DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES appeared in theaters recently and the odds were against it. More generally, the summer months have seen poor box office returns and DAWN might have continued in this vein. Specifically, the second installment in the PLANET OF THE APES series had to demonstrate that lightning could strike twice as 20th Century Fox built on the success of the previous RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES. Given these challenges this reviewer was skeptical, but doubts were unmerited as DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES is a great film, justifying the $73 million it took in box office receipts over the opening weekend, and keeping the rebooted Apes franchise alive.
The conclusion of RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES saw the development of fatal side effects in humans through the virus that was part of ALZ-112, a drug created by Gen-Sys for the treatment of various neurological disorders. DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES takes place ten years after the conclusion of RISE, and a montage of news footage sets the stage for this time period as it tells of the results of a worldwide simian flu pandemic that has destroyed most human life on earth.
While humanity fought for its life, the small group of intelligent apes under the leadership of Caesar (played in motion capture by Andy Serkis) multiplied, and created their own tribal civilization. Caesar has a family, including a wife, a young adult son and a newborn son. Together the apes have manufactured hut-like shelter, organized hunts, domesticated horses, and communicate in a form of sign language and limited speech. But they wonder after ten winters whether all of humanity is truly gone.
While walking through the forest two young adult apes come into contact with a small group of humans. One human panics and shoots one of the apes, but not fatally. After hearing the shot, the woods are quickly filled with hundreds of apes, which surround the small group of humans. Caesar sends then on their way, but they are followed so that the apes may know more about the potential threat. Paralleling the ape civilization, a large number of humans have survived, immune to the simian flu, and they are carving out an existence in the city of San Francisco. But they are running out of fuel, and they live with the mounting fear that the violence that came with the lawlessness during the initial flu outbreak will return once again. In order to avoid this scenario, Malcolm (played by Jason Clarke), along with his son Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and girlfriend (Keri Russell), volunteer to return to the forest in ape territory in the hopes of convincing them to allow them to restore electricity by repairing a dilapidated dam.
Malcom is able to convince a reluctant Caesar to move forward with work on the dam, but some of Caesar’s community are suspicious of the humans, particularly Koba, an ape with a history of abuse in the past at the hands of his human captors. Some in the human camp are suspicious as well giving the simian flu pandemic and its connection to the apes, particularly Dreyfuss (Gary Oldman), who co-founded the human group with Malcom. This sets the stage for an uneasy co-existence between apes and humans, with some in both camps desiring peace, while others yearn for violence and war. Those wanting violence create the conditions that bring it about, and Caesar must fight Koba for leadership of the apes and the direction the simian civilization will take for the future in an ape and human world.
For any number of reasons DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES could have been a failure. In order to be successful it had to be at least as good as its predecessor RISE, it had to navigate a change in directors from the first film, and it had to present a compelling storyline that kept the rebooted version moving along its own trajectory while still being respectful of the Apes mythology from previous films. There was also the possibility that as the number of apes increased and ran across the screen as an army, at times on horseback firing automatic weapons, that good storytelling would get lost in a big budget, action sequences, and visual effects. Thankfully the various challenges faced by the creators of DAWN were met successfully and with satisfying results.
In terms of its visuals, DAWN is impressive. Unlike RISE, which for the most part takes place in various indoor locations until the climax, DAWN is largely set in the woods of the San Francisco Bay Area. This put new pressures on WETA Studios and their motion capture technology, which designed new equipment that would not only be able to record the movements and facial expressions of the actors playing apes, but also horses, and the forest landscapes that made up the ape territory. The result is impressive, as the computer-generated apes and other special effects are extremely detailed and realistic, aiding in the suspension of disbelief and facilitating the plausibility of the story, just as John Chambers’ makeup did for the original films of the franchise in the 1960s and 1970s.
