A Planet for All Apes

MELBOURNE – Two new movies released this month – one a science-fiction blockbuster, the other a revealing documentary – raise the issue of our relations with our closest non-human relatives, the great apes. Both dramatize insights and lessons that should not be ignored.

Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes is the seventh film in a series based on Pierre Boule’s 1963 novel, Planet of the Apes, about a world populated by highly intelligent simians. Publicity for the new film claims that it is “the first live-action film in the history of movies to star, and be told from the point of view of, a sentient animal.” Yet no live apes were used.

Instead, “performance capture technology,” originally invented for the movie Avatar, enables a human actor, Andy Serkis, to play the role of the chimpanzee Caesar, not by dressing in a chimp suit, but by having every gesture and facial movement, even the twitch of an eyebrow, transformed into the movement of an ape.

When I spoke with Wyatt last month, he acknowledged that there were practical reasons for not using real apes in his movie. But he also understood the ethical issue. “There are things I didn’t want to be involved in,” he told me. “To get apes to do anything you want them to do, you have to dominate them; you have to manipulate them into performing. That’s exploitative.”