As I have detailed when examining science fiction (SF) and speculative fiction, the roots of my fascination with those genres include my mother’s love for science fiction as well as my journey from watching 1950s SF films and Shock Theater with her and then discovering my own foundational works, including the original Planet of the Apes films.
Two of the best moments for me as a parent were when I discovered my very young daughter watching over and over the video-taped Tim Burton Batman with Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson and then Planet of the Apes films.
Since I love the original Planet of the Apes films, I have always been skeptical of the reboots, but when I watched Rise of the Planet of the Apes, I was pleasantly surprised—I think mostly because the technological advances that have made superhero-comics-to-films work also gave a new life to the Apes franchise.
None the less, even when mostly good, Hollywood films designed as blockbusters tend to have far more problems than I can stand.
A week or so ago, I noticed Dawn of the Planet of the Apes had come to my cable service and I caught it after more than 30 minutes in and while my granddaughter was visiting—so I actually only semi-watched some of the film.
My film-watching life has been limited now to cable film watching, but that facilitates my obsessive self—the urge to watch, re-watch, and re-watch films—often in pieces and out of order.
Tired after a hard cycling day in the late May heat of South Carolina, I noticed Dawn running again last night, and then an interesting coincidence occurred: I watched The Good Lie wrapped around the re-watching of Dawn.
Waiting for Dawn to start, I scrolled past Lie, pausing after reading the synopsis. I do not recall ever seeing Lie advertised and had also missed the controversy about the film, but I wondered how badly a Reese Witherspoon vehicle would mangle what appeared to be an important (and mostly ignored in the U.S.) consideration about the Sudan.
After ten or fifteen minutes, I had to switch to my full viewing of Dawn; however, after Dawn, I noticed Lie on a different time zone channel, resulting in my watching both mostly back to back.
Keeping in mind a strong caveat about popular films, I found Dawn to be quite good, and in many ways, Lie is horrible, inexcusably so.
Both films struggle (I think unconsciously) with the white savior motif that plagues Hollywood, and viewed together, the films are stained by sometimes gross stereotyping.
When the films are not simplistic (and when Lie isn’t muddled by a complete lack of control of tone), there are thematic moments shared between them that should not be ignored underneath all the faults.
Dawn shows the inhumanity of humanity, and Lie exposes the inhumanity of capitalism in the U.S.
Both messages are vivid, intense, and mostly accurate; but I suspect also missed by audiences.
Taken together, the films also dramatize the power of cultural norms to shape individual behavior—a story that refutes the rugged individualism narrative endorsed in the U.S. (and typical of U.S. films).
There is a nobility to Caesar (Dawn) and Jeremiah (Lie) that stands in stark contrast with the basic nature of humans (Dawn) and the capitalist ethic in the U.S. (Lie).
Caesar is forced to break and twist his dictum when Caesar kills Koba (the ape embodiment of human nature):
Koba: Apes not kill apes.
Caesar: You are no ape.
And Jeremiah must choose between his own need to work and his ethical code when faced with a grocery store throwing away food and refusing to give that food to the needy:
Nick: What are you doing?
Jeremiah: It is a sin not to give to those in need.
Nick: According to who?
Nick: And who is that?
Jeremiah: [turning in his apron] Me. My name is Jeremiah.
I suppose if nothing else, popular films have their moments when they are so simple even a child can see the messages: Caesar is more humane, more human than the humans, and Jeremiah is more Christlike than the citizens of a so-called Christian nation.
In his 2013 speech about reading and libraries, writer Neil Gaiman could just as easily been talking about the possible consequences of all art:
Empathy is a tool for building people into groups, for allowing us to function as more than self-obsessed individuals.
You’re also finding out something as you read vitally important for making your way in the world. And it’s this:
THE WORLD DOESN’T HAVE TO BE LIKE THIS. THINGS CAN BE DIFFERENT.
He then explains about fiction:
Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you’ve never been. Once you’ve visited other worlds, like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. Discontent is a good thing: people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different.
And these words ring true in the wake of my having watched a mostly good film (Dawn) and an often really bad one (Lie) that both demand of the audience: “The world doesn’t have to be like this. Things can be different.”
Humbly, I would add: If we truly were discontent with this world we have created.
And with deep regret, I must conclude that we can tolerate things being different only in these Other Worlds, but not right here in the real world—one in which we are content with pervasive human-made violence and grocery stores that throw away food while the undeserving poor go hungry because that is what the market demands.