The Pernicious Legacy of Planet of the Apes

This file image released by Twentieth Century Fox shows Woody Harrelson, center, in a scene from, War for the Planet of the Apes.

By Esther O'Reilly Published on July 19, 2017

War for the Planet of the Apes is storming the box office. Critics have described it as the year’s most human blockbuster, with a twist: The heroes aren’t humans. In fact, as the New York Times put it, the film seems designed to make you “root against your own species.”

The new film, which closes out a trilogy rebooting the 50-year-old franchise, is a technical marvel. It marries the latest advances in performance-capture technology with superb acting, particularly Andy Serkis as Caesar, the apes’ leader and deliverer.

The story, alas, is far less cutting-edge. Indeed, the trope of pitting human villains against non-human heroes (aliens, animals, mutants, etc.) should be familiar to anyone who’s been following movies for the past few decades. And the Apes franchise in particular has never been subtle about its anti-human slant.

That’s not to say the series has never featured a bad ape. If we zip way back in time to the first Planet of the Apes (1968), we find the fanatical Dr. Zaius, who maintains the inherent superiority of the ape species despite all evidence to the contrary. When the human protagonist (Charlton Heston) is left mute from a throat wound, it falls on two bright, young “progressive” apes to vouch for his humanity … or “apeity,” depending on your perspective.

In the reboots, previous installment Dawn of the Planet of the Apes features parallel ape and human villains. The ape villain, Koba, vows to destroy all humankind along with any apes who get in his way. Caesar takes responsibility: “I am to blame. I chose to trust him, because he is ape. I always think ape better than human. I see now how much like them we are.”

Demoting Humans

There’s a pattern emerging here. That last line sums it up: When the series does feature bad apes, they are only bad insofar as they “lower themselves” to the level of humans, which are placed below them on the moral ladder by default. Dr. Zaius’s corrupt fanaticism satirizes human religious institutions. Koba’s bloodlust and arrogance mirror human bloodlust and arrogance. Yet, when apes exhibit virtuous qualities, no one suggests that this makes them “like humans.” The knee-jerk reply, “But there are bad apes too!” fails to account for this. The species swap is a thin veil for the stories’ true agenda.

In this cinematic universe, membership of the species homo sapiens is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for being “human.”

By the time we reach War for the Planet of the Apes, there’s no longer even the attempt to create an ape villain. The only villain left is a sadistic human colonel imported straight from the cardboard factory. He couldn’t be more cartoonish if he had a giant cross in his office or had ape prisoners beaten to the tune of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” (Oh wait, those are things that actually happen in this movie.)

Yet, some have still tried to salvage it by saying it’s not an “anti-human” story so much as a story which highlights both the best and worst qualities of humanity. At The Federalist, Sethu Myer focuses on the role of a mute, angelic human girl who befriends the imprisoned apes.

Blurring the Line

But to say “Not all the humans are bad” misses the mark as well. It’s the very blurring of the line between man and beast that makes the franchise so pernicious. In this cinematic universe, membership of the species homo sapiens is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for being “human.” Apes enjoy humanity by virtue of their humane qualities (mercy, courage, etc.). Evil human characters, in contrast, seem to have forfeited that humanity. Referring to one human in particular, Myer says, “The viewer is moved to affirm that although this guy may be human at the genetic level, he is not a man in any important sense of the word.”

This is a dangerous line of thought. The Christian affirms that even the worst criminal retains the imago Dei — the image of God. Thus, he is still a man, in the most important sense of the word. We may still say he behaves in an “inhuman” way, a way that does not befit his image-bearing nature. Still, the image remains. This is why euthanasia for humans is never right, but euthanasia for animals is often the right thing to do. And when the death penalty is called for, we don’t execute criminals as though we were putting dogs to sleep. We execute them as the just penalty for evil actions they, as men, freely took.

The Message Beneath the Movie

But neither “good” nor “evil” have any meaning when describing animals, however affectionate or nasty they may be.

If you do make a Planet of the Apes movie night with your teens, make time for some probing conversation afterwards too.

