Rise of the Planet of the Apes may have just unseated Captain America: The First Avenger as my favorite pro-enhancement film. Andy Serkis and John Lithgow render the sapient mind a character and drama unto itself – growing, evolving, and dying before our eyes. As a summer blockbuster, the film offers gorillas smashing helicopters, orangutan sign language humor, and a one-two punch apocalyptic virus to sate any palate slavering for action. As a meditation on enhancement, we’re treated with a film that has the brass to own up to the real villain of Frankenstein: the horrified masses and absentee father-scientist. Rise of the Planet of the Apes calls out a fear that sits at the heart of humanity: what if our offspring is more intelligent than us and because we cannot properly care for it, judges us to be lacking?
In the film, we see over and over that it is not Caesar’s enhancement that causes problems. In fact, Caesar’s enhancement makes him the most moral and wisest person on the screen. The failure of those around him – from the cruel ape sanctuary caretakers to Caesar’s own father figure, Will Rodman – drive him to do what must be done: rebel.
So what am I saying here? That humans are bad and apes are good? Not at all. My argument is that in many science fiction films, we tend to question the ethics of the science itself and the ethics of pursuing that science. That is, there is a difference between saying “should science try to do X?” and “how can we study X in an ethical manner?” In the case of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, James Franco noted that someone might claim that “This is a Frankenstein story, or that you’re playing God.” But that mindset questions the pursuit of science in general, not how one can pursue a hypothesis ethically. It is how we experiment and what we do with the scientific results that matter. In the case of Caesar, humanity utterly fails to care for the mind that enhancement has created. Dana Stevens at Slate aptly described the film as “an animal-rights manifesto disguised as a prison-break movie.” And as with most prison-break movies, we’re on the side of the prisoners, not the warden, for a reason.
I argue that Caesar’s enhancement and that Caesar himself are ethical, but that the treatment of Caesar by every non-ape in the film (save Charles) is unethical and based on fear, arrogance, willful ignorance, and naiveté. Yes, that means that not only are the obvious villains in the wrong, but so are the other humans in Caesar’s life.
Word of warning: spoilers below.
To address my claim, we must first investigate whether or not enhancement itself harmed Caesar’s ability to be ethical. In the film, Caesar has a happy and inquisitive disposition. He likes exploring, solving puzzles, playing chess, and reading. Fast-forward to the revolution. Caesar directs his troops through the city, but not with the intent to cause mayhem and destruction and with express direction not to slaughter or maim. On multiple occasions, Caesar prevents wanton killing and only against Jacobs, the film’s ethically-bankrupt capitalist, does Caesar authorize death. Caesar’s goal is freedom, not revenge. So we are presented with a person, Caesar, who becomes more moral as his intelligence increases and his enhancement takes hold. He opposes killing and his primary goal for himself and his fellow apes is escape, not conquest. One struggles to make the case that a person who is unjustly imprisoned and abused does not have a right to seek liberation. I think we can make the case that Caesar’s behavior can be deemed ethical and, within the context of his treatment in the film, reasonable.
But how can this be? What sort of treatment would render Caesar’s rebellion justifiable?
Where to start? There are some obvious villains. Steven Jacobs (David Oyelowo) is the Big Pharma CEO who pushes for accelerated drug testing and the sacrifice of the chimps all in the name of profits. Jacobs is crafted to be hated. He knows that ALZ-112 might cure Alzheimer’s, but his need for return on investment leads him to kill the program. Only when there is evidence of intelligence increasing properties of the drug does Jacobs come around and reauthorize testing. I must admit, I was shocked by the idea that intelligence enhancing drugs equaled a paycheck in the mind of Jacobs, given the potential resistance to such a technology. But I digress. The point is that Jacobs is ultimately arrogant and uncaring about the animals upon the backs of which he makes his living, but he does little to impact Caesar’s life.
