Recently, audiences flocked to the cinema to watch the conclusion of the epic story of an individual separated from his family at birth, rescued by foreign strangers, and raised as part of their culture before using his understanding of both worlds to return to his people and free them from captivity before dying at the gates to a promised land. I’m talking, of course, about Cesar in the new Planet of the Apes film. You can be forgiven, though, for thinking that I was talking about a remake of The Ten Commandments you’d never heard of. Yeah, Cesar is totally Chimp Moses.
Like the Biblical patriarch, we first meet Cesar as a stranger in a strange land. Separated from his mother, he’s spared the death that awaits other chimps when he’s rescued by James Franco’s kindly scientist, who, like the Pharaoh’s daughter, raises him as a human. He’s a furry child, completely assimilated into the world of man, nigh oblivious to his outsider status. Then, just as with Moses, a violent altercation sends him out into the wilderness—rather than attack a slave driver, Cesar beats down an obnoxious neighbor whom he thinks is threatening Franco’s father. Like Moses, Cesar’s flight from civilization becomes a journey of enlightenment, self-discovery, and spiritual renewal. Though there’s no direct burning bush analogue, Cesar’s time in the chimp sanctuary nonetheless raises his consciousness regarding the plight of his people, and spurs him to begin a revolution to free them from bondage. Rather than lead an escape from Egypt into the wilderness, culminating in the crossing of the Red Sea, Cesar instead guides his ape brethren across San Francisco Bay, where, like the Pharaoh’s army, police choppers are sent hurtling into the water (including David Oyelowo’s evil biotech industrialist, the film’s essential Pharaoh analogue).
Though Dawn of the Planet of the apes skips over any Mosaic parallels, they come back hot and heavy in War for the Planet of the Apes, part of which almost functions like a chimp-themed remake of DeMille’s Ten Commandments. Again we find Cesar’s people in bondage, although this time around they are, like the Biblical Jews, literally enslaved—and, like the builders of Exodus, they, too, are being made to assemble a great structure. Throughout it all, the apes are motivated to escape by their hope for a journey to a promised land—a literal journey through the wilderness into an actual desert which promises not just physical freedom from the humans but the spiritual salvation of the ape way of life. The Flight from Egypt narrative is even more blatant this time around, as the approaching Army and the last remnants of The Colonel’s Alpha Omega militia are wiped out in a flood—an avalanche that literally drowns an entire army, thus allowing the ape’s final escape. The journey they embark upon is arduous (as we’re told throughout the film, their destination is a long ways away—the chimps presumably travel from the San Francisco region to either Southern California or somewhere in the Four Corners States, judging by Bad Ape’s origins in the Sierra Zoo in Reno). It leads them, ultimately, to a literal desert oasis—a promised land for Ape kind. In a sequence that’s almost lifted wholesale from Commandments, the elderly, dying Cesar looks out on his people’s new home but does not enter it himself, dying peacefully on a hilltop overlooking this new ape Zion.
With Jesus analogues as old as cinema itself, it was an interesting choice for director Matt Reeves (who acknowledges that he made Cesar “like the ape Moses”) to draw inspiration from the Old Testament predecessor instead. Indeed, Hollywood blockbusters of late have begun to show increasing interest in the very Jewish “origin story” for modern Christianity, with Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel likewise emphasizing Superman’s Mosaic origin story before shifting him into a Christ figure in Dawn of Justice, and 2014’s Gods and Kings literally retelling the story of Exodus as a God of War knockoff. Is it an attempt to rediscover or reconcile with the roots of Christianity? A dialogue with Jewish audiences? Did Hollywood just plain run out of ideas (again)? What say you?