In terms of narrative, while DAWN incorporates action sequences, these do not overshadow good and serious storytelling. This film draws upon an element in one of the original five films in the franchise, BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES, in addition to many parallel elements it incorporates from the film. In BATTLE, a small group of humans live almost as slaves for the apes, and are responsible for doing various things for ape civilization, including teaching literacy. During one of the educational sessions, a human teacher imparts one of the most important ethical teachings from the ape Lawgiver’s Sacred Scrolls: “Ape shall never kill ape.” This is featured in DAWN early on as the audience sees it scrawled on the walls of the apes’ village, perhaps a teaching area led by Maurice the orangutan. This then serves as the major ethical thread for the film, not only for ape civilization, but for human as well, as both wrestle with conflicting desires in their midst, some with distrust fueling desires for violence and war, and others willing to extend trust in hope supporting desires for co-existence and peace.
DAWN director, Matt Reeves, has said in interviews that there is no overt attempts at engaging in social commentary through this film, a facet found in some of the first films in the original five of the franchise, and somewhat in RISE. Even so, filmmakers are embedded in their social and cultural contexts, and this can’t help but connect to the works they create. While some have speculated that DAWN incorporates an anti-gun message, a more probable interpretation is one opposed to human violence which guns symbolize. Not only does DAWN reflect the constant human struggle with the tendencies toward dehumanizing “the other” and seeing them as universally evil thus justifying acts of violence and war, more specific application can be made to current events in the Middle East. As this review is written, the nation of Israel continues to engage in military actions and the bombardment of Palestinians in Gaza in response to Palestinian missile firings into Israel and the kidnapping and execution of three Israeli youth. At the time of writing, the death toll among the Palestinians is now over 200, many civilians, while Israeli casualties are presently less than twenty. There is a long and unfortunate tendency in this region for Israelis and Palestinians to view each other as sub-human, as animals, and for the voices of those who cry out with distrust and calls for violence to find success as they mobilize others to realize these desires.
In DAWN, Caesar and Malcolm pursued a path of co-existence, live and let live. But in the end this was not enough. A more fruitful path would have been for them to move beyond the low bar of tolerance and co-existence, seeking instead peaceful tension over irreconcilable differences as relationships transform enemies into trusted rivals. Perhaps a similar pathway is needed in the Middle East and elsewhere. DAWN reminds us in a world ruled by humans that we have not come very far from our animal past, and that we must constantly battle the desires of our inner beast that wishes to destroy outsiders (sometimes insiders when they challenge our authority and agenda too).
Plans are already underway for the next film to follow DAWN. Matt Reeves has agreed to direct, and he will write co-author the script. This is a good thing because we continue to be fascinated with these apes and their ability to help us reflect on ourselves through good science fiction storytelling.
Virtually Sacred: Myth and Meaning in World of Warcraft and Second Life by Robert M. Geraci (Oxford University Press, 2014).
Millions of users have taken up residence in virtual worlds, and in those worlds they find opportunities to revisit and rewrite their religious lives. Robert M. Geraci argues that virtual worlds and video games have become a locus for the satisfaction of religious needs, providing many users with devoted communities, opportunities for ethical reflection, a meaningful experience of history and human activity, and a sense of transcendence. Using interviews, surveys, and his own first-hand experience within the virtual worlds, Geraci shows how World of Warcraft and Second Life provide participants with the opportunity to rethink what it means to be religious in the contemporary world. Not all participants use virtual worlds for religious purposes, but many online residents use them to rearrange or replace religious practice as designers and users collaborate in the production of a new spiritual marketplace.
Using World of Warcraft and Second Life as case studies, this book shows that many residents now use virtual worlds to re-imagine their traditions and work to restore them to “authentic” sanctity, or else replace religious institutions with virtual communities that provide meaning and purpose to human life. For some online residents, virtual worlds are even keys to a post-human future where technology can help us transcend mortal life. Geraci argues that World of Warcraft and Second Life are “virtually sacred” because they do religious work. They often do such work without regard for-and frequently in conflict with-traditional religious institutions and practices; ultimately they participate in our sacred landscape as outsiders, competitors, and collaborators.
