All Rise for These Apes

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All Rise for These Apes

By Jill Howard-Church on Animals & Society Institute (ASI)

The story itself is decently engaging. It questions the justification for animal testing (especially when the drug in question affects humans differently from the chimps), exposes the inadequacies of captive environments, and hones in on the apes’ physical and emotional needs.

It’s not giving too much away to say that you’ll cheer for the apes to escape and for those who abuse them to get their comeuppance. If anything, you’ll marvel (and perhaps lament) that the revenge body count isn’t higher, given how the apes suffer in the name of science, ignorance and greed. But if the scaled-back violence allows more kids to see the movie, then it's worth it.

I just saw the new movie Rise of the Planet of the Apes. I knew before I walked in that it was being hailed for spectacular special effects, but wasn’t sure what the overall effect would be on the viewing audience.

As an animal advocate, I of course watched it with a much more critical eye than the average person. I know what primate laboratories look like (much more dank than what was portrayed) and what chimpanzees inside them go through (even worse than they depicted). Those of us who appreciate other species’ uniqueness don’t find humanizing them cute or appropriate; it’s often just annoying.

The film is a Hollywood-style rendering which, as such things go, sacrifices a sizeable amount of biological accuracy and plot plausibility in order to tell a story that will sell tickets. So you have to be prepared to cut it some slack, even if you find yourself rolling your eyes or stifling a “But they don’t really…” comment every 10 minutes.

Still, your eyes have plenty to take in. Visually, the film is very engaging. The most impressive aspect by far is the use of motion-capture photography instead of animation or (most notably) real apes to portray the simian characters. Indeed, the ending credits list the ape-actors before the human ones.

As director Rupert Wyatt noted, it would have been unforgivably ironic to make a movie about apes fighting human exploitation using animal “actors” who themselves would have been exploited to make such a film. (Some of you may recall the controversy over the 1987 movie “Project X,” an anti-vivisection film that used real chimpanzees who reportedly were abused).

The use of this brilliant technology, combined with the equally brilliant acting talent of Andy Serkis (who plays Caesar, the lead chimpanzee), is even more impressive when you see the process behind it (click here for behind-the-scenes footage:
http://nymag.com/daily/entertainment/2011/08/rise_of_the_planet_of_the_apes_1.html?mid=twitter_vulture).

It is also the basis for the argument that in this technological age, there’s no need to use real animals in films, especially as allegations of abuse continue (Zookeeper, Water for Elephants, etc. this year alone).

The story itself is decently engaging. It questions the justification for animal testing (especially when the drug in question affects humans differently from the chimps), exposes the inadequacies of captive environments, and hones in on the apes’ physical and emotional needs.

It’s not giving too much away to say that you’ll cheer for the apes to escape and for those who abuse them to get their comeuppance. If anything, you’ll marvel (and perhaps lament) that the revenge body count isn’t higher, given how the apes suffer in the name of science, ignorance and greed. But if the scaled-back violence allows more kids to see the movie, then it's worth it.

The filmmakers did an admirable job of portraying the apes as realistic individuals (the chimps and orangutan more so than the gorilla). Physically, Caesar is still too human-like, but perhaps in the context of his life story, the altered physicality represents his psychological conflict, too.

The lead human character, played by James Franco, doesn’t adequately atone for his role in keeping the lab chimps confined and doomed, even though he rescues Caesar. Those familiar with the realities of primate experimentation will likely think the film doesn’t go far enough to convey that horror, but the general public might, to the extent possible from a two-hour movie, give greater thought the next time they hear about a lab protest.

We’ll all just have to wait and see whether the cinematic sequel can give rise to even more awareness and empathy. But for now, hail Caesar!


Jill Howard-Church is a writer and editor who specializes in animal issues. She serves as the part-time communications director for the Animals and Society Institute, and is the volunteer president of the Vegetarian Society of Georgia.