August 9, 2011
“Careful. Human no like smart ape.” Review of Rise of the Planet of the Apes
It’s been a while since I’ve been so excited about a science fiction movie. But can you blame me? Rise of the Planet of the Apes (hereafter abbreviated to ROTPOTA) is the first feature film that I can remember that explicitly addresses a number of topics so near and dear to my heart—namely biotech, transgenics, enhancement, non-human personhood, and animal welfare. Admittedly, I went into the theatre expecting more spectacle than cerebral stimulation, but I'm happy to say the film offers considerable food for thought.
This movie explored two primary themes, one of which is new to the franchise, the other being a staple of the series. Specifically, I'm referring to (1) intelligence augmentation and its empowering and civilizing effects and (2) the ongoing perils of in-group thinking and tribalism.
In terms of the latter theme, ROTPOTA held true to the original 1968 film which largely served as a metaphor for contemporary social ills like racism, bigotry, elitism, class struggle and, of course, animal abuse. What made ROTPOTA particularly fascinating from a stylistic perspective, however, is that it turned the original movie on its head by showing apes being prodded by tasers and locked behind cages—a clever inversion of the original film's clever inversion. This was done quite effectively and it brought about a sense of pathos for the chimps—enhanced or otherwise.
Okay, this is the part where I start to introduce some plot points and spoilers. But don't let that stop you from reading on if you haven't seen the movie—I don't think it'll detract from your experience.
Uplift and away
In ROTPOTA, the reason for animal enhancement is somewhat glossed over; it's a plot device that furthers the story and serves to explain the ascendancy of the apes. It happens because scientists inadvertently augment chimp intelligence while testing out a potential cure for Alzheimer’s disease. It was a kind of happy accident. But as a result, the film never properly addresses the ethics involved. Consequently, the "ought or not" in regards to uplift is never fully articulated or fleshed out. And in this sense the movie feels a bit incomplete.
That said, the underlying commentary about how intelligence can serve as an empowering and emancipatory force was very much at the forefront. The film’s protagonist, the enhanced chimp Ceasar, used his cognitive gifts to overcome his predicament—that being his confinement to an ape shelter in which he was forced back to a primitive existence and abused by both the staff and other chimps.
Indeed, the scenes in the shelter were some of the most poignant, bringing to mind such films as 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Truman Show. Reminiscent of the apes in 2001, Caesar was caught between animal savagery and civilized potential. And like the outer boundaries of the giant studio in The Truman Show, the walls of the sanctuary were a giant illusion that presented a false sense of freedom. Though painted with trees and skyscapes, the walls were a hard boundary, a metaphor for limits, constraints, and oppression. The shelter offered Caesar a glimpse into what life would be like in the natural state—a life filled with mind numbing brutality and devoid of any potential.
It was only until Caesar successfully took charge of his tribe (a classic case of brain over braun), uplifted his primate brethren, and outwitted his detainers that he and the other apes were able to escape. It was intelligence augmentation as a force for liberation. Moreover, Caesar introduced to the pack a kinder, gentler way of being. It was important to him that they work cooperatively in their struggle for freedom and mete out as little violence as possible. In this sense, uplift was portrayed as a force for increased benevolence and enlightenment.
Us and them
In terms of the second primary theme, that of tribalism and prejudice, the film demonstrated the dangers of ‘us and them’ mentalities and how it gives rise to alienation. It was through the exclusion, isolation and exploitation of the chimps that humans caused a sense of in-group tribalism to emerge among them.
Caesar, who was raised by humans, could initially relate to his human family. But as time passed and as he came to understand his situation, he felt more and more unsure about his place and identity. Forced to wear a leash when out in public, Caesar wondered if he was more of a pet than a person. His alienation grew complete after he was abandoned and abused in the draconian ape shelter. No longer willing to relate or even associate with humans, Caesar organized an escape along with the other apes and sought refuge outside the human community in the Redwood Forest.
Indeed, Caesar's hand was largely forced on account of his poor treatment. Tortured, neglected, and ridiculed, he became increasingly radical. The division between the apes and the humans, he believed, was far too inalienable—he had to act. What made this particularly obvious to Caesar was that his human handlers were not just unwilling to recognize and acknowledge his intelligence, but they were clearly threatened by it. As his orangutang comrade indicated through sign language, “Careful. Human no like smart ape.”
Interestingly, I feel that this is a prevailing fear among many of those who oppose animal uplift. The worry is that humanity could lose its exalted place at the top of the food chain. Creating human-like intelligences would force us to acknowledge the personhood of these animals. We'd have to find a way to live alongside them. Moreover, they may eventually supercede our own abilities, which would pose a potential scenario reminiscent of the original Planet of the Apes story.
But as ROTPOTA suggests, it doesn’t have to be this way. Exclusion and indifference gives rise to tribalism, and when gone too far, it creates radicalism. The ultimate take-away from this movie is that it’s through the abandoning of in- and out-group mentalities that we can strive to minimize these types of situations from occurring.