What Does ‘War for the Planet of the Apes’ Say about Being Human?

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When the ape leader Caesar meets his nemesis the Colonel face to face for the first time, the Colonel peers into the ape’s face and says, “My god, look at your eyes. Almost human.”

Warning: Spoilers!

Like thousands of other people this weekend, I went to see War for the Planet of the Apes. It’s a typical summer action flick and not bad for the third sequel of a reboot of the classic 1960s film series.  This latest iteration is not so much science fiction as it is an odd combination of Spaghetti western and wannabe Shakespearian tragedy, but my intention is not to review the film. I want to talk about the humanness of the apes, and I don’t mean the special effects.

Any story depicting artificially-created, nonhuman creatures that behave as humans expresses something essential about perceptions of humanness. This was true of the monster in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, of the outer-space aliens in Star Trek, and of the robotic androids in Westworld. Whether the creatures are organic, synthetic, or a combination matters little, and so the genetically-enhanced apes that populate the world of the Planet of the Apes movies fit nicely into this category.

Apes, Humans, or Both?

Visibly, the ape characters are unquestionably apes – gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans, bonobos – and thanks to CGI and the brilliance of actors like Andy Serkis, they are almost believable. In one way, the apes in Planet of the Apes are not intended to be fully human. They appear to be apes and they do ape-like things: they climb trees, swing from branches and other protrusions, and live in the woods. But they are also intended to be somewhat human-like, and they do human-like things – they live in a hierarchical society, they form family units, have friends, perform rituals, and ride horses.

I confess I had many moments of doubt that an ordinary horse would gladly support the weight of 400-500 pound male gorilla,  I also found it odd that the unclothed apes have no visible genitalia but perhaps we can attribute the lack of anatomical correctness to the PG-13 rating, perhaps. One cannot have human-like creatures walking about the film with their privates exposed.

Let that last sentence sink in. This value judgment in itself speaks to the perceived humanness in the portrayal of the apes. The apes were created by the film writers, producers, actors, stuntmen, and special effects renderers to manifest the characteristics of humans – or at least, what they deem to be human qualities. And that’s where it begins to get interesting.

Determining Humanness

When we design and engineer things that are supposed to be human-like, how do we determine what human-like is? It’s not a trivial question; efforts have been underway for a long time to create robots and artificial intelligence that emulate humans. Before that can be accomplished, there must be some conception of what being human means.

On that question, War for the Planet of the Apes presents an unclear and inconsistent vision. It’s not just the hybridity of the ape-human; this we, as viewers, accept in the cyborg tradition of the genre. No, the confusion in part arises from the contradictory views of speech and language.

I’m not a linguist, so I’ll leave the analysis of the distinctions and relationships between speech and language alone. But I will describe the way the two are portrayed in War.

Let’s start with the backstory, which goes something like this: humans create a serum that genetically modifies the apes, giving them increased intelligence and the capability for speech.  So from the beginning, intelligence and speech are viewed as qualities that (let’s say) advance the apes to a human-like status.

This is a common motif in stories about artificial humans: high intelligence and the ability to speak = humanness. This is the basis of the Turing Test, and it’s frequently thought that these are the most important factors in determining humanness. However, in most fictional accounts, at least, these are not vital to portrayals of nonhuman beings. But I digress. Back to the movie.

As the opening scenes in War show, the apes can speak but more often use a complex system of signs and grunts to communicate with one another. Yet, a major plot line involves a virus mutation that destroys the ability for humans to speak. In view of the franchise, this occurrence sets up the situation of the original 1968 movie (the contemporary films are prequels), where humans don’t speak. But since the film has already told us that speech is not a determiner for language ( or communication) or for intelligence, I found it hard to understand why the human character, the Colonel, views the inability to speak as tantamount to erasing humanity. (And I’m surprised I haven’t seen any objection to this point from persons in the deaf community, who use language without speech quite adeptly.)

It’s obvious the filmmakers didn’t think too deeply on this issue. Most likely, audiences didn’t either. After all, explosions and shootings and clever escapes! And 3-D! Plus popcorn!

A Hodgepodge of Signs

So what of the other indications of humanness in the apes? There’s quite a bit of comparison of ape behavior and values to human behavior and values. Here again, the movie presents an inconsistent viewpoint through an incoherent hodgepodge of signs and symbols. The portrayal of the human society suggests white nationalism: slogans, tattoos, marching, chanting, the shaving of a head, the noticeable absence of humans of color in a significant role. There are also Christian religious symbols, such as crosses and reference to the Alpha and the Omega. Yet it’s not all New Testament. This review  points out the exodus motif and the comparison of Caesar to Moses leading his people to the promised land. There’s also reference to an impotent border wall, scenes that suggest the Noble Savage concept, and seemingly random graffiti such as “Ape-pocalypse Now.”

To add to the confusion, the ape society is every bit as undemocratic as the human society. Caesar is the absolute ruler, and though he asks for counsel, the final decisions are his. In one scene near that beginning I found a bit disturbing, the crowd of apes parts and bows as Caesar walks through.

Furthermore, both ape and human societies seem completely devoid of females. Sure, there’s a brief glimpse of Caesar’s wife, and the young human that tags along with the ape revenge posse is female. But nowhere in the film does any female play an active and purposeful part in the plot or the theme. If ape society is supposed to be a superior version to human society, I’m not seeing it.

Who Has Moral Superiority?

So what of ethics and values? Loyalty is an important part of both societies, though it’s presented from the point of view of the apes. “Ape not kill ape” is floated as an unbreakable tenet. Out of necessity, Caesar does have to kill an ape, but the ape was a traitor. The Colonel, on the other hand, kills three of his men who contract the speech-destroying virus and seems willing to kill others who are seen as defective or who don’t cooperate. Mercy is another moral value touched upon by the film, but the humans and apes are seen as irreconcilable enemies, and if there was mercy shown by one side toward the other, I didn’t take note of it.

So what is humanness, according to War for the Planet of the Apes? The best I can say is it’s the ability to contemplate, imperfectly, what it means to be human.