Obviously, animal rights activists would beg to differ. If it wasn’t already clear that the Apes filmmakers have planted their flag here, this teaser for War with voiceover from Jane Goodall should spell it out in large, capital letters. Of course, this follows directly from the Darwinian framework for man’s evolution. If man was not made in God’s image, then Goodall is right. “We are simply one of the animal species on our planet,” she says. “Not separate. Not superior.” Even Christian theories conceding physical evolution up to a point where God implanted a soul sit uneasily with our intuition that all of man, body and soul together, bears the divine stamp.

War for the Planet of the Apes strikes at the heart of this intuition. For that reason, Christians should resist embracing this film and the larger franchise it comes from. We may understand that the idea of sentient apes is pure fiction. But as that teaser shows, the filmmakers do not take this assumption for granted. Their express purpose is to level the field between man and animal in this world as well as in the fictional world of the films.

This is why Christian reviews like this one, which awards a positive rating for showing “how all of us, when twisted by hate and fear and guilt, can become beasts,” don’t quite cut it. The film deserves more pushback. This isn’t meant as a hysterical call to boycott. On a technical level, we can appreciate the original (if not the sequels) as a solid piece of surrealist sci-fi. We can take notes from Andy Serkis’s acting master-class in the reboots. But if you do make a Planet of the Apes movie night with your teens, make time for some probing conversation afterwards too.

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  • john appleseed

    I also was disappointed in the pluggedin review (pluggedin is an entertainment reviewing website run by Focus on the Family).
    Sometimes they pretty much only count swear words, acts of violence, & sexual situations in a film, while downplaying or ignoring a film’s philosophical message.
    God made the world in six days. The creation of man was God’s final & ultimate work.
    I don’t advocate cruelty to animals, but they should never be considered anywhere near as important as people.

    • Esther O’Reilly

      I’ve collaborated with reviewer Paul Asay before and believe he’s a solid guy with his head screwed on straight. But the overall Plugged In “formula” can be insufficient at times. In fairness, they can be spot on when it comes to calling out pernicious worldview themes in film (particularly when it involves downplaying of sexual immorality). But I think everyone is letting this series off too easily.

    • Pigdowndog

      “God made the world in six days. The creation of man was God’s final & ultimate work. ”
      You do realise it’s 2017 and Darwin killed that notion stone dead don’t you?

      • Crossdive

        Actually Darwin recanted and embraced faith on his deathbed, and there’s tons of historical and scientific evidence to defend theism. Don’t let the media brainwash you into thinking science somehow debunked God, because it didn’t and can’t. You have a mind of your own, so always do the research for yourself and don’t believe the posturing heresay. Don’t even just assume I’m telling you the truth, either, go do the reading.

        • Pigdowndog

          “Actually Darwin recanted and embraced faith on his deathbed”
          That old chestnut was debunked by Darwin’s own children who were at his deathbed.
          The lie was told by Lady Hope (a religious nutter) who was never there.
          Darwin’s children publicly accused her of fabricating the story but she never responded.

          “there’s tons of historical and scientific evidence to defend theism.”
          Give me just one piece of testable evidence.

          “Don’t let the media brainwash ”
          Wonderful irony!

          “science somehow debunked God, because it didn’t and can’t.”
          Science isn’t in the least concerned with any god. They are irrelevant.

          “You have a mind of your own, so always do the research”
          I certainly have on both counts. Why do you think I’m an atheist?

          “Don’t even just assume I’m telling you the truth,
          Again, I certainly won’t. Provide the evidence.

    • Mr. Appleseed:

      Careful what you say about other animals. Like it or not, you are an animal, too. And all life on this planet is interconnected. Just because we think of ourselves as “important” in the arrogant sort of way that other animals do not, does not mean that everything would be hunky dory if we did away with them.

