Missing Persons

Last Friday, coinciding with the release of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, The Culture Conquistadors sat down with two humans – Sam Witwicky and Dr. Will Rodman – that got, let’s say, “left behind,” as their franchises shifted their focus to completely different human casts. They didn’t have anything better to do, seeing as they weren’t in the films, so we brought them in to discuss the state of the post-human blockbuster.

CC: Dr. Rodman, I’d like to start by talking to you. You developed the failed Alzheimer’s cure that created super-intelligent apes like your one-time pet and current leader of the ape resistance, Caesar. Unfortunately, it also created the Simian Flu that wiped out most of humanity.

WILL RODMAN: Including me. I’m pretty certain I’m deceased.

CC: Our apologies.

RODMAN: It’s okay, I was pretty much a mad scientist. A kind and gentle mad scientist, but try telling 9/10 of the world’s population that. The nuances sort of get lost when you’re responsible for that much death.

CC: One person… well excuse me, one ape, though the lines get blurry, don’t they?… seemed to appreciate the nuances. What was it like to see Caesar, an ape you raised from birth, raise his own son and deal with dissent amongst his revolutionaries, all while thinking fondly of the example you set during his adolescence.

RODMAN: I have to tell you it was one of the most moving experiences of my life. Or, um, afterlife, I suppose. (Crinkly-eyed dreamboat chuckle.) I’d say one of the driving themes of mine and Caesar’s interaction was one of trust – the inherent trust of extreme youth that, at a certain point, in spite of my attempts to give every indication to the contrary, curdled when it seemed like I couldn’t protect him from a bigger, badder world. Caesar lost faith in the fact that I could save him from the horrors the rest of humanity had in store for him. Honestly, at a certain point, I did too.

That mistrust led him to do some rash though understandable things in defense of those he saw as similarly defenseless, but there was always a kernel of understanding across the species lines because of the strong father-son bond we shared. And seeing Caesar – in his first significant human interactions since we parted in the forest ten years ago – carry over those concerns about trust, but also carry over that… well I shouldn’t use this word in the context of what’s happened, but I will… but also that humanity, as we consider it in terms of humane and level-headed interactions with others… Well, that was immensely gratifying.

CC: Is it strange to think of Caesar building that trust with new humans, like the group he meets here, led by the kind and understanding Malcolm?

RODMAN: No, not at all. Dying has granted me the perspective to see that this isn’t my story, but Caesar’s. I mean admit it, you had to look up my name before this interview, didn’t you?

CC: Yeah…

RODMAN: See! His story. His struggles as he approaches many of the milestones humans take for granted feel new and transcendent because they are seen through the eyes of an ape granted exceptional gifts through science – he’s new to this, and it seems renewed through his eyes. Considering what preceded my death, what he went through, Caesar could easily go along with Koba and advocate the extermination of the San Francisco colony, but instead, he internalizes much of what we went through and uses that experience to inform a cautious relationship with a new human that comes into his life. His vested interests are absolutely with his new family – both his blood family and the ape colony he leads – as are Malcolm’s interests with his human family, but both are cautiously optimistic that if they can put aside obvious differences (and guns), peace and trust might be possible. It’s beautiful to see them form that bond and to see them realize that it alone is not enough to hold off an inevitable war.

CC: Just as your love for Caesar wasn’t enough to curb his outrage at the treatment of apes.

RODMAN: Exactly!

CC: You do show up briefly in archival footage, and Caesar takes a long moment to consider your legacy. Do you think that robs some of the living humans, who have come in for some criticism for their lack of depth, of their chance to make an impression?

RODMAN: It all comes down to what Caesar is struggling with internally. I was a huge part of his upbringing, both positively and negatively, and it would only make sense that for him to discover things about himself and his society, he would need to deal with the marks I left on his soul. And for the record, my eyes were not dry when Caesar watched that baby video.

I think we still come at stories from the privileged perspective of assuming that humans should be the most important thing in them. It makes sense, we’re only human, after all. And we might be able to fudge that sympathy a bit in a cartoon world like Chicken Run or Fantastic Mr. Fox where the humans are grotesques, but when we see real humans played by real actors, we assume they must be the center of their story.

But Caesar owns his story – he is as much a classic heroic figure as Spartacus or Moses. I see extremely strong parallels to the Exodus story in Caesar’s journey, as well as obvious ties to the work of Shakespeare (good on my Dad for calling that when he named him). And Caesar may not even be the most nuanced ape the humans come into contact with! Koba is a wonder of complex psychology, a menace who is almost entirely justified in his malice. I guess I would challenge those people that lament the lack of presence of Malcolm’s human wife in the film by asking them why they don’t first lament the lack of presence of Caesar’s ape wife, who clearly should have a bigger influence on Caesar’s life.

CC: Wait, are you aware you’re a film character?

RODMAN: From the beyond, I see all sorts of dimensions in the multiverse; I see ones where Sam and I are movie characters, and ones where you are a movie character, and even one where you are only the construct of a blog writer desperate to find some meta hook which he can use to discuss summer blockbusters.

CC: Wow, you are way smarter than you seemed in the first movie!

RODMAN: Yeah, they caught me at a rough time.

SAM WITWICKY: Hold the fing phone. Am I a fing movie character too?

RODMAN: Are you not dead and seeing the multiverse?

