This week, I treated myself to not one but two excellent films newly released in cinemas, and still didn’t manage to see everything I wanted to watch, and so for now will have to forego the apparently brilliant documentary “The Interrupters.” Instead, I chose to see two films which both take as their central concern the consideration of the link between the simian and the homo-sapiens, or apes and humans: “Project Nim” and “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.”
This link between humanity and the great apes is the most fascinating and predominant field of human consideration of the animal kingdom for both biological and philosophical reasons. The latter stems from the former, namely that apes are our closest living ancestor, and like humans possess the opposable thumbs that enable the manipulation of tools, one of the major forces which allowed mankind to become the planet’s dominant species, and so to observe the behaviour and potential of apes is to observe a part of the origin of our own species’ evolution into the lords of the earth. Yet the strength of this close relationship has inspired some troubling philosophical queries revolving around primal animalism and the intellect of consciousness. It is our unique consciousness that separates humanity from the rest of the animal kingdom, and has allowed us to develop the intelligence, the culture and most importantly the communicative complexity to command the natural world according to our own desires. Should apes develop similar levels of consciousness, they could potentially conquer us through their similar inherent adeptness at utilizing tools and of course their greater bodily strength. Consider only the profound revelation in the “Dawn of Man” sequence in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” in which the evolutionary jump from ape to man purely on the level of intelligence is symbolized by one ape’s realization that the objects of his environment can be manipulated to create tools which will provoke mastery of his environment, and crucially the tool he creates is a weapon. This of course fundamentally relates to the fear of the bestial potential that exists in all of us, certainly if “The Naked Ape” is to be believed. Without the aspiration to moral and intellectual betterment our consciousness is inherently geared towards, what would separate our most animalistic behaviour and primal urges from that of the beasts of the animal kingdom we consider to be so much less intelligent than ourselves? There are many examples in the world of this terrifying surrender to our base destructive savagery, not least the atrocious actions of the rioters across the UK last week. It is hard to see many of those images and not liken the culprits to a pack of wild, thoughtless animals, and this is so much more troubling than any socio-economic explanation of what took place.
Of course “Project Nim” and “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” though both films offer complex and eloquent discourses upon the potential humanity within our simian cousins and the disastrous consequences of amoral scientific research and experimentation upon apes, are two very different beasts. One is a documentary, the other a narrative film; one is aimed at a niche audience composed of spectators with particular scientific or cinematic interests, and the other is a fantasy action film aimed at a mainstream, multiplex crowd. However, the similarities between the two opposing pieces is so close as to defy the coincidence of their opening in the same week, and “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” must clearly have been made with knowledge of the results of the Project Nim experiment. Both films open with the removal of a chimp from its natural environment, a fundamental destruction of the animal’s natural development even if, in both cases, the scientific purpose of acquiring the apes would seemingly justify the removal of the creature from the world it is genetically wired to exist within (one a long-term linguistic enquiry, the other a search for an Alzheimer’s cure): in both cases, the role of human cruelty in the ape’s journey towards humanity is ironically and disturbingly clear. In both films the ape is encouraged to form emotional bonds with its human carers, and they with it, only for the animal to again be wrenched from the comfort of an adopted family. In both cases, the apes are subjected to hostile and inhuman captivity within a caged environment, and to potentially harmful scientific experimentation. In both cases the intellectual capability of the ape is rigorously tested to a degree which paradoxically negatively impacts the animal’s health and well-being. Finally, in both films the apes rise against their human carers/tormentors: spectacularly in a rebellious uprising in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” and much more subtly yet just as emotionally destructively in “Project Nim,” when the titular chimp variously harms the humans who it senses are about to, or already have, abandoned him.