      • Crossdive

        Actually humans are not animals. That’s an evolutionary myth. I’d encourage you to research the subject for yourself and not just believe in what society tells you is ‘fashionable’ or allegedly ‘smart’. There’s tons of historical and scientific evidence for theism. Personally I think investigating the resurrection of Jesus is a good starting point, because if it’s unfounded then the entire Christian faith is nonsense, but if it is founded then disbelief in it can only be foolish at best.
        And any true researcher has to consider information from both believing and unbelieving sources. I’d recommend visiting aclearlens dot org for some starter info. The site ‘Answers in Genesis’ may be another to consider visiting.

        I’ve explored the arguments for and against. Will you?

        • Pigdowndog

          “humans are not animals.”
          We most certainly are animals. Primates in fact. Just another species of ape.

          ” That’s an evolutionary myth.”
          Please provide your evidence that debunks the theory of evolution.
          Do that and you’ll be in line for the Nobel Prize. Good luck with that!

          “I’d encourage you to research the subject for yourself and not just believe in what society tells you”
          “Society” doesn’t tell us that, science does and if you deny science then throw your computer in the rubbish bin as it’s a product of that discipline.

          “There’s tons of historical and scientific evidence for theism.”
          Present just one piece of testable evidence for any god you choose and you have a wide choice as there are millions of them.

          “I think investigating the resurrection of Jesus is a good starting point”
          No evidence whatsoever for that happening.

          “the entire Christian faith is nonsense,”

          “I’ve explored the arguments for and against. Will you?”
          I have and it’s superstitious nonsense.

          • Alex Redna

            The category of primates is just that, a theoretical category
            of biological thought. It’s an abstractum, not an concrete entity that exist (is perceivable) in the physical world. At best it
            describes a real existing relation between so called hominidea and homo sapiens, but it has no substance in itself. Just like if you look at a blue chair and the blue sky and you call them “caeruleo” (latin for “that which is blue”). There is a relation between the blue chair and the blue sky, namely the color, but there is no cearuleo as a thing.

          • Pigdowndog

            Nice word salad but it’s just nonsense.
            DNA links us with other primates.
            You, just like me and every single homo sapiens on Earth are one of a species of ape.
            Why does that bother you?

          • Alex Redna

            Well, I gues thats a form of admission that you didn’t understand a word I wrote. Otherwise you would have written “links us” as an attempt to counter my words.

            By the way, eating a pig does also “links” you to it (its molecules will probably layed into your adipose tissue) but it doesn’t make you a pig or the pig a human.

            “Primate” is a abstract thought construct. It does not exist in time and space. It doesn’t matter whether DNA “links” you to it (DNA btw links all lifeforms to an extend). It is yet an abstract concept of RELATION – a relation that in evolutionary terms happened millions of years ago – and not a physical, tangible reality here and today.

          • Alex Redna

            Correction: would NOT have written

          • Pigdowndog

            Another word salad that means nothing.
            We are linked by DNA to other apes and all your airy fairy nonsense doesn’t change that.

          • Alex Redna

            It’s called epistemology and theory of science. But you wouldn’t know that, lacking a High School diploma. I’d advise you to get your GED before engaging in conversation but as you claim to be a monkey, never mind.

            No biologist believes “primate” is more than what it is, a classification, a thought category, describing chiefly zoological similarities in the pheno-type. As in every scientific subject, they are the result of a scientific discourse and these classifications may change over time, and there is always disent. These classifications describe chiefly zoological similarities, not DNA similarities. Genetics IS part of biology, but it is not zoology. And the kingdom of “animalia”, the zoological class of “mammals”, the order of primates, the genus of “homo”, the species of homo sapiens are classifications of zoology and not of genetics. Genetics (the geno-type) can aid zoology (which researches the pheno-type) but the classifications are zoological terms. For example, a dog is genetically a wolf (canis lupus), but because of his different appearance in the pheno-type he is given an own “sub-category” (canis familiaris or canis lupus familiaris) called sub-species. There is no formal genetic reason for this, but there are zoological reasons. Of course, you won’t get it…

            These are all just theoretical constructs to order knowledge according to criteria, compromises of scientific discussions, not tangible entities in itself.

            Go, eat your banana.

          • Pigdowndog

            “Of course, you won’t get it…”
            Irony at its very best.
            We are primates, get over it.

