Alyssa Rosenberg looks at Rise of the Planet of the Apes through the prism of contemporary anxiety about cultural institutions:
It makes sense that movies like these — and their hopeful, escapist alternatives, like Captain America — are so appealing right now. Whether you think it’s unemployment rates, or partisanship, or you embrace Drew Westen’s rhetorical theory of the Obama presidency, Americans are angry at established institutions, they’re hurting economically, and even if they’re not, they’re frustrated by the failure of a range of policy problems. We may not know where we’re going or what we could do to make things better, but neither do Magneto and Caesar. These movies are the fantasy of rebellion without the requirement to build a new order. And the heroes aren’t who we expected them to be.
This sounds about right. Blockbuster movies obviously can't afford to offend large segments of the country, and so their politics can be neither too deep nor too incisive. Apes is most peculiar, though, in that its universal appeal comes from ideas that are incredibly radical.
Obviously there is the animal rights angle. The mistreatment of the apes in the refuge and the Gen Sys (is it reading too much into this to consider that the name of intelligent apes' "creator" may be an allusion to Genesis?) testing practices are obviously vicious and grossly unjust. Nothing terribly controversial here.
But the film goes much further than just arousing our sympathy for the apes. It also depends on a pretty thorough vilification of the humans, who are largely cruel and greedy and fully deserving of their deaths. Will, the scientist, and his father and girlfriend are the exceptions, but they're ciphers anyway. We know humanity isn't going to survive the ape revolt, and the movie takes steps to ensure that we feel that this is right.
Perhaps what's most surprising is the movie's subtle, favorable, nod to authoritarianism. There is a scene in the sanctuary where Caesar is talking/signing to a circus orangutan about the need for the apes to work together against the humans. He uses the example of sticks, that one can be broken, but that multiple sticks together are strong and remain intact. This is quite literally fascism: fasces, the root word, being Latin for a bundle of sticks bound together, deriving strength from unity.
It may be unintentional, and indeed the same strength-in-numbers illustration has been used in movies before (see the beginning of Akira Kurosawa's Ran), but it ties in well with the satisfaction we're supposed to feel in the coming anti-human genocide. It may in fact serve as groundwork for conflict that will be developed in the movie's sequel; it's easy to imagine a split in the ape ranks leading to opposing factions led by Caesar, who received his intelligence from his mother and attacks the humans mostly as a means to escaping them, and Koba, who received his intelligence through direct experimentation with a more potent virus and looks to be much more violent (and scary looking).
Not that this distracts from the movie. Indeed it's probably the most satisfying popcorn movie of the season. I'm just amazed, and amused, that its success is built on actual misanthropy.