I recall taking my son to a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie when he was just a kid.  After the movie he asked me what I thought of it and I had just started started into a long discourse on the racial stereotypes, sexual politics and racial implications, when he interrupted me and said, “Dad, it was just a movie.” Nowadays after making a couple of documentaries, studying film criticism at two major film studies programs and having written college papers about films, television and even social media, he has of course changed his tune.  We can have long conversations about how each member of an audience brings to the film life experiences, knowledge of other films and cultural baggage that make film viewing a different experience for each viewer. I am reminded of this because I just saw the latest Planet of the Apes movie. As “just a movie” it is pretty good.  It uses its computer graphic effects to build character and contribute to the story rather than  just to blow things up. The first half hour is so tightly written and directed that it just flies by even though it has to do a lot of exposition. Once it hits its stride the film does slow down to let the script, tropes, stock characters and metaphors do their job to carry the story along.  It has some great visuals (the leaves falling to indicate the passage of the apes through trees rivals Speilberg’s vibrating glass of water in Jurassic Park) even though apes crashing out of windows is done once or twice too many times. It slyly mixes in references to the original movie not only so that film buffs and nerds feel included, but also to provide continuity as this prequel and its inevitable sequels lead to the original movie. Finally Andy Serkis’s motion capture acting is exquisite and the moments without dialogue rival the best silent acting. The special effects here are amazing and make you forget they are there.

It seems not in my nature, however, to let the film be “just a movie” and I would argue it is in no one else’s nature either. I inevitably bring my own life experiences, film knowledge and cultural baggage to the film. The images of the apes stolen from Africa, the ape raised by paternalistic whites, incarceration, brutality by and against them, ape on ape violence, even spear throwing, make me reflect on centuries of images of Africa, Africans and African Americans that were for thirty years part of my stock and trade. The movie itself tries to avoid any accusation of racism by having a multiracial cast.  Its main villain, a stock greedy corporate executive, is played by an African American, whites play all the other villains and a beautiful Latina plays the underwritten lead female role. The history of African Americans is however the elephant in the room.  In both films we are led to identify with the underdogs (under-apes?) and it is the greed, brutality and shortsightedness of the human race (particularly the Western society branch) that is the real villain. Unlike the first film in which Charleton Heston was the protagonist, an ape is the protagonist here.  This skews the film so that it is the revolutionary apes with whom we sympathize even though we could just as well call them terrorists. Can this be a metaphor for potential revolution but perpetrated by the crass Hollywood machine to turn even potential opposition into money (see music, hip hop)?  Is it just a fantasy for animal rights activists, sixties black radicals, or class revolution proponents warning us of a possible reaction to our society’s callousness, greed and brutality? I choose to believe it is more than either. The lesson for the apes in the movie is that they have to be smarter, realize their common interests, work together and sacrifice to get anything done. Hmm…I wonder if that is not a metaphoric lesson intended for all of us that I can live with.

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