          • Alex Redna

            Well, at least I know how to formulate a logical argument, while you don’t.

          • Pigdowndog

            You really are confused if you think that mate!!
            You haven’t got a clue.
            “Great apes including humans are all in the same primate family, called the Hominidae”
            BBC Nature.
            I’ve kept it simple so you might understand.
            Keep up.

          • Alex Redna

            Well, at least I know how to read a sentence, while you don’t.

            Explain your understanding of this sentence:
            ” the category of hominidea, which – as an abstract, logical class (!) based on zoological criteria – includes apes and humans”

          • Pigdowndog

            Primates; mammals.
            The two suborders recognized today are Strepsirrhini (lemurs and lorises) and Haplorrhini (tarsiers, monkeys, and apes, including humans).

            Plain and simple. No need for a rambling nonsensical word salad.
            We are apes. Why does that bother you?

          • Alex Redna

            I give you a hint, if it “includes” something, namely “humans”, how could it be a substancial, tangible being or object at the same time? And as such an object, at the very same time also being identical to “humans”?

            It is a “logical class”!

          • Alex Redna

            One more thing: You believe “ape” was a species and you’re from the species of ape??

          • Pigdowndog

            Everyone is the same species as a chimpanzee as everyone is an ape.
            What’s the problem?

          • Alex Redna

            Your lack of knowledge. Maybe you are in the species of chimpanzee, but not us humans.

            The classification of chimpanzee:












            Pan troglodytes

            So you are not a “homo sapiens sapiens” but a “pan troglodytes”? Alright! That’s all I wanted to know! As a pan troglodytes, you may call yourself ape and chimpanzee, but please don’t call yourself human as that’s not what you are if you are member of the species pan troglodytes.

          • Pigdowndog

            You seem to have a bad case of clutchingatstrawitis mate.
            We are related to all life forms.
            Chimpanzees happen to be our closest relative.
            Get over it.

          • Alex Redna

            Conjecture and changed definitions (now its about ‘relation’, earlier it was ‘substancial being’)? Really sad.

            You know what, I’ll try it again. Very slowly…

            The actual, physical relation (common ancestry) btw lies in the past. You get it? It ‘IS not but it once ‘WAS’, with no functional relation TODAY. And it’s theoretical classification in the books is a matter of scientific discussion and the definitions also differ in some countries (China for example has a different classification, in German “ape” (“Affe”) denotes all monkeys and hominidea minus homo, while “humanid-ape” (German: “Menschenaffe”) is the synonymous for the category of hominidea, which – as an abstract, logical class (!) based on zoological criteria – includes apes and humans). There is no more meaning or tangibility (in the present) or functional relation in these categories/classes as in the category of “physical object once touched by Elvis Presley”. The elements in it are tangible but the class itself is not tangible. The relation between the elements of the class happened in the past (it is not a physical reality anymore).

            While it is permissable in colloquial language (!) to form a sentence like “a human IS a primate”, you denoted it wrongly in the following explanations – you explicated it was a state of physical being. It is therefore necessary to use correct language. The correct sentence is: “x is an ELEMENT of class y”, “a human is an element of (or part of) the class (of) primates”, but it is incorrect and scientifically untrue to say “human is physically identical to primate”, because “primate” has no physical reality in itself, as it is a logical class that consists of different elements (chimpanzees, humans, gorillas… these elements, unlike the class “primate”, HAVE a physical reality) which differ in their physically measurable properties, got it?, and “human is definitory identical to primate” is also an untrue statement, as the definitions differ. The be quite precise, you would also have to add: The class of primates is a thought construct that changed over time in it’s domain of function or definition. It also differs up to this day, as different biologists might also have different opinions about it today. This is called scientific majority opinion and scientific minority opinion or dissent.

  • Zmirak

    I thought that the Colonel was the hero. He was clearly correct in his assessment of the situation. He was Steve Bannon, tragically cut down in his prime.

