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Apes, humans, and the evolution of misanthropy

Aaron S. Bayley

Standing on the corner of civilization

There's a time there's a place for me

In a world where I can't be found

Cold and mean people give me the creeps

"Naked in the Rain" by Red Hot Chili Peppers

Since chimpanzees are our second cousin, I've always been fascinated by the various Planet of the Apes films, all of which had something interesting to offer.

The 1968 original, based on a novel by Pierre Boulle and starring Charlton Heston and Roddie McDowall, seems a bit dated today, but it was the first to put the idea of inverting the relationship between apes and humans, so that the former were the superior species, onto the big screen and into the public consciousness. The gorillas, representing the military, rode on horseback and were menacing and brutish; the orangutans were administrators and politicians; the chimps were scientists and intellectuals. Humans were meek, pathetic creatures used for slave labour and scientific experiments. Later in the film, it is discovered that humans once were the peak of civilization, but their self-destructive tendencies annihilated the world and paved the way for the apes to surpass them. The anti-war and anti-violence themes suited the times: after all, 1968 was the year of an ongoing anti-war movement; an ideological war against Marxism and a real one against the Vietcong, student strikes in New York and San Francisco, violent clashes between rioters and police armed with batons and tear gas, and the King and Kennedy assassinations. Upon hearing of King's death, Robert Kennedy implored Americans to "tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world." The warnings of the film paralleled those in real life. Yet even though we are told of mankind's destructive behaviour, all human wrongdoing is kept off-screen, rationalized as being part of an unfortunate past. The film still causes us to sympathize with the humans. 

In Tim Burton's 2001 "reimagining" of the original, the apes are even more cunning, intimidating, and vicious: Thade's army is downright fascist and humans are made more sympathetic. Mark Wahlberg is fine as the headstrong American Leo Davidson and Tim Roth and Michael Clarke Duncan are imposing as the Hitleresque General Thade and Colonel Attar, respectively. 

In Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a "reboot" of the original film, full-fledged misanthropy finally rears its head. The story relocates from New York to San Francisco, swapping the iconic Statue of Liberty for the grandiose Golden Gate Bridge. The CGI effects in the film are outstanding--the levels of emotion the chimpanzee Casesar is able to portray result in a deeply moving conflicted, sentient being. But the new Apes film is notable for its unmistakeable misanthropic tone (following in the footsteps of Peter Jackson's District 9 and James Cameron's Avatar, both of which portray humans as aggressors and oppressors to such an extent that the audience is inclined to root for their demise). Save for the scientist Will Rodman (played by James Franco), his assistant, his ailing father, and his girlfriend, this film is bereft of likeable human characters. Rodman's irritable neighbour, his money-hungry boss, the unsympathetic owner and masochistic guard of the primate facility where Caesar and the rest of the apes are physically and emotionally abused, and the law enforcement officers, are all painted as villains. What's more, Casesar's refusal to kill or use extreme violence towards those who mistreated him is juxtaposed with the seemingly arbitrary actions of the police. 

The film's shortcoming is that it ignores the sociopolitical undercurrents of the previous films and instead addresses the ethics behind genetic engineering and animal testing. But perhaps this is what gives it a license to hate. In the wake of severe economic crises, mass riots and revolution, government cuts to social services, moral failings of politicians, worsening police brutality, and heightening breaches of civil liberties, it's no wonder that feelings of distrust and antipathy towards people and institutions wielding power are at a boiling point. Greedy corporations and power-tripping police officers make convenient targets. In the film, it's humans, not the apes, who turn violent and wage war. The primates are simply trying to get back to their natural habitat. They are shown to be thoughtful, resourceful, intelligent, and capable of empathy, making it impossible not to root for them, even at the expense of the disposable human villains. The film fantasizes about a world where chimps outsmart humans; it's a misanthropist's utopia. 

Almost twenty years ago, Anthony Keidis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers sang, "losing my taste for the human race." So are many others.


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