From time to time a select few are given the opportunity to contribute guest posts here at TheoFantastique. This essay is by Brandon Engel, who looks back at one of the classic 1970s science fiction films.
There’s something incredibly unnerving (uncanny, if you must) about non-human entities that are similar to humans in either form or function. Freud wrote extensively on the subject, as did Ernst Jentsch. Both felt that dolls, robots, and other automata induce a sort of miniature-existential crisis in viewers, who are inclined to project human emotions and motivations unto the objects, and perhaps even wonder about whether or not the dolls are secretly alive. There is something especially unsettling about a plastic facial expression, frozen in time.
And just what are the implications of an animate object coming to life, and being endowed with the ability to make conscious decisions? What sort of moral compass would inform its decision making (if any), and would it be capable of acting compassionately? In the 21st century these types of questions are especially pressing with concerns over our technology in the form of artificial intelligence, robotics, and drones, particularly as they are used in military and law enforcement settings.
This is a recurring theme in science fiction: technology endowed with too much autonomy (a la 2001: A Space Odyssey), and, inversely, human beings who are relegated to perfunctory roles like cogs in a larger mechanism (a la Fritz Lang’s Metropolis).
A film that handled the subject in a distinctly seventies genre pulp way is Michael Crichton’s Westworld. Crichton, who gets a lot of recognition for his work as a novelist, contributed a tremendous amount to the world of fantasy filmmaking. Along with make-up artist Stan Winston and director Steven Spielberg, he brought Jurassic Park to the world, and forever changed the way that children from the nineties look at theme parks. Crichton had done the same thing to children in the seventies with Westworld, his feature film directorial debut.
Westworld fuses multiple genres, including elements of western, science fiction, and horror films. The film tells the story of the Delos resort, comprised of three different theme parks (one based on ancient Rome, another based on 13th Century Europe, and a third park representing the “wild west” complete with saloons, old-timey prostitutes, horses, and shoot-outs. The “townsfolk” of Westworld are all animatronic puppets (much like the ones you’d see on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland) supplied to give pleasure to the vacationer who is there to live out their wild west fantasy. The whole vacation package costs $1,000 per day. The robots are engineered so that they can’t harm human guests, but something goes grievously wrong…
The film stars screen-legend Yul Brynner, warmly remembered by many fans for his roles in The King and I and The Man Who Would Be King. In Westworld, Brynner plays a mechanical cowboy — an amusement park attraction that instigates supposedly safe gun-fights with park guests. His character is based on the Chris Adams character that Brynner himself portrayed in The Magnificent Seven. Visitors are given firearms that are harmless on other humans but kill androids. People can shoot and kill the robot. Normally, the robot is taken to a repair shop in order to be put in working order for the next day. The robots malfunction, though, and end up shooting people. One of the film’s most memorable scenes is in the saloon with Peter Martin (Richard Benjamin, from television’s “He and She”) and John Blane (James Brolin, best known as “Marcus Welby’s” Dr. Steven Kiley.) The two are friends who decide to vacation at Westworld.
The biggest similarity between Jurassic Park and Westworld is, obviously, that both deal with amusement parks attractions that have gone haywire and start killing people. In Jurassic Park, the problems are started initially by the geneticists’ oversight (the dinosaurs are constructed partially from the DNA of gender-switching amphibians, which means that the dinosaurs begin mating autonomously). In Westworld, there is a sort of computer virus that begins to infiltrate all of the robots.
The Seventies was an interesting time for imaginative (if not slightly paranoid) intellectuals like Crichton. On the one hand, the economy was still quite strong, and as a natural consequence of that, the well to do we’re living extravagantly. The consumer culture was thriving, and privileged sects of society sought after new excesses. At the same time, the horrors of World War II, and grim musings about the potential misapplications of technology (or notions of technology as a liability to humanity) permeated pop culture. Westworld is at once a sort of sardonic joke about post-World War II consumerism and the grandiosity of something like Disneyland, but it also poses a lot of poignant “what if’s” regarding the inherent risk factors with man essentially “playing God” by constructing these alternate realities inhabited by human-like objects (presumably devoid of any kind of conscience).