    • Esther O’Reilly

      #troll #hijohn

  • Az1seeit

    From the beginning when I saw the first POTA movie – I’m thinking it was a drive-in theater, actually – I didn’t get it at all! Why in the world humanize apes!? Since then I’ve just ignored them and was flabbergasted they brought the concept back. I see exactly what you mean re the agenda, Ms. O’reilly, and I’m still incredulous that this would appeal to anyone, especially the inherent self-hatred in the anti-human theme.

  • Pigdowndog

    ” We may understand that the idea of sentient apes is pure fiction”

    We are apes!

  • Relax, it’s just fantasy.

  • Paul

    About the most time I’ll waste on this movie or the series is this thread

  • BTP

    I plan to go and cheer like mad for the humans!

  • chrisleonard

    Hi Esther! So what I’d like to know is this. Nobody gets upset about the personification of animals in Charlotte’s Web, Peanuts, Animal Farm, the Lord of the Rings, or Mister Ed. So what if we put that detail aside for the sake of playing ape’s advocate for a moment. Even if this movie did have a deliberate worldview agenda promoting evolutionism, and even if the film’s marketing staff were transparent enough to include voiceover from Jane Goodall in a promo spot, that doesn’t mean that they succeed in hiding truths of Christian pedigree. This movie asks a LOT of questions that are worth discussing, at least some of which the Church doesn’t have a great history of addressing. For example: What kind of sacrifice would you be willing to make to save your people? What makes an action humane or beastly? What virtues are shared between man and beast, and which are distinctly human or animal? How do Biblical themes hold up the main infrastructure of this movie’s plot and characters?

    In a fallen world, why would we assume that God would never consider a movie like this to be a fitting reprimand to humanity: “I gave you this world to fill, subdue, and cultivate, but you have instead subdued each other and subjugated all else. Let me remind you of who you are supposed to be.”

    I think that this movie doesn’t have to be seen as teaching anything about a moral equivalence of people and animals. If you believe, as I do, that humans are under unique ethical and moral obligations, then an interesting take on this movie is to assume that the moral message of the film is directed at people. It cannot turn beasts into people, but it can encourage people to act humanely.

    I have just become aware of your writing today (on FB), and really respect what I have read so far. I really wish we could get a group together and sit down to discuss this! Short of that, I will look forward to any reply you might be kind enough to offer.

  • Crossdive

    I appreciate your premise and see a degree of validity in your concern, but I also think you’re taking it a bit far in places, and moreso, you don’t have the right to tell Christians they ‘should resist embracing the franchise’. It’s GOD’S job to guide and direct his kids in telling us what to do, not yours or mine. We have the right to share our opinions, we have the privilege of coming alongside each other to lovingly suggest things or share insights and receive insights back. We don’t get to say ‘Christians should do what I’m doing or they’re wrong’. The real question is ‘are we doing what the Father is doing’ (that’s how Jesus operated, after all)? I have some complaints and reservations about the Apes trilogy, but I also found good and edifying elements, and that’s between God and me. He speaks to me with movies a lot because he’s my Dad and knows I love them and have a gifting for the arts. It’s ok if you don’t work the same way, but let’s not share opinions as though we are the final, infalliable authority on something so subjective. 😉

  • Alex Redna

    There’s also Hollywood propaganda for interspecies “romance”. This movie series goes in the same direction. It also subvertes family and blood relationship (the girl in the movie is scripted not to mourn the murder of her father by the apes, but to mourn the death of his murderer, a gorilla), as the viewers are conditioned to side with the apes instead of their own kind. It is dehumanizing or anti-human, as actual humans are dehumanized (by portraying them as evil, only the pro-ape humans are considered good) and non-humans are humanized. The message is, not all humans are worthy to be treated as humans, but some non-humans (today: animals, in the future maybe: products of genetic experiments, artificial intelligence etc.) are to be considered human, if it serves the liberal and trans-/post-human agenda. Only those who agree with or submit to the liberal values and agenda are humans. And we all know that this agenda changes every few years at the hand of the liberal elite and that the left has committed unspeakable crimes (like 100,000,000 deaths at the hand of socialism, to name just the worst).

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