Rise of the Planet of the Apes is packing them in at box offices everywhere, bringing with it a unique animal rights message. Activist Loredana Loy provides insight into the film, including her thoughts on the power that the animal liberation theme carries, as well as a critique of where it falls short.
Film Analysis: Rise of the Planet of the Apes
By Loredana Loy
“Somewhere in the universe, there must be something better than man.”
— Taylor (Charlton Heston) in the original Planet of the Apes (1968)
An animal liberation revolution is happening on the silver screen. Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011, directed by Rupert Wyatt) provides the ultimate liberation fantasy as it traces the genesis of a new era on our planet, while telling the story of a special kind of leader — Caesar – a chimp born in an animal testing facility to a genetically enhanced mother.
While perhaps the misanthropic message is not quite as powerful as the one in the original installment of the “Apes” franchise, the movie pulls no punches about the heartlessness of the species that currently, if perhaps not permanently, is in charge of Planet Earth. Not only are the human animals not the central characters here, but they come off poorly, to say the least, when contrasted with the chimpanzees. Will (James Franco), the scientist whose discoveries about intelligence enhancement as a possible solution to Alzheimer’s are the instigation for the experiment leading to Caesar’s birth, is a caricature of what the real hero of the movie, Caesar, represents in terms of loyalty, love, and trust. Will only reluctantly saves Caesar in the first place, and does not hesitate to test on a new group of chimps even after he has formed a bond with Caesar. He also refers to another victim of testing labs, Koba, as “it,” even though he knows Koba is a male. Even to the extent he might have some regard for Caesar, as well as for the other apes, it clearly doesn’t extend to other species. We see his family gorging on bacon and eggs at breakfast. But compared to the callousness of the shelter guards, Will is a model of compassion.
However, while this movie presents a powerful critique of the ugliness of human behavior toward animals, it also offers much more than that. An ode to freedom and nature as the true home for any animal, Rise of the Planet of the Apes raises issues regarding animals that are timely for those of us in the real world. Throughout, an animal-centric point of view is explored and promoted. Naturally, the prominent issue is that of animal experimentation (although showcased in its PG version). But other less central issues are touched on as well — the keeping of apes as “pets,” the status of animals as property, and the issue of shelters supplying animals to testing facilities for profit. Perhaps the underlying fundamental theme of this dark tale concerns the effects that greed and the pursuit of profit (at all costs) has on animals, and, ultimately, on humans.
One of the most widely touted animal-positive features of Rise of the Planet of the Apes is the refusal to use live apes in the making of the movie, and it is, indeed, heartening to see this story about chimpanzee exploitation told without itself contributing to the suffering it decries. However, although the movie gets much right about the problems with humans’ attitudes toward animals, it is, unfortunately, itself guilty of speciesism. The movie not only uses live horses, but allows its ape hero to ride a horse in a scene where he is fighting his human enemies, thus begging the question: Will the apes not only replace us, but also continue our exploitation of other animals? Perhaps the writers wanted to be faithful to the original Planet of the Apes, which did indeed portray the simian society as using horses to hunt humans. Whatever the reason, it was disappointing to see this type of exploitation of one species portrayed so casually in a movie that so aptly addressed the evil exploitation of another.
But, flaws aside, there is no question that Rise of the Planet of the Apes is, ultimately, a paean to animal (or at least ape) liberation. Thus, the real question becomes — can a Hollywood blockbuster serve as a tool for social change? In the short time since it opened in theatres, the movie has been seen by an estimated 22 million people worldwide and has managed to create a media stir that goes far beyond Oscar predictions for its truly extraordinary special effects, reaching issues ranging from evolution, science, and animals in entertainment, to policy, race, and endangered species. The movie has piqued the interest of everyone from Peter Singer to republican Representative Roscoe Bartlett, whose op ed in The New York Times called for an end to all experiments on apes. Certainly animal protection organizations have seized the opportunities presented by the movie’s box office success and media attention. Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine issued a call to action entitled “The Real Planet of the Apes.” People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals increased its focus on animal testing discourse in conjunction with the film’s release, and various other groups are organizing screenings and protests.
Can this blockbuster truly change hearts and minds about animals? In-depth research would be needed to assess the effects of the movie on attitudes and behaviors, but one thing is certain — Rise of the Planet of the Apes has brought much-needed attention to some animal issues.
Also be sure to catch our Hollywood correspondent, Ari Solomon’s, review of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which can be heard on our 83rd podcast episode.
Loredana Loy is a long-time animal liberation activist and a graduate student at New York University. She is studying the animal liberation movement through sociological and cultural lenses. Her research is focused on cinema as a tool for promoting animal liberation messages.