The Prophet of the Apes

Pop Culture

The Prophet of the Apes

Illustration: Sushant Ahire

The closing shot of War for the Planet of the Apes is framed like a Biblical Renaissance painting. It’s a Eureka moment for the viewer; the moment you realise that in a film featuring talking chimps, you’ve just watched a surreptitious Biblical allegory.

Since we’ve replaced our prayer beads and holy books with 3D glasses and ticket stubs, religion has had to adapt. Much like parents discovering Facebook and suddenly learning the meaning of “lit”, religion’s method of keeping up with the times involved disseminating messages through new mediums, like movies and TV. Even back in the silent-film era, the devout could get front-row seats to features based on The Bible. The 1950s version of The Ten Commandments is a landmark hit, and Charlton Heston’s bearded portrayal of Moses lingered on in pop culture as one of the most memorable depictions of Biblical events. If there was a moment of rapture for the holy union of films and faith, this was it.

Sometimes, we return to the rapture via the unlikeliest of routes. And sometimes, your messiah is a talking chimpanzee. Which is why my nomination for the finest Biblical film of the new millennium goes to a contender no one expected to even be in the fray – the recently released War for the Planet of the Apes.

Yes, a movie about apes, humans, and the common bond they share should draw more deeply from Darwinism than from the text that espouses Creationism, but that is exactly what makes War such a special movie. It plays its source material with a straight bat, ignoring the inherent ludicrousness of an armed conflict between humans and scientifically enhanced apes. And then, when it has you hooked to the spectacle of a gorilla firing a rocket launcher, it reels you in with a retelling of a story you know and love.

While it may seem far-fetched – the character of Caesar, the leader of this newly formed community of sentient and soulful apes, is actually an allegory for Moses, the same Charlton Heston character that Christian Bale poorly reprised. Proving you can send a monkey to do a man’s job, Andy Serkis’ portrayal of Caesar is a better introduction to the story of Moses than both the 50-year old The Ten Commandments, and the recent flop, Exodus: Gods and Kings.

Though they were considered award-winning at the time, the 1950s-era special effects seen in The Ten Commandments seem like props in a school play compared to the arsenal of graphic intervention available to today’s filmmakers

Yes, The Ten Commandments is a classic, and throwing shade its way will probably incite Vatican assassins bearing sharpened crosses to pay me a visit. But seriously, does it hold up as a film today? From 2011’s The Passion of the Christ to 2014’s Noah, Biblical movies in the 21st century are all about the spectacle. Gigantic sets, cutting-edge CGI, and big-budget action sequences are the tools modern filmmakers use to convey the divine scale of these mythologies and legends.

Though they were considered award-winning at the time, the 1950s-era special effects seen in The Ten Commandments seem like props in a school play compared to the arsenal of graphic intervention available to today’s filmmakers. The comparison, though unfair, has to be made, and Charlton Heston’s stellar performance is sadly not enough to lead the film to the Promised Land of Relevance in 2017.

Exodus: Gods and Kings seemed poised to remedy that shortcoming, retelling Moses’ story with all the bells and whistles modern filmmaking gimmickry affords. The film was directed by the darling of the critics, Ridley Scott and in a casting coup for the ages, featured the best Batman ever as Moses. But just like the Garden of Eden, there was trouble in paradise. Even before it released, the film drew flak for its whitewashed cast, which was honestly the easiest thing to fix from the ’50s version.

Bearing the cross of cultural insensitivity, the film never stood a chance in theatres. It came under justifiable fire for clunky pacing, poor exposition, and an Australian Pharaoh. Exodus became a cautionary tale in how not to make Biblical films for a millennial audience.

Enter Caesar.

The Moses allegory has been on a slow burn since the first film in the Apes trilogy. There were hints of it in Caesar’s origins in Rise, and any suspicions you had were confirmed when he compiled his own version of the Ten Commandments for the apes in Dawn. In War, there is a scene where an enslaved ape is being whipped by his human masters, when Caesar steps up to scream “LEAVE HIM!” In that moment, War comes to wholeheartedly embrace its Biblical parallels, firmly establishing its protagonist’s shared motivations with the Hebrew prophet, who repeatedly asked Pharaoh, “Let my people go!”

War becomes the best Biblical film of modern times because it tackles the problems faced by the genre astutely. Unlike Exodus, there’s no room for race controversy because, well, apes don’t have races. But War and both its predecessors also surpass Exodus in terms of pacing, special effects, and actor performances.

That’s one Moses down, one more to go.

But the real reason why War belongs on the same shelf as cinematic classics like The Ten Commandments lies in its pioneering nature. It doesn’t set out with a mission to tell a story fraught with heavy-handed religious symbolism. It displays the filmmakers’ deftness in juxtaposing two seemingly irreconcilable concepts (science-fiction and The Bible) to present a unified and significant whole. By employing a tried-and-tested narrative to get over unfamiliar tropes and settings, War goes beyond being just a CGI spectacle and resonates deeply with viewers than any film based on talking chimps rightly should.

Can I get an Amen?