Harvard graduate Michael Crichton had an illustrious career across several disciplines, and he achieved monumental success by an early age. Crichton’s first novel, “Odds On”, was published in 1966. His directorial debut film was Westworld, a project that Crichton had originally envisioned as a novel, but ultimately decided to pursue as a film. The script was turned down by every major studio except MGM.
Of all of his early cinematic efforts, Westworld has the largest cult following. The film has been enjoying a recent resurgence in popularity and even shows regularly at art houses and on TV it’s been appearing regularly on El Rey Network, which has increased visibility of the film because it reaches Direct TV, Comcast and some Netflix subscribers. After the success of Westworld, Crichton would go on to direct 6 more films including Looker with Albert Finney, and Coma with Michael Douglas. He would go on to achieve much as a novelist and screenwriter, but Westworld was his crowning achievement as a film director.
Brandon Engel is a Chicago-based blogger with a keen interest in genre pulp literature and vintage cult films. Follow him on Twitter: @BrandonEngel2
Zombies and Sexuality: Essays on Desire and the Walking Dead, edited by Shaka McGlotten and Steve Jones (McFarland, 2014)
Since the early 2000s, zombies have increasingly swarmed the landscape of popular culture, with ever more diverse representations of the undead being imagined. A growing number of zombie narratives have introduced sexual themes, endowing the living dead with their own sexual identity. The unpleasant idea of the sexual zombie is itself provocative, triggering questions about the nature of desire, sex, sexuality, and the politics of our sexual behaviors. However, the notion of zombie sex has been largely unaddressed in scholarship.
Japanese and American Horror: A Comparative Study of Film, Graphic Novels, and Video Games by Katarzyna Marak (McFarland, 2014)
Horror fiction is an important part of the popular culture in many modern societies. This book compares and contrasts horror narratives from two distinct cultures–American and Japanese–with a focus on the characteristic mechanisms that make them successful, and on their culturally-specific aspects. Including a number of narratives belonging to film, literature, comics and video games, this book provides a comprehensive perspective of the genre. This book sheds light on the differences and similarities in the depiction of fear and horror in America and Japan, while emphasizing narrative patterns in the context of their respective cultures.
Animism Abroad: The Reception of Japanese Religious Themes by American and German Audiences by Eriko Ogihara-Schuck (McFarland, 2014)
After winning an Oscar for Spirited Away, the Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki’s animated films were dubbed into many languages. Some of the films are saturated with religious themes distinctive to Japanese culture. How were these themes, or what Miyazaki describes as “animism,” received abroad, especially considering that they are challenging to translate? This book examines how American and German audiences, grounded on Judeo-Christian traditions, responded to the animism in Miyazaki’s Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984), My Neighbor Totoro (1988), Princess Mononoke (1998), Spirited Away (2001), and Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea (2008). By a close reading of adaptations and film reviews, and a study of transitions in their verbal and visual approaches to animism, this book demonstrates that the American and German receptions transcended the conventional view of an antagonistic relationship between animism and Christianity. With the ability to change their shapes into forms easily accessible to other cultural arenas, the anime films make a significant contribution to inter-religious dialogue in the age of secularization.
Along with my co-editors, J. Ryan Parker and Tony Mills, I was quite pleased to receive this notification via email today. See all the 2014 finalists here:
On behalf of the Whedon Studies Association’s Mr. Pointy jury, I am honored to notify you that your work, Joss Whedon and Religion: Essays on an Angry Atheist’s Explorations of the Sacred, has been selected as a finalist for a 2014 Mr. Pointy award, in the long category for book-length work published during the previous year. As you may know, the Mr. Pointy award annually recognizes outstanding scholarship in the field of Whedon Studies.
