By Sarah Jost
Never one to turn down a themed marathon, last week I gamely agreed to watch the original 1968 Planet of the Apes with my mum before going to see the new Rise of the Planet of the Apes in theatres. I figured they would be a fairly mindless, corny sci-fi and a gratuitous summer blockbuster, respectively. Yet about thirty minutes in, Planet of the Apes was addressing big ethical and philosophical questions.
When captured by horse-riding apes on a faraway planet, Charlton Heston’s character Taylor is shot in the neck, rendering him speechless. Believing him to be just another ‘dumb’ human, the sophisticated apes lock him up with other humans they have imprisoned for manual labor and medical and scientific experimentation. No matter how hard Taylor tries to prove his intelligence, the apes scoff at the idea of another reasoning sentient being besides themselves.
After being subjected to life in a cage, being walked on a leash, and near castration, Taylor finally escapes and begins to search for another habitable area of the planet to live. (**SPOILER ALERT**) On his journey, he encounters a jarring and unbelievable sight: the Statue of Liberty. He was on Earth all along. Humans had finally destroyed themselves and the planet, leaving apes to take over.
While the 1968 film addresses broad ethical topics from what it means to be human to warfare to religion (the apes adamantly quote scripture), the 2011 film focuses on humans’ god complex in relation to modern medicine as well as the realities of animal testing.
The film opens with chimpanzees being captured in the wild to be sold to pharmaceutical companies for drug testing. In the decades before chimpanzees were declared endangered, approximately 6,000 wild chimpanzees were captured (usually by shooting mother chimpanzees in order to take their babies) in West Africa to be sold to the biomedical research industry. It is estimated that for every one chimpanzee successfully exported, 5-10 were killed. The chimpanzees population in Africa has gone from several million to less than 200,000 over the past 50 years.
Will (James Franco) is testing a drug to cure Alzheimer’s disease on chimpanzees. When one is orphaned, Will takes him home only to learn that the chimpanzee (Caesar) has developed increased intelligence as a side effect of the drug. As Caesar gets older, he is confronted with feeling trapped in the human world yet not quite a human with no other apes to interact with. He is also devastated to learn that his mother was killed in a laboratory.
There are currently about 1,000 chimpanzees, and over 211,350 primates in total, in laboratories across the United States, the only developed country in the world where this is still legal. Chimpanzees are used for everything from head injury experiments to space research to hepatitis and AIDS research, which necessitates them being isolated from other chimpanzees indoors for the remainders of their lives. Other primates are subjected to similar experimentation, as well as food, drug, and cosmetic tests which include Whole Body, Short-term Toxicity, Skin Penetration, Skin Irritancy, Eye irritancy, Skin Sensitization, Phototoxicity & Photosensitisation, Mutagenicity, Carcinogenicity, Reproductive Toxicity, Teratogenicity and Finished Product Testing. During Draize eye irritancy tests, substances such as shampoos, cosmetics, pesticides, weed-killers, household products, and riot control gases are put into animals’ eyes.
The Humane Society of the United States has a great resource page wherein you can take action against the abuses occurring in animal testing and research. You can visit the site and send letters here.
The Rise of the Planet of the Apes not only shows the suffering of these animals, but takes it one step further by imagining what the apes would do if they could fight back. (**SPOILER ALERT**) The film’s poignant answer was escape. After providing the same drug he was administered to the rest of the primates at the facility where he is being kept, Caesar leads a reconnaissance operation to free primates from research laboratories and the zoo in San Francisco. Rather than amassing an army to retaliate against humans for the suffering they inflicted, Caesar simply wants to lead everyone to a life of freedom in the Redwoods.
I truly hope they make another film that bridges the gap between Rise of the Planet of the Apes and the original that does them both justice. At a time when it is easy to make a great deal of money from an inane film with raunchy humour and big explosions, it was surprising and powerful that they chose to give Rise of the Planet of the Apes a more thoughtful and meaningful basis, just like the original.
Two final notes: I was a little worried that James Franco would soon fail to live up to his own hype (a fear exacerbated by his horrendous turn at the Oscars), but he delivered a great, genuine performance. You’re safe for now, Franco. Keep it up. Also, it is commendable and incredibly impressive that the animals in Rise of the Planet of the Apes were all computer-generated. Just look at the ape costumes in the original to see how far technology has come in the 43 years. If the movie’s ending has any real implications, which it most certainly does, we’d better be careful.