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Apes, dragons, and the possibility of peace in cinema

Is war inevitable in cinema?
Is war inevitable in cinema?
© Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Recently, two movies have been released that have dealt with the subject of creating world peace. The two movies are also both the second movie within a movie franchise. Well, one is actually the second in a prequel series that is part of an already much larger franchise, but still, both movies work as a sequel to a previous movie that started a new series. The first movie is "How To Train Your Dragon 2" which is, of course, the sequel to "How To Train Your Dragon". The second movie is "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes", which is a sequel to "Rise of the Planet of the Apes".

Both movies have a predecessor in which a human seeks to understand and train an animal. "How to Train Your Dragon" has the character of Hiccup trying to train the dragon Toothless and "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" has Will Rodman trying to train the ape Caesar. The sequels to these films both have their characters shift to a grander aim of creating world peace. Peace on Earth, our actual Earth, may seem like a tough goal to reach, but let's not even get into that here. The question here is this: can peace be achieved in cinema?

If peace is aimed to be found within a franchise movie then it would seem that the answer is no. Both "How to Train Your Dragon 2" and "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" almost achieve some kind of answer on how to bring about peace in their worlds, but then resort to typical action and a return to the status quo in order to continue their franchise. If peace was truly achieved then there would be no more conflict for the franchise and thus it would have to end. Actually, even if one movie did end in peace then surely the next one would just bring a new conflict to the table and more action that just returns it to the status quo and continues the franchise.

Just look at "Star Wars" for an example. The first movie was originally a stand-alone film. It told the story of how some rebels came about and took on an evil empire and defeated them, thus creating peace in the universe. Well, then the movie made lots of money and, what do you know, the empire struck back! The original "Star Wars" series did end with "Return of the Jedi" in which the empire was defeated for good and true peace was brought to the universe. Well, except that the series was still really popular and so they had to find a way to continue it. In novels, games, comics, and TV shows it continued for years before there was finally another movie series. They figured out how to make a new franchise the same way "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" did: they made a prequel series. Fine, go back to when there was conflict and before there was peace in the universe. It makes sense, but we all know now that they didn't end there. Now there is going to be a new series, set after the original trilogy, in which evil will rise again and the peace will be broken for more battles that lead to more movies.

Now, long-term, multiple-movie storytelling can work, but sometimes movies can get stuck in a never-ending story mode where no one movie really has its own satisfying end. Everything is always brought back to the status quo, either in one movie or in the next one, so as to continue a franchise. This is especially true when there is no end game in mind for a series, but rather an assumption that more movies will be made because previous movies have made lots of money.

"The Lord of the Rings" trilogy is an example of when long-form, multiple-movie storytelling works. The reason it works is because there is a clear cut story that was already worked out before the first movie started filming. That series knew where it was headed and was able to give a satisfying conclusion to its series that offered a promise of peace. However, as we can see in the series, peace was only achieved through war. Even more important is that the peace did not last. You see, the filmmakers found a way to bring war back and continue the franchise via a prequel series in "The Hobbit".

Ah, the prequel. That brings us back to "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" and the problem with prequels in general. The problem with a prequel is you know that there is more conflict and war after the prequel is over. Basically, you know that any peace achieved in a prequel will eventually be broken later because with peace there is no conflict and with no conflict there is no further story. A prequel has to lead-in somehow to the rest of the franchise and to do so means that peace cannot really be achieved in the prequel series. This creates a problem in a movie like "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes".

"Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" is almost a rare and even more thought-provoking movie than it is. "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" is almost a movie where conflict is continually expected, but never actually breaks out into any kind of war. It is almost a movie that teaches a positive message of how to obtain peace through clear examples, but action and the quest to continue a franchise win out in the end. If no war broke out in "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" and peace was actually achieved then the movie wouldn't really fit with the rest of the movies in the franchise and that is ultimately what it has to do. In this case, I believe a unique movie and opportunity to teach a method of peace-making was sacrificed to stay true to the other movies that came before it.

Now, "How to Train Your Dragon 2" is not a prequel, but it suffers from the same franchise mentality that prevents it from going anywhere too daring in terms of the subject of peace. To understand, one must go back to the original film in the franchise. "How to Train Your Dragon" tells a story of finding peace as one boy seeks to end war between dragons and humans. The first movie may skip around a little at the end to make the story work, but it mostly shows a believable example of one way to create a peaceful planet. However, it is interesting to note that the peace is not achieved without some war happening first. Also, the peace is really only created in one small part of the world as we never really see beyond the land of Berk, where the main character of the story lives.

