Of apes and man

Being kind even to insects can teach children the value of compassion. Photo: Lisa Eastman
Being kind even to insects can teach children the value of compassion. Photo: Lisa Eastman
Published October 14, 2014

Andy Serkis, who plays the leader of intelligent apes in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, says that “the heart of the story is about…family, empathy, prejudice and tribalism.” And, he’s right. Those elements of the film-before it inevitably segues into the pyrotechnics that dominate all big-budget commercial movies nowadays-are what make it worth seeing.

Action films and computer-generated effects are a dime a dozen; but what really makes an impression are stories about the human condition. In effect, the 46-year-old Apes franchise divides the human condition into two (armed) camps: human beings and anthropomorphized apes. Here, apes have gained intelligence and a rudimentary grasp of human speech, as a byproduct of drug tests that aimed to find a treatment for Alzheimer’s and that instead spawned a lethal epidemic that has devastated human civilization.

Serkis’s character, named “Caesar” by the human who raised him, leads a society of apes in a redwood forest near San Francisco. Their overriding commandment is: “Apes not kill apes”; and their guiding philosophy is expressed in just three words: “Home, Family, Future”-words, surely, that encapsulate what’s most important in our lives, too. But fear, hatred, aggression, betrayal and violation of the injunction not to kill all follow hard on the return of humans (who want to reactivate a hydroelectric dam situated in the apes’ territory). Past contact between the species has been difficult, to say the least, so their reunion is fraught with everything from wariness to outright hostility. The result is a parable about tribalism, that ubiquitous human habit of dividing “us” from “them.” Once such dividing lines are drawn-on the basis of race, religion or nationality-those on the more powerful side of that insidious boundary have all the excuse they need to exploit, oppress or attack those deemed to be “other.”

In the movie, species is the line that divides the tribes; but it might just as easily be any other perceived difference. Once we postulate a “difference,” we legitimize a dichotomy-between how we want to be treated and how we treat others. So it has always been throughout human history, alas. But there are also differences between individuals in each camp. Caesar can get past his suspicion of outsiders and his instinctive protectiveness toward his own people; he can feel empathy for the struggling remnant of the human race.

But his decision to co-operate and try to live in peace with the human tribe is an anathema to his closest friend: as the past victim of human experimentation on animals, Koba is too full of rage, bitterness and the drive to return hurt for hurt to accept living in peace. Sound familiar? It’s the age-old human story of sectarian conflict-in places like Israel and the Occupied Territories. Few things are harder for us (man or apes) to overcome than our deeply ingrained prejudices. But unless we do, unless we prevail over the deep-seated habit of dividing “us” from “them,” we will never outgrow the brutal, cruel side of our nature in favour of a world in which the lamb can lie down next to the lion.


  • John Arkelian

    John Arkelian is an award-winning author and journalist.

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