The major difference in the approach of the two films is in the elements of consciousness they choose to explore in the respective chimp protagonists of Nim and Caesar. In “Project Nim,” the eponymous ape’s name is a pun on the linguist/philosopher Noam Chomsky, and the research experiment itself was launched with the purpose of disproving Chomsky’s theory that only humans were capable of communicating using language. Dr Herbert Terrace, who initiated the experiment, was ultimately dissatisfied with Nim’s progress over the years and discontinued it: he concluded that although Nim had cultivated a quite extensive signing vocabulary he could not string this into sophisticated syntax, and thus could never hope to replicate human communicative complexity. Yet the way Terrace conducted the experiment was incredibly damaging to the chimp in ways beyond the fact that ending the experiment doomed the chimp to an existence first of laboratory experimentation and later isolated captivity. Firstly, by raising the chimp in conditions to make the animal accept a human existence triggered a genuine sense of anxiety and confusion in the creature as bit by bit he is forcibly reverted back to the life of an animal. Secondly, by becoming sexually involved with numerous figures on the project Terrace complicated the social existence of the animal and provoked yet further confusion in the creature. The documentary never explicitly states as much, but the detachment used in presenting interviews with those associated with Project Nim in a dispassionate manner allows the viewer to assess the facts objectively, and it is our conclusion to draw that the psychological damage inflicted upon Nim was a result of social confusion and relentless sign language education. It is this damage which is partly to blame for the occasional violent savagery of the animal towards his human carers, yet is it not also a testament to the fact that the ape simply cannot shrug off his bestial nature. The sign language Nim adopts is impressive, but its usage barely stretches beyond the primal satisfaction of basic urges and desires, such as food. Yet the behavioural instincts and indeed emotions Nim develops are ultimately all too human: when in captivity he is visited by his first maternal figure, a woman who quite selfishly and irresponsibly took in the chimp, encapsulating the obliviousness to the consequences of actions the fast deteriorating hippy movement at that time, Nim viciously attacks but leaves the woman alive. Nim is almost punishing her for leaving him at the mercy of those less interested in aiding his harmonious existence.
In the spirit of the philosophical and political undertones of the best installments of the “Planet of the Apes” series, “Rise” takes an impressively dramatic and indeed existential approach to exploring the titular rebellion of intellectually superior apes against the cruelty of humanity, yet the great narrative and stylistic achievement of the piece is to simultaneously remake and reimagine the previous films, relating specifically of course to “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes.” The film’s analysis of the simian tendency towards human consciousness is here also profoundly cinematic, revolving as it does around Andy Serkis’ motion capture performance as Caesar: a metaphor in itself for the human traits potentially present in apes. That a debate exists as to whether Serkis should receive more attention come awards season for his motion capture work is frankly irrelevant next to the fact that the versatile and extraordinary actor has single-handedly legitimized this technology. Motion capture ought only to be used to allow actors to portray non-human entities, and I can never fully accept it until it is able to suspend my disbelief more completely: yet in this case the fact that I was aware of watching an actor’s performance as opposed to a trained ape plays to the film’s advantage and purpose. Not only does the performance of a human being help the filmmakers to blur the line between simian and homo-sapien, it allows for the dramatic, psychological and emotional progression of Caesar through the events of the narrative to acquire true existential resonance: by the time Serkis as Caesar has learned to solve puzzles, engage meaningfully with his adopted family, question his own existence and his species’ place in the planet’s natural order, and inaugurate a scarily effective liberation movement, the film has fully earned the otherwise hysterical reveal of Caesar’s acquisition of the power of speech. Rather, instead of being ridiculous this reveal, coming after Tom Felton is gifted with the iconic Heston line of dialogue, is quite an astonishingly shattering moment. More penetrative and eerie still is when Caesar, after becoming the catalyst of the ape rebellion, undergoes a remarkably human development as a wartime leader, at first spurning violence and death but later advocating it when he sees the fear and barbarism of humanity when threatened. As chilling as the use not of spectacular strength but of superior tactical prowess to defeat the human forces is, the moment when Caesar allows a vicious chimp to exact personal vengeance upon David Oyelowo’s unscrupulous corporate scientist is far more disturbing, representing as it does not an ape submitting to its bestial state, but more a creature having attained a state of near humanity realizing the dark lust for violent retribution that lurks troublingly within us all.
Crikey. Maybe it’s because I’ve been selective in my choices of what to see, but this summer seems to have yielded some pretty impressive mainstream fare. “Super 8” was a flawed but valiant attempt to revive a retro era of genre filmmaking, the new Harry Potter film was actually quite good, and the seventh film in the hit-and-miss-at-best “Planet of the Apes” franchise is perhaps the most complex and philosophically intriguing film of the lot. The fact that it’s part of a well-established series means this is hardly the dawn of better times at the multiplex, but if every derivative spin-off feature is handled with the same care and intelligence as this film I really wouldn’t mind so much about Hollywood’s bewildering aversion to creative risk and originality.