"How to Train Your Dragon 2" is where the idea of world peace really comes into play. Instead of the finely-focused personal story we were treated to in the original, the sequel gives us a story that tackles the idea of peace in a more general way. The story in "How to Train Your Dragon 2" is about traveling the world, learning about those that live in it, and spreading a message of peace. The story does raise some good questions about how to achieve peace, especially when confronted by people of whom peace doesn't seem to be an option, but raise questions is really all the movie does. "How to Train Your Dragon 2" does not really provide any answers to its questions beyond the same old answer that occurs in all of these films: a return to battle. Some non-peaceful villains seem to turn good for no apparent reason and others just kind of disappear to have the story achieve some kind of moment of peace until the next movie comes along and war inevitably starts all over again.

In "How to Train Your Dragon" there is a clear change and progression in its story. The movie starts with narration explaining what the land of Berk is like. The movie ends with similar narration explaining how the land of Berk has changed since the beginning of the movie. "How to Train Your Dragon 2" once again starts with narration explaining what Berk is like and then ends with narration explaining what Berk is like at the end of the movie. The problem in the sequel is that the narration is nearly identical in the beginning and the end. The only real difference in the narration is that, in the end, the narration is spoken with more enthusiasm. The reason the narration is the same in the beginning and ending of the sequel is that nothing really changes in the movie. Everything, in the end, is brought back to the status quo. Nothing new is really learned. Great questions are posed about how to create world peace, but none of them are answered in any kind of coherent way.

Really, "How to Train Your Dragon" tells a much better story and gives a much better example of how to create peace than "How to Train Your Dragon 2". "How to Train Your Dragon 2" enhances the scope of its story and tries to tackle bigger questions of creating world peace, but it ultimately fails in that regard and I think I know why. The reason "How to Train Your Dragon 2" doesn't work as well as "How to Train Your Dragon" is because the first movie wasn't concerned with creating a franchise. The first movie was its own stand-alone movie with a clear beginning and ending. The second movie wants to be part of a franchise so badly that it even makes up a whole plot-line involving something that it wants us to believe existed in the first movie, but absolutely did not. It is because of this franchise mentality that it never gives the audience any real answers on achieving peace. If the movie gave us the answers now then what would be left for the future movies of the franchise?

Now, I am not trying to say that there is nothing to be learned on the subject of peace from the movies that I have mentioned. Through the endless wars and through the mistakes of others, lessons can surely be learned. In fact, just raising questions as to how peace can be achieved is more than a lot of movies ever dare to attempt. I applaud these movies for raising important questions, but I am sad to say that questions are seemingly all they will ever be.

So, the question still remains: is peace a possibility in cinema? Well, I can really only think of one example where a truly peaceful method is shown in response to a possibly violent situation. The example I am thinking of comes from a Japanese movie called "Hana". "Hana" has the typical set-up for a revenge movie. The movie is about a young samurai whose father is killed by another young man. The samurai comes to the town in which the killer lives in order to abide by the code of the samurai and avenge his father's death. Except, this particular samurai doesn't feel the need to kill. He doesn't necessarily want to kill anyone, even his father's killer.

"Hana" is an odd movie in this regard because I've never seen a samurai movie with this kind of premise. I've never really seen any revenge movie with this kind of premise. "Hana" is really an anti-revenge movie in which the thought-to-be-inevitable confrontation and duel of the two swordsman is repeatedly called into question and never totally feels like it will ever happen. The result is a movie that actually promotes a peaceful response to violence and seeks to question whether there is something beyond fighting and killing to solve problems in a movie where that is typically the only answer.

"Hana" may be one of the very rare movies, and the only one I can think of at the moment, that fully embraces peace as a possible successful alternative to war. However, what does a movie like "Hana" tell us about the possibility for peace in cinema as a whole? Well, "Hana", while fascinating for its different approach to a tried-and-true revenge movie formula, is also not the most exciting movie. Not much happens in the movie. I mean, there is some tension as to whether or not the reluctant samurai will decide to avenge his father or keep his peaceful stance, but while taking a somewhat zen approach to his situation, the movie may have too laid back a feel. With the main character essentially ignoring any conflict, the movie really has no conflict to latch onto, and thus it isn't really all that exciting. So, while it is interesting to see a movie show a method of peace, in this particular example, the movie is not all that exciting to actually watch and so it may not encourage others to attempt this kind of movie again.

Perhaps "Hana" proves that movies need battles and action to solve the conflicts of their worlds so as not to bore their audiences, but I don't think that is truly the case. I found the most exciting parts of "How to Train Your Dragon 2" and "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" to be the parts in which no action was happening at all. I was fascinated by any attempts of the characters to find other peaceful methods of resolving conflict. When the inevitable battles erupted, everything just seemed so predictable and thus less exciting. Maybe war is just an inevitability of real life and maybe these movies are just reflecting that, but I'm not sure. I mean, movies are not real life. In movies, anything can happen. There can be dragons and talking apes and really, pretty much anything the mind can come up with. However, can there be peace in cinema? In this current franchise-minded cinema world, it seems that peace is not truly a possibility.