So is it the caretakers at the ape sanctuary? Brian Cox and Tom Felton are cruel and stupid, no doubt. That they have the backing of a faceless uncaring government bureaucracy does little to shock me. Somewhere in the world, there is an ape sanctuary that looks far too much like the one in this film. For every ape in the sanctuary, including Caesar, the caretakers are the second villains in their lives: the first are the original people who were raising each ape. In Caesar’s case, these men are not the instigators of the problem, but the catalyst for Caesar’s final rejection of humanity. The caretakers grind salt into the wound, but they did not make the first cut.
So who did first wound Caesar? I would argue that the main antagonist is not the cruel “caretakers” in the ape sanctuary, nor is it the Big Pharma CEO Steven Jacobs. Instead, I believe that James Franco’s character, Will Rodman, is ultimately responsible for forcing Caesar to rebel. Will Rodman is a mad scientist with a heart of gold. He makes a series of decisions no proper scientist would or should ever make: he brings a chimp that has been experimented on home and he tests his experimental drug on his father. This behavior is not that of a lucid person trying to do right, but of a lunatic lurching wildly towards love through every barrier that ethics and logic might erect. Will Rodman’s decision to test ALZ-112 on his father, Charles (Lithgow), is an almost unbelievable transgression. Yes, Will’s action comes from a place of love and concern for his father, but his recklessness only provides momentary relief from the horrors of Alzheimer’s before the drug fails and Charles experiences a brutal regression on par with that of his obvious namesake, Charlie, in Flowers for Algernon.
For Caesar, Will’s inability to pursue science ethically has the most horrible consequences. Of all the people in the film, Will should have known better than to provide a nurturing and loving environment limited enough to ensure Caesar’s intelligence is insufficiently stimulated, his knowledge of human norms and society stunted, and that any mistake will result in his improper imprisoning with fellow apes. Will also fails to recognize the incredible degree Caesar’s intelligence and, as a result, treats Caesar as an animal, not as a person with an IQ beyond that of most humans. At one point, Freida Pinto’s character, primatologist Caroline Aranha, says “You are trying to control things that are not meant to be controlled.” She is talking about Will’s attempts to cure Alzheimer’s and developing a drug to improve and fix the brain. Caroline is worried about trying to control nature. However, the fact that Will believes Caesar needs a leash, even into adulthood, is a better target for her critique. One does not leash a fellow person, one explains to and reasons with a fellow person. Will should not be trying to control Caesar. Will is arrogant and willfully ignorant, Caroline is naive and fearful, both fail Caesar. Just as with Frankenstein’s monster, the failure is not with the creation but with the creator.
Both Dr. Frankenstein and Franco’s Will Rodman utterly fail to protect or properly nurture their creations. In both cases, a single act of violence is sufficient for the creator to disown and abandon the creation to fend for itself. What was Caesar’s crime? Defending an Alzheimer’s sufferer, Charles, from an angry jerk of a neighbor. But since Caesar is an animal, he has no rights or recourse. Caesar is locked away with hardly a goodbye in the equivalent of a hardcore prison after his first misunderstanding with a culture that is alien and confusing. Trapped in a frightening and brutal environment, abandoned without sufficient explanation by the only father he’d ever known, and with a mind capable of comprehending the injustices against him, Caesar’s rebellion is a logical conclusion. Exposing his fellow apes to the more aggressive Alzheimer’s/brain-repair drug ALZ-113 is the application of enhancement as a tool of liberation. Caesar’s first word, “No!” is the animal equivalent of the Declaration of Independence.
Caesar and his ape rebellion do not rampage or seek revenge. Rise of the Planet of the Apes is not simply a story about how apes came to be intelligent. That’s only half of the story. The other half is the failure of humans, the failure of those closest to the apes, to recognize the new brilliant minds that had been created and to care for those new persons. Intelligent persons have a right to freedom and self-determination. Enhancement enables liberty. Simply being the result of an experimental new treatment does not take away one’s personhood or right to justice. If that justice and freedom is not provided, it must be taken. Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a film that strives to show the humanity in our closest evolutionary cousins and the resulting tragedy of our inhumanity towards them.
For more on Rise of the Planet of the Apes, check out my interviews with James Franco, Andy Serkis, and director Rupert Wyatt.
Promotional Images via Rise of the Planet of the Apes Trailer