By: Bharathkumar Sriram
Framing Humanity in an Apocalyptic World
In 2011, Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes rebooted the Planet of the Apes series. The reboot tells the story of Caesar, an ape who attains a human level of intelligence as a side-effect of an experimental Alzheimer’s drug. Will, the scientist leading the project to develop this drug at Gen-Sys, adopts Caesar. Under Will’s care, Caesar grows in the suburbs with Will’s father, Charles. Caesar interacts with a society of humans around him, slowly unveiling their innate cruelty and mistreatment of animals. To break free from this mistreatment, Caesar releases the drug developed by Will, creating an army of apes to fight against human society. The end of humanity is further accelerated by a new virus (the Simian Flu), which affects only humans. The sequels, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and War for the Planet of the Apes, continue the story of the new ape society. These films are driven by the conflict between the apes and the last few strongholds of humanity.
One of the central questions the trilogy posits is “What defines humanity?” Unlike traditional apocalyptic narratives, which revolve around a band of humans working to restore humanity, Planet of the Apes subverts this by driving humanity to complete extinction. The trilogy urges us to cheer for humanity’s downfall and its replacement by the new apes’ civilisation. These films beg the viewers to question whether or not the apes can truly replace humanity and, in extension, what are the intrinsic and extrinsic factors that define humans.
Beyond looking at what constitutes humanity, the storyline of Dawn and War is driven by the formation of the new ape society. This narrative posits a second question: “Can we build a society devoid of moral corruption?” Dawn begins by reframing the movie’s narrative around the new apes’ civilisation, making them a stand-in for humanity. The audience is urged to believe in the possibility of building a society free from moral bankruptcy under Caesar’s leadership and incorruptibility. However, Dawn and War shatter these expectations. The evil and ugliness of the ape society are brought to the forefront, repeating past errors.
Through these observations, the trilogy begs the question: Was the ape civilisation doomed to revert to the status quo of the old human society? The distinction between humans and animals and what constitutes human nature and human goodness is examined by Christopher Tollefson in ‘Human Nature and Its Limits’. This essay will analyse how the rebooted Planet of the Apes series discusses humanity and inherent human goodness through the lens of Tollefson. I argue that the trilogy shows that the inherent pursuit of knowledge for societal benefit leads to technological advancements leads to destroying the very foundations that promote human goodness, as seen through the lens of Tollefson.
Questioning Apes as Humanity’s Second Coming
A significant conflict in Caesar’s character arc in Rise is the disjunct between his human-like intelligence and the animal-like treatment he receives from the humans around him. As a subject of human experimentation, Caesar was imbued with the intelligence of a human. However, the humans around Caesar treat him like just another animal. In Rise, Caesar becomes conscious of his indignity and animacy when he observes a dog being walked on a leash, not unlike himself.
Rise first begins by positioning Caesar side-by-side with humans. In ‘Going Ape: Animacy and affect in Rise of the Planet of the Apes’, Thomas J. West III examines how different aspects of humans are imbued into Caesar to transit him from animal to human in the audience’s eyes. West breaks it into two main factors: language and aesthetics.
West views language as a tool to “rigorously police the barrier between animals and humans” (West III, 2011). He argues that the defining moment of Caesar’s transition from animal to human is him defiantly screaming “NO!” (Wyatt, 2009) to Dodge, the sadistic caretaker of the animal sanctuary, as he is about to harm him physically. West further directs us to the use of motion-capture as a technique that allows for more extraordinary ‘dexterity and complexity in Caesar’s characterisation’ (West III, 2011) compared to prosthetics. These allow the audience to draw a more visual and auditory connection between Caesar and humans, reaching ‘beyond the species boundary that separates human from nonhuman.’ (West III, 2011)
Beyond extrinsic factors, Rise works on building the intrinsic factors of a human into Caesar: the ‘human nature. Tollefson breaks down human nature into two identities: the animal and practical. The animal identity is built on Sigmund Freud’s concept of id, which is defined as the ‘primitive and instinctive component of personality (Freud, 1923). Tollefson expands upon this, defining animal identity as the awareness of one’s ‘bodily organism’ (Tollefson, 2009), which embodies the awareness of the physical self. This encompasses the awareness of physical needs, such as hunger and thirst, and emotions, such as anger and happiness.