WITWICKY: S**t! No! I’m just hanging out at my parent’s house playing Call of Duty while that damn Chihuahua humps my leg. Bumblebee and Optimus haven’t dropped by in a while and I figured this reporter dude might know what happened to them.

CC: How long has it been since you spoke to them?

WITWICKY: Let’s see, the Battle of Chicago was five years ago so… five years ago… What, don’t look at me like that! Megatron was dead, I figured everything was chill, and since everyone could know what a hero I was after the Autobots went public, I went on the media circuit.

CC: So you don’t know about anything that happened to them?

WITWICKY: I saw something on the news about dinosaur robots in Hong Kong. Sum it up for me.

CC: Erm… Those dinosaur robots, in spite of looking kind of cool, had no actual influence on what happened, though I can see why they are what the media would latch onto. Let’s see… A greedy CIA Agent was tearing up all your robot friends and selling them to Evil Steve Jobs so he could pad his retirement fund, so he ruined the life of a Texas inventor named Cade Yeager whose life was already pretty screwed up because he was helping Optimus Prime in whatever spare time he had after doing his real job – being disturbingly overprotective of his teenage daughter.

RODMAN: Excuse me, that man is no inventor, and that’s coming from a guy who invented a plague that wiped out humanity!

CC: Fair enough. The greedy agent wanted Optimus Prime so some bounty hunter from Cybertron would trade him the Seed so Evil Steve Jobs could make an army of human-created robots using Transformium. The bounty hunter wanted Optimus because… something about the Creators and some knights, it wasn’t entirely clear and probably won’t be until next time. But Optimus got away, Cade convinced Evil Steve Jobs to not be Evil, and together they all kept the seed from Nu-Megatron, who was behind the whole evil plot all along… somehow…

WITWICKY: Wow, that’s f***cked up. That makes even less sense than the three times I helped the Autobots do stuff. And I went to Autobot heaven! So… This teenage girl. Is she hot?

CC: Wow, I’d forgotten how irritating you are, Sam. And yet, I still missed the focus on your immature but understandable quest to acquire respect from those in positions of power. Less and less the more you talk, but I can’t deny it’s the truth. Do you agree with Dr. Rodman that as technology advances and makes it more and more possible to create stories where non-humans can carry the sympathetic burden at the center of a narrative, we’ll see more films that marginalize audience-identification characters like you in favor of stories told on non-human canvases?

WITWICKY: Come again?

CC: Do you think it’s okay that you weren’t a part of this story because it’s all about the Transformers anyway?

WITWICKY: (Condescending smirk for the ages) Are you f***ing kidding me? Have you spent any time with Optimus Prime? It’s pretty hard to make a robot-semi that boring, but his Creators, whoever they are, succeeded. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a standout dude. Bumblebee is loyal, he’s my boy. All the other Autobots are… to be honest I could never tell them apart from each other or the bad guys so I don’t have much to say about them. But would I want to see them carry a story as they are right now? Please! This video game I’m playing has better characters in the cutscenes. I take it they probably did some interesting stuff on their home planet before it blew up, so that might be interesting, but on Earth, they may as well be any aliens brought in from an alien stock photo, just with better sound effects. So the humans they used this time had better be some damn interesting people.

CC: They’re not. They are anti-interesting.

WITWICKY: Then f*** that noise. So, uh, was I in any archival footage?

CC: You weren’t even mentioned. It’s like you never existed.

WITWICKY: (Letting down the veneer of immature machismo and showing uncommon vulnerability, as he sometimes would do) Man, that’s tough. That can’t be the Bumblebee I know. I mean, I know I told Mikaela I loved her and then never mentioned her again once I had a new girlfriend, but I thought what Bumblebee and I had was different. I really did.

CC: So did I.

RODMAN: So did I. (Responding to curious glances) What? Even geneticists loosen their tie and go see stuff-blow-up movies! That first Transformers film was a pretty good Independence Day pastiche, even if I couldn’t tell the robots apart.

CC: Yeah it was.

RODMAN: But it was good because of the humans and the way their stories intertwined with a new threat and new allies. Transformers wasn’t a post-human blockbuster, even though much of the focus was on the use of technology to create cacophonous transforming machines that dwarfed humans. Considering its name, it was about humans more than anyone could have expected ever in their wildest dreams. And, in spite of all the kvetching about the inadequacy of those humans, you got attached to them over three films in ways you didn’t with the living iron monument to decency that is Optimus Prime. So seeing them jettisoned with no fanfare, and seeing Optimus and Bumblebee latch onto a new group of humans without much merit feels callous and anti-human. Whereas Caesar’s story, which doesn’t pretend to be about humans, feels profoundly human because of that distance and inherent connection to a fully-formed ape society. Look into Caesar’s eyes, as the film begs you to do in the last shot, and try not to do a few things. Try not to feel something about the ceaseless worthlessness of war. Try not to feel as if you care about this upright chimp as much as any other protagonist you’ve ever followed in a story. Try not to feel compelled to reward Andy Serkis, whose eyes those are, computer gimmickry or not, with the highest honor available in his field. You can’t.

CC: Wow, great summary Dr. Rodman. Have you ever thought about being a film critic?

RODMAN: I can’t. I’m dead.

WITWICKY: (Resuming unnecessary machismo) Sucks for you. (Picks up controller, blows up a building.)