The Pernicious Legacy of 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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