The practical identity is defined as the ‘non-bodily (identity)’ (Tollefson 2009). The defining component of this practical identity is the ‘capacity to reason’, where Tollefson says:
…human nature includes not just what is given in human existence but also … the horizon of reasons that orients what any individual human being can become (Tollefson, 2009).
Tollefson argues that this capacity to reason can bring humans beyond acting on just their physical needs. To sustain this practical identity, humans begin to scour what Tollefson calls ‘basic goods’, which are the fundamental needs for humans’ well-being. These goods include friendship, knowledge and health. In one’s pursuit of these, they will be exuding goodness to the people around them, positively impacting their society, showing how human nature can promote goodness.
This pursuit heavily inspires the unifying ideology of the new ape civilisation. In Dawn, we see this ideology in stone:
APE NOT KILL APE
APES TOGETHER STRONG
KNOWLEDGE IS POWER
The implied camaraderie, pacifism and innovation is shown in action as well. We see the apes hunt together, learn together, and even come to each others’ aid, such as when the community rallies around Caesar and his wife during the birth of his son, Cornelius. These show a civilisation developing in the pursuit of these basic goods.
Degradation of Authenticity
A caveat to the continued preservation of the practical identity is technological enhancements. Using friendships as an example, Tollefson elaborates that:
(basic) goods such as friendship, virtue, good character, integrity, and the like, is that all require, in order to be genuine, acts of the will. True friendship cannot be downloaded, uploaded, or installed, for true friends make mutual commitments to one another’s goods, and no genuine commitment can be made by anyone except the agents in question (Tollefson, 2009).
To Tollefson, enhancements such as cellphones modify the means by which we pursue basic goods. He argues that pursuing basic goods via these enhancements removes the original intimacy of goods such as friendships, which are now pursued behind these enhancements rather than physical and psychological proximity. This creates inauthenticity in the pursuit leading to the degradation of our practical identities.
Rise explores the impacts of this inauthenticity via Gen-Sys, a large pharmaceutical company. While Gen-Sys paints itself as an entity promoting innovation and health, its actions show a willingness to prioritise profits over ethics and morality. The opening scene of Rise shows the indiscriminate murder of Bright Eyes, Caesar’s mother, by employees of Gen-Sys when she attempts to protect her newborn son. It shows the humans lack of proper reasoning and disregard for their subjects. This is further cemented by rampant mistreatment of other test subjects. Koba, an ape who later becomes Caesar’s closest ally, was subjected to human experimentation, leaving him scarred and disfigured. This mistreatment, while inherently cruel, is justified as a necessity in the pursuit of basic goods. We see how an entity claiming to pursue basic goods has become numb to the cruelty it inflicts on its environment, showing the inauthenticity of the pursuit of basic goods and its moral bankruptcy.
Ironically, the practical identity’s capacity to reason drives the very enhancements that lead to the identity’s degradation. This degradation is further spurred due to the pursuit of basic goods, specifically knowledge and innovation. Hence, Rise serves as a case study on how the same elements of human nature would slowly result in moral bankruptcy and cruelty seeping into society, arguing against inherent human goodness.
Dawn and War further show this degradation via enhancements. In these films, technological development is always juxtaposed with the presentation of indiscriminate violence and aggression. This is best shown via Koba’s hostile attack on the human stronghold in Dawn and Caesar’s pursuit of revenge against the human army in War.
In Dawn, the apes are first shown using simple tools, such as spears and arrows, showing the industrious and innovative nature of the apes. When the apes stumble into a group of humans, Koba shows hints of suspicion and hostility towards them. He refuses to acknowledge their offer of peace and even chastises Caesar for entertaining their requests, stating, “Caesar love human more than ape!” (Reeves, 2014). This eventually results in an all-out war between apes and humans, with Koba exercising indiscriminate violence against the humans on top of a tank while equipping an assault rifle, a stark technological development from the simple weapons at the start of the film.
