War for the Planet of the Apes

The Planet of the Apes franchise, in which we watch as a community of hyper-intelligent apes gains the evolutionary ascendency over a intellectually deteriorating humanity, is already curious.  But when that story is overlaid with biblical narratives, it gains a whole other sense of strangeness. The second film in this current Apes series—for my money, one of the very best film trilogies of my lifetime; this latest installment is superb, hard science-fiction—cribbed Shakespeare. War for the Planet of the Apes borrows from the Bible.

“Let my people go!” lead ape Caesar (Andy Serkis) all but yells at one point—nice, little, possibly inadvertent Charleton Heston reference there, huh?—and if you haven’t keyed into the Exodus narrative at work in the story before that point, you don’t have much excuse after. It’s not a straight adaptation by any means, but the major features of that famous story are there. Caesar was our “Caesar” in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Now he’s our “Moses.” I recommend you re-read Deuteronomy 34 before you see the film so that you better appreciate how writer/director Matt Reeves has remixed the Exodus tale.

Another biblical story pops up rather unexpectedly in the center of the film too. The movie’s antagonist, Col. McCullough (Woody Harrelson), has adopted a different Christian story to legitimize and make sense of his own part in the becoming-the-planet-of-the-apes’ ongoing saga. I won’t spoil that scene for you. I’ll just say that this character’s application of the biblical story reveals the need not just to be aware of biblical stories but also to know how to properly understand and apply them to our lives and our community’s lives.

Skilled storytellers like War for the Planet of the Apes’ writer/director Matt Reeves are skilled at handling other narratives as well as the ones they create themselves. The biblical canon is a deep well of stories that has been and will continue to be drawn from by storytellers as they craft new narratives for contemporary audiences. These new stories are richer because they are influenced by these older stories, whether audiences recognize these antecedents or not.  Becoming aware of them makes the stories better though. As biblically informed audience members, it is our privilege to be able to bring our knowledge of biblical stories to the cultural conversation about these new stories, hopefully not in an arrogant way, but as humble witnesses eager to open up new narrative worlds for others.

As biblical literacy wanes in our culture, we also need to know how to ply these biblical stories responsibly. The meaning of these stories and how they have been applied, faithfully, through Christian (and Jewish) history is as important as the facts of the stories. The negative effects of an aberrant eschatology are on full display in War for the Planet of the Apes. Likewise, what happens when a leader is unwilling or unable to move forward with her or his people is a key element to both the Exodus narrative and this film. Critical interpretation of a text is called “exegesis,” and it is a skill that can be learned. If we don’t, we risk falling into “eisegesis,” or allowing our own agendas and presuppositions to shape our interpretation of texts, as Col. McCullough does here. Though our planet is not going to be overrun by hyper-intelligent apes—Whew!—the future of our world could very well depend on our ability to understand God’s story, communicate it to others, and apply it to our world. This is the Great Commission – know and go and witness to the ends of the planet, ape-governed or not.

You might also find these reviews of War for the Planet of the Apes helpful:

Decent Films
Larsen on Film