only deal with but defend against this irredeemable and irrevocable part of man’s nature and c.)  If they can’t, then they should just give in an enjoy the ride.

If it sounds like I’m being snarky, it’s because I am.  When I watched Maroon 5’s video yesterday morning, I was appalled not just by the imagery (which mainly consists of Adam Levine dancing with slaughtered animal carcasses and then making out with his object of affection, which he has stalked and smelled out like an animal, while being doused in blood), but by the suggestion that women secretly love the sexual allure of being stalked by an incessantly and disturbingly amorous man.  Even more importantly, I was struck by the equating of the stalked woman with an animal that the speaker of the song, played by Levine, will hunt down and devour “like animals.”  As Carol J. Adams long ago pointed out in her book The Sexual Politics of Meat, there is a deep and powerful cultural connection between the consumption of meat and the perpetuation of violence against women.

Cue Camilla Paglia who, in typical Paglia fashion, takes aim at what she sees as the failings of liberal feminism, namely that it has insulated young women from the “urban streets,” which she argues are full of animalistic men driven by a prey instinct that makes them eternally susceptible to misreadings of women’s sartorial choices and likely to go on a murderous sex rampage at any moment.  As she sees it, our civilization is always on the brink of collapse into animality and chaos, simply because of the ways in which men’s brains are hard-wired.

If this sounds like something from the 19th Century, it should, and Paglia even refers to 19th Century psychoanalysis to bolster her thinking.  To her, there are certain immovable parts of men’s brains that make them inescapably violent and sexual, and we as a society have taught women to ignore these facts at their peril.  Aside from the racism implied in Paglia’s “urban streets” comment, her thinking is both incredibly reductive, discounting any cultural influence on the ways we train our men to behave (after all, if we train our young women to ignore the danger of men, don’t we also train our men to ignore the “fragility” of women?  Clearly, Paglia did not follow her own logic to its conclusion).  Aside from my political differences with the piece, I find it lazy writing as well, an example of lazy public scholarship masquerading as serious engagement with one of the most important and urgent political and social issues of our time.

Though I doubt that Maroon 5 has read Paglia, their most recent video nevertheless serves as a perfect illustration of the way in which her particular brand of thinking permeates our culture, encouraging us to see victims of stalking, rape, and other violent crimes as both asking for it and secretly enjoying it.  The lyrics to the song include the phrase “the beast inside,” implying that there is something deeply and irrevocably bestial about the male psyche.  The fact that the character is played by the undeniably charismatic and attractive Levine makes the video’s vexing politics even more aggravating, as it casts its glamour around one of the most unpleasant, vicious, and downright ugly aspects of our culture, one which we should be doing everything in our power to eliminate, rather than valourize or explain away via outdated and heavily-disputed notions of biological determinism.

If I had possessed any doubt that we live in a rape culture, both the video by Maroon 5 and Camilla Paglia’s deliberately inflammatory and simplistic tract would have disabused me of any such idealism.  We clearly live in a culture in which the objectification of women, and the blaming of women for that objectification, continue to hold sway.  I know that I, frankly, am tired of these pernicious attempts by our culture to convince us that really, deep down, the problems that women face in our society are either their own fault or easily explained away an contained by their erotic submission to men.  As feminists and gender justice warriors, we must continue pushing back against these attempts to blame victims of oppression for the conditions of their subjugation.  We will continue to put pressure on those systems as we work toward a more just and democratic society.  We will not be intimidated by their rhetoric, and we will not be silenced.

Thinking Through Extinction

In case you missed it, there has been a lot of discussion lately about the possibility of bringing the passenger pigeon back through cloning.  If we leave aside for the moment the pros and cons of such a move, we can more clearly see the ways in which extinction as a phenomenon continues to haunt our collective human imagination, reminding us of just how precarious our own existence as a species remains, especially as the consequences of our rapid march toward modernity become increasingly obvious to even the most casual observer.  We have, in essence, left behind us an enormous trail of vanished creatures of all stripes and, if current trends continue, we might be on the very brink of another mass extinction.  That being the case, it is worth spending time thinking about the function that extinction serves, and how it can be not only a warning of things to come, but also a potent tool for considering how we engage with our present place in the world.

I have always been particularly drawn to and enthralled by those creatures that have been brought to extinction by the actions and influence of humans.  The great auk, the Stellar’sea cow, the passenger pigeon, the Chinese river dolphin, the Tasmanian tiger, the quagga, the Carolina parakeet…the list goes on, each of these mysterious and intangible creatures haunting my imagination, a perpetual reminder of the fragility of life on this planet.  Paired with this is also the fact that their presence in the cultural imagination is so powerful precisely because they cannot be seen again.  This also goes a long way toward explaining why there continue to be sightings of some of these creatures, as well as debates about the feasibility of resurrecting some of them via genetic technology (the passenger pigeon is but one example; there have been similar discussions about the Tasmanian tiger and, perhaps most famously, the woolly mammoth).  We as a species are so guilt-ridden over what we have wrought that we will do almost anything to undo the damage that we have caused, even while a part of us also recognizes that it is too late for such measures.

Thus, it should come as no surprise that our media is so glutted with images of the devastation wrought by nature.  I am speaking here not just of how much the 24-hour news cycle revels in the joys of chaos delivered by natural disasters (though that is certainly the case.  Nothing drives ratings like a forest fire, a hurricane, or an earthquake).  I am also referring to films such as Godzilla, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and so many more that serve as expressions of our collective guilt over the damage that we have perpetrated against entire species, though in this case we get to to be the ones that face utter annihilation, at the mercy of a force or forces that we cannot control nor effectively combat.  Whether that be a pair of giant creatures that feed on radioactivity or a virus that spreads and decimates the human population, these forces are the spectres that continue to haunt or collective human imaginary.  These media texts are also a recognition that extinction is, ultimately, the fate that has awaited almost every distinct species that has ever emerged.  There is clearly something cathartic about seeing our destruction writ large,  about embracing the oblivion that is the ontological root of extinction, even if only for two hours in a movie theater.

Extinction is a potent and troubling reminder of how tenuous and sometimes unsustainable this idea we have of progress truly is.  We want to believe, we are constantly encouraged to believe, that the world is headed toward a better place, that a brighter future is always on the horizon, just waiting to be grasped, if we but continue to believe in it.  There is much in our world, both in the present and in the past, that hauntingly reminds us of the essential fallacy that lies at the heart of this notion of progress, as well as the terrible price it exacts.  We who inhabit the conceptual and temporal space of modernity must constantly remind ourselves of the price that has been paid by numerous species as we continue our march into the future.  There is both a pleasure and a pain to the contemplation of extinction, and we as a species would do well to spend more time reflecting on both.