This is the first in a series on narrative deconstruction, looking at tropes.
The other day on NPR, they were talking about Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Seriously, public radio hosted an hour of discussion that sounded more like a promo for a movie and its expected series of new films than journalistic reporting. I need to dig a little now and see if NPR has received any money from 20th Century Fox, the attention on the film’s production and narrative was so all-encompassing.
At some point they got to conversing about why we have a fascination with this idea of our ancestors uprising against us. Is it a narrative about anxiety, or tension about our place in the world? Cultural control issues? In my humble opinion, looking at just this one story warps what should be an examination across doomsday scenario narratives. After including the types of “human species on the brink” stories that are out there, maybe it’s then fairer to make broad statements about what it all means.
Zombie Apocalypse Narratives—I love me some zombies. Let’s say that there are two main types of zombies: undead human zombies and biologically infected zombies who aren’t dead, but act in every measure as zombies. Our species is under attack by our own species. Often there is little made of nationality differences in these movies, as the whole of humanity (usually one tiny remaining faction) is up against imminent demise. What’s the message here? That we are our own worst enemy, that our strength as a species and a people should not be overstated, that science is our unraveling and our savior.
Alien Invasion Narratives—So many movies, books, and television shows are in this category that any attempt at a list will just make me look like a movie watching newbie. Suffice it to say that the big difference in narrative here is the external, rather than internal threat, unless the twist is that the aliens are ourselves. It’s classic xenophobia in a fictitious frame, increasing in popularity during the cold war, when all kinds of outside threats were upon us. Again, as with zombie apocalypse narratives, it’s humans in solidarity against the greatest attack ever against us. Unless there’s a military with an ulterior motive for helping the aliens, of course.
Nature Revolts Narratives—This big category covers everything from biological agents (e.g. The Andromeda Strain and Outbreak) to uncontrollable weather (e.g. The Day After Tomorrow, Volcano) to asteroids slamming into the earth (e.g. Deep Impact, Armageddon). We’re on a fragile planet, in a fragile solar system, in a fragile corner of the multiverse. It’s all so freaking fragile! I read most of these narratives as a statement about our own excesses and carelessness. If you mess with nature long enough, nature will mess with you. Problem is, in a popular culture lens, the boundary between scientific evidence for showing the stresses on nature and fictionalized awfulizing is challenging to discern. It may get easier to poo-poo claims about global warming because so many stories depict such hyperbole about the issue.
Technology Revolts Narratives—I read Trucks by Stephen King as a kid and was terrified. And then I saw the movie, Maximum Overdrive, based on the short story, and laughed like it was the farm equipment equivalent of Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. But then I watched The Terminator, and I feared Skynet more than the arrival of 1984, which hello, was nothing compared to the Patriot Act. Stanley Kubrick may have had some extreme creepiness with HAL 9000, but that was one computer gone bad. All computers gone bad? Given the number of computers we have? Even our coffee makers can come after us. This narrative is not so different from the nature revolts category, in that we’re dealing with progressing too far. I want to call this a fear of cancer, in the uncontrollable division leading to end of life sense, only what’s running amok here is our own need to create better and more encompassing technology.
Lost/Rogue Weapon Narratives—Think Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan, in which a megalomaniac has the power to end the known world or a significant chunk of the universe. It’s a tough storyline to sell; how does one person collect that kind of power? The whole Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter stories were built on that concept, though, so there’s something very compelling about facing the end of humanity at the hands of one very evil, ubiquitous dude. Metaphorically speaking, I take these kinds of stories as morality plays, the classic good versus evil tale that reinforces dominant ideology as benevolent, against a simplified opposition who never musters their own philosophy other than “because I want to.”
So, with all of that, where does the Planet of the Apes franchise fit in? Parts biological, technology, and alien threat to humanity, it was originally written in France in the late 1960s, again during the cold war and among the fear of nuclear holocaust, as people were certain that the world order was in some kind of shift. Yes, there’s the straightforward good/evil dichotomy to some degree, but at least in the latest film that shows the beginnings of the enhanced apes, there is some musing about who is truly good and who is evil. If the impetus in the 60s was driven by our anxiety about the Soviet Union, today’s epoch is perhaps more nuanced: today’s America is less sure about where we’re headed, who to trust, and how we got to this place of uncertainty.