Potential 50-year-old spoiler alert: The classic sci-fi film series Planet of the Apes has never been a stranger to religious themes. The Charlton Heston-led original depicts a world dominated by apes who consistently choose ancient religious beliefs above obvious scientific evidence. The film’s portrayal of religion eventually unfolds to reveal an outlook similar to Karl Marx’s view of religion—a means by which the powerful elite control the populace and maintain a stable society. All in a movie about primates and space travel!
Fast-forward to the summer of 2017 as director Matt Reeves completes his masterful prequel/reboot trilogy with War for the Planet of the Apes. This blockbuster transitions the new trilogy into more-or-less the same narrative territory as the originals, but it does so while adopting the classic’s aptitude for religious themes. Overt religious themes. For me, amidst the constant action and interspecies drama in the film, the most engaging and striking thing was encountering a religious worldview that was remarkably close to the truth, yet doomed by fatal flaws. Unintentionally, War reminds us of the danger of accepting “almost-truth” about ourselves and about God.
For those who have not seen the movie and plan on doing so in the next 1-500 weeks, this is not a spoiler. For those who have, hopefully this will help you sift through the types of worldviews the media presents us in its subtle fashions. There is a moment in War, during a confrontation between the lead characters, when a man admits he came to the realization that he would have to “sacrifice his own son to save humanity.” (Sound familiar?) He later says that, as he was about to commit an act the film frames to sound monstrous, he looked into his son’s eyes “and all [he] saw was love.” Does it seem like we’ve heard something similar anywhere? In case it seems like the connection to the cross narrative is incidental, this character embellishes the helmets of his soldiers and other items with the Alpha and Omega symbol. Furthermore, he has a picture of the son he murdered positioned noticeably close to a small cross on his desk.
The monumental irony that emerges when we see the “God the Father” parallels in War is that its cross may be more accurate than popularly accepted views of what Christ accomplished when He died. The cross by which we claim to have been saved was much more than a lapse of human judgment during which God almighty wrung His hands, knowing it was for the best. If it was really “the will of the Lord to crush” Christ (Isaiah 53:10), then the cross was a deliberate act of God against His very own Son, wherein the hatred of God towards sin was poured out on Him who had become sin that we might become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21). This was done to save humanity from the inevitable wages of sin. In that awful moment, if Jesus proclaimed that He trustfully committed His spirit into His Father’s hands (Luke 23:46), then it is true that the Son, even as He was crushed by His Father’s wrath, looked at His God with love and trust.
Kudos, then, to Matt Reeves and the other screenwriters for apparently doing their theological homework. Except for the worldview problem that the man who says these things is placed in obvious contrast to the more feeling apes: he is the real animal. The apparent intention of the film intentionally contrasts the villain’s god-complex with the apes’ strength in togetherness. The real hope—and therefore the real god—in War is the autonomy of creatures who will band together for common good. This is nothing less than humanism at its finest, declaring faith not in a sacrifice to save us but in our strength when we unite together for common good.
War lands close to the truth on two fronts: we will absolutely do good in the world if we come together and strive for unity and common strength. It is also true that a father, in order to save humanity, had to sacrifice his own son whom he loved. This worldview, however, fails to take into account the weakness of man as a result of sin. God’s actions toward Christ would have been monstrous had the need brought on by our rebellion been any less severe. But when we realize that we have sinned against a real God and that sin is worthy of eternal condemnation, we are able to see the sacrifice of Christ as the action of necessity brought on by the depth of mercy and love in the heart of both the Father and the Son. As a response to that love, we should guard ourselves against any worldview that will disparage our loving Lord in our eyes.