War furthers this relationship between enhancements and practical identity. When Caesar’s son is killed by Colonel J. Wesley, leader of the human paramilitary cell, Caesar abandons his initial principles of non-instigation to seek out the human stronghold for revenge. This is driven not by rationality but by rage. Another one of Caesar’s closest allies, Maurice, notes Caesar’s irrationality, telling Caesar, ‘You sound like Koba’ (Reeves, 2017). This loss of rationality is symbolised by Caesar slinging an assault rifle as he begins his quest, an enhancement from his original arsenal of spears in Dawn.
Re-Emergence of the Animal Identity
If the inauthenticity of enhancements leads to the degradation of the practical identities, a logical follow-up will be the re-emergence of the animal identity. Hence, humans would act more in accordance with their physical being and needs rather than reason beyond it. Rise addresses this via imbuing animalistic traits into its human characters, a topic that is not extensively studied in current literature. One key example is Douglas, Will’s neighbour, defined by his violent and spontaneous outbursts of rage. Douglas’ and Caesar’s humanity is juxtaposed during Charles’ mental breakdown. While Caesar shows utmost care and compassion for Charles, Douglas is impatient and hot-headed, violently assaulting Charles during his psychological breakdown. The incident shows Douglas’ inability to distinguish one’s mental state from physical actions, contradicting the rationality of the practical identity and showing its absence within Will.
Dawn and War further argue that the animal identity can overpower the practical even in the absence of enhancements. We see the reintroduction of the animal identity into the new apes’ civilisation during Koba’s and Casear’s rampage. It is important to note that Koba and Caesar were driven not by intentional villainy but by primal feelings of hatred, fear and rage. Rather than adopting rationality, they chose to follow through with these primal emotions. Ironically, Caesar and Koba are driven by love and camaraderie, the same values built into their civilisation’s ideology, as they revert to their animal identity. Hence, even in the absence of enhancements, animal identity plays a significant role in driving humanity’s actions.
What is the Fate of Humanity?
A pivotal moment in War is Caesar reclaiming his practical identity by first abandoning his bloodlust and leading his civilisation to out of the woods to their new residence. This is further cemented by his removal of the assault rifle, utilising simple tools to evade the humans rather than attack. Only then could Caesar reconcile his human nature and lead the apes to the Oasis, ushering the civilisation’s new beginning.
War ends with optimism, showing apes rejoicing in their new land and Caesar dying with contentment. The audience is given hope that this new civilisation will grow into a robust and stable society that continues its benign ideology. However, the trilogy shows the fundamental gaps in human nature prevent goodness in the long run. As viewed through Tollefson, the very capacity to reason that imbues our humanity can lead to its degradation. Through the lens of Tollefson, it would only be fair to expect the new civilisation to once again fall into moral bankruptcy and corruption even in pursuing moral goodness.
From this analysis, we see that human goodness is not inherent but a trait acquired from our surroundings. Understanding this allows us to better frame morality and ethics in humanity.
Freud, S. (1923). The Ego and the Id. Internationaler Psycho- analytischer Verlag (Vienna), W. W. Norton & Company.
Reeves, M. (2014, June 26). Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. 20th Century Fox.
Reeves, M. (2017, July 10). War for the Planet of the Apes. 20th Century Fox.
Thomas J. West III (2019): Going Ape: Animacy and affect in Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), New Review of Film and Television Studies, 236 – 253 https://doi.org/10.1080/17400309.2019.1602980
Tollefsen C. (2009) Human Nature and Its Limits. In M.J. Cherry (Ed.) The Normativity of the Natural (pp.17-31), Dordrecht: Springer, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-90-481-2301-8_2
Wyatt, R. (2011, August 5). Rise of the Planet of the Apes. 20th Century Fox.