The jury was impressed with the quality and originality of your scholarship, and you are to be congratulated for your contributions to the field of Whedon Studies!
This year’s winners will be announced at the 2014 Slayage Conference on the Works of Joss Whedon, June 19-22 in Sacramento, California.
Tamy Burnett, PhD
Chair, Mr. Pointy Jury
If you haven’t seen the Salem television series on WGN it’s worth checking out. It eagerly scoops up Christian mythologies of the Witch as the consort of Satan, a frequent trope in horror films, and uses this as the major element in a reframing of the events surrounding the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. Given these aspects of the series it is worth considering how various segments of American culture have reacted to the popular program.
First let’s consider a conservative response. In a piece at The Blaze, Dan Gainor sees the series as part of a larger cultural attack on Christians. He laments:
The first episode of this occult rewrite of history featured sex, devil worship, and a satanic abortion. The Christians in good ol’ Salem are anything but. The town’s first guide in faith hangs people he thinks are witches and brands fornicators before becoming bewitched himself. The next one kills a man under a pile of stones – when he’s not seen in a graphic sex scene with what appears to be a prostitute.
All of that fun was delivered into your home … on Easter Sunday.
No, of course that wasn’t an accident. Few things in TV programming are accidental. Network execs study, analyze, test market, and focus group everything. WGN was trying to create controversy by bashing Christians on the holiest of days.
In Gainor’s view, Salem is one of several expressions of “post-Christian America.”
The Pagan community, which includes contemporary Wiccans or Witches, has reacted to Salem as well. How do they react to a Christian stereotype they have fought so long to counteract, and in connection with an unfortunate aspect of America’s religious history?
In an essay in The Wild Hunt, Crystal Blanton introduces the subject by stating:
Much like with the American Horror Story franchise, Salem is a fantasy horror show that capitalizes on the fears of its audience. These fears are that witchcraft is about pacts with the devil, animal sacrifice and being decorated with blood in the woods. They are based on old-fashioned bigotry and rekindle a lot of misconceptions of those on the Pagan path. Concerns of modern-day witch hunts and fears around the identification of practitioners continues to expand among modern day Witches.
Blanton then goes on to cite various Pagan sources which document a variety of responses to the series, from those who fear the program may fuel stereotypes and witch hunts to those who see the program as pure entertainment.
Surprisingly, my Google search for Evangelical Christian reaction to Salem turned up nothing. The Gainor piece cited above came up in that search, but I can’t verify whether he is an Evangelical. The lack of reaction among Evangelicals to a series that purposefully draws upon Christian mythology related to the Witch and demonology is surprising, especially in light of how this community opposed the Harry Potter phenomenon.
For my own perspective, I must disagree with Gainor as I watch the program and consider my Christian faith in the process. This program reminds us that there is much to be ashamed of in Christianity’s past and present. The Salem Witch Trials were an awful time that ended with the scapegoating and murder of many individuals out of religious fears fueled by hysteria, suspicion, and paranoia. Similar things have happened from time to time with various “satanic panics,” and this happens in the present when Christians perpetuate stereotypes of Pagans and Wiccans, and in places like South Africa with Witch-Hunts. Christians and conservatives may not like what they see in the depiction of hypocritical and abusive Christians, but if we can step back and be self-critical programs like this provide helpful forums for reflection.
But regardless of the reactions to Salem by differing segments of popular culture, the series adds to the many horror programs currently on television, leading some to wonder whether we are witnessing a golden age in this area.
Previously I’ve commented on the interesting program airing on the BBC/BBC America, In the Flesh, which represents a thought provoking subgenre of the zombie narrative. One of the areas of interest to TheoFantastique is the incorporation of a religious element. In this case it’s an eschatological aspect, of sorts, wherein a group of Partial Deceased Syndrome sufferers come to believe that they are not pariahs to be feared as the living tend to view them. Instead, the Undead Prophet who leads the Undead Liberation Army, and who has a group of twelve disciples, teaches that those with PDS are the redeemed, destined for something special.
In Season 2, Episode 3, Simon Monroe, one of the Twelve, provided a bit of a tease on the theological foundation for such views. Simon (a name echoing that of one of Jesus’ closest disciples), sits while quoting from the New Testament to himself. He recites and modifies a text from Revelation 1:18 – “we were dead, and behold, we are alive forevermore, and have the keys of death and of Hades.” The interesting thing about this quotation and application is that in its original context is comes from the resurrected Christ to an individual and for communication to a specific group of Christians. With the reworking from In the Flesh we are not told how the original context relates to the application which is in the plural to PDS individuals rather than singularly to Christ.
Several aspects of this eschatology (doctrine of “last things”) are unclear in the series. The Undead Prophet has sent Simon to recruit new disciples (who in this episode performed a baptism-like ritual with a wet rag used to remove makeup that makes PDS individuals look like the living, revealing the true self underneath, a kind of rebirth), but to what end? Viewers have also heard of a future “second rising” that some of the religiously devout living look forward to. But this second rising seems to be in conflict with the PDS individuals coming back from the dead, so viewers are left with conflicting conceptions of the “resurrection.” Is this a play on the New Testament’s idea of the resurrection of the just and the unjust?
It will be interesting to watch how these theological elements are developed and come together over the rest of Season 2. For those who enjoy thought provoking commentary on social and religious phenomena in their zombie entertainment, In the Flesh is a rewarding experience.
There is an interesting item that appeared in Tablet: A New Read on Jewish Life titled “What Science Fiction Tried To Teach Us About Jihad, and Why No One Listened.” The subtitle explains a little further: “How Alejandro Jodorowsky muddled sci-fi by turning Frank Herbert’s ‘Dune’ into a New Age manifesto.”
In the piece by Liel Liebovitz introduces the subject matter with reference to a documentary film. In his view Herbert’s novel was turned into something far less powerful in terms of social commentary than it could have been. He writes:
The storyboard and its illustrious creator are the stars of a new documentary, Jodorowsky’s Dune. Its thesis is simple and convincing: By taking a stab at filming the sprawling 1965 desert-based novel by Frank Herbert, Jodorowsky had assembled in 1974 a team of inspired artists who had given contemporary sci-fi its visual language, from the light sabers of the Jedi to the face-huggers of Alien, and helped propel the genre to the peak of pop culture cool.
It’s all true—but it pales next to Jodorowsky’s even grander and more questionable achievement, which was to move Dune—and, with it, much of the sci-fi genre—away from the thorny questions of ideology and social conflict and toward a softer, more luminescent set of concerns, like identity and self-empowerment, that now reign supreme. To adopt for a moment the director’s colorful, inflamed language, Jodorowsky was the prophet of the flight from the real. Instead of Herbert’s geopolitical toughness, he gave us rainbows and unicorns of self-revelation. And the rest of us are paying the price.
Later in the essay Liebovtiz describes how Jodorowsky changed Herbert’s Dune into something more in keeping with the spirit of the age of the 1960s than the original vision of the author:
It’s a testament to Jodorowsky’s uncanny ability to so perfectly capture the spirit of the age that his Dune intuited that with the political predilections of the 1960s leaning heavily toward the throbbing questions of identity, science fiction could serve as an intellectual and spiritual Petri dish in which to allow radical ideas to grow. Jungian theories of collective consciousness, Freudian notions of personal psychology, jitters about authority, and an approach to technology that embraces its potential as a tool of salvation while simultaneously recognizing its power to corrode all that is human—these would be the themes of the new art. The novels and stories of writers like Philip K. Dick, the advent of the Internet, and the rise of the cyberpunk movement placed Jodorowsky’s themes at the crux of popular culture, giving us one complex meditation on the nature of the self after another. Some of these meditations are intriguing and inspired. Many others are inane. But none have anything to do with the world of Frank Herbert.
Read Liebovitz’s piece here. And learn more about Jodorowsky’s Dune documentary here. The trailer is below.