How our evolving understanding of animals is changing cinema

Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes

Published by Ruby Lawrence

Our knowledge of how the most sophisticated animals think and feel is constantly evolving – you just have to look at the latest film in the Planet of the Apes franchise to see how science is influencing Hollywood, writes Ruby Lawrence

Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes
[The way Dawn of the Planet of the Apes treats the simian language is markedly different from the days of Charlton Heston]

After being thoroughly impressed with its 2011 predecessor, I recently donned a pair of 3D glasses to watch Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (pockets full of peanut M&Ms – the perfect accompaniment to any film). Matt Reeves’ epic is the second instalment of the powerful prequel franchise; CGI apes are impressively and meticulously animated down to each single hair as they find themselves in bloody conflict with the endangered human race.

Stylistically, Reeves’ franchise is a far cry from Franklin J. Schaffner’s 1968 film, yet both function superbly as analogies for war, illustrating the danger of demonizing one’s enemy – who just may end up being rather like you. In Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, a wounded Caesar (leader of the apes played in motion-capture by the amorphous Andy Serkis) learns this the hard way when he is shot by one of his own clan and forced to recognise that apes, just like humans, are capable of inter-species murder. Themes such as this are constantly relevant in a world where wars exist indefinitely.

However, in 2014, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes takes on a whole new significance. The way we perceive animals has changed drastically since 1968. We’ve gone from Flipper to Blackfish, a documentary that has had a detrimental effect on the public image of corporate giant SeaWorld.

The general public is now more interested in seeing elephants in the wild, narrated by Attenborough, than in the chains of a circus, which continue to take a beating from international charities like WWF for their use of animal performers.

In 1998 the world witnessed the first online inter-species chat, when Koko the gorilla (who was given her first computer by Apple in the ’80s) conversed with curious humans from America Online Inc. Using sign language to communicate, Koko (pictured below) explained that what she wanted for her birthday was food and ‘smoke’ (referring to her kitten, Smokey).

koko

In 2006 the New Scientist published an article exploring the emotions that whales are capable of due to their brain capacity.

 “Spindle neurons – the specialised brain cells thought to process our emotions and that may even enable us to love and suffer – have been found in whales,” writes Andy Coghlan. “The discovery will stimulate debate both on the level of whale intelligence and on the ethics of hunting them. Spindle cells occur in the parts of the human brain linked with social organisation, empathy, speech, intuition about the feelings of others and rapid ‘gut’ reactions.”

Spindle neurons were once flaunted as the brain cells that really set humans and great apes apart from all other mammals.

The more we learn about other species through the eyes of science, the more we realise their complexity and emotional intelligence. Making the news most recently is the poster-child of inter-species relations – the chimpanzee.

The name Steve Wise may not ring a bell. It didn’t for me until I stumbled across a proposed documentary all about him by Chris Hegedus and D A Pennebaker (Don’t Look Back, The War Room). As it turns out, a battle for animal rights is occurring as you read, and Wise is on the front line. He’s a renowned animal rights lawyer, the first to teach Animal Rights Law at Harvard, and is taking on a colossal legal challenge. Wise is putting a very strong case forward for ‘animal personhood’ – transforming an animal from a thing with no rights to a ‘legal person’, with a degree of legal rights and protection.

Hegedus and Pennebaker’s documentary, Unlocking the Cage, which focuses particularly on harrowing and fascinating chimp case studies, will follow Wise’s fight to protect cognitively complex animals (think apes, whales, elephants) from the abusive exploitation they constantly suffer. He asserts on his website for the ‘Nonhuman Rights Project’ that “our legal claims are based on the best scientific findings on genetics, intelligence, emotions and social lives of these animals showing they are self-aware, autonomous beings. Our work is supported by an international group of the world’s most respected primatologists.”

When you recognize that whales have their own pod dialects, chimps can speak in sign language and elephants grieve their dead, the argument that animals are on a fundamentally lower rung than humans because they are not as intelligent, or are drastically different from us, begins to weaken. This change in perception is and will continue to have fascinating effects on the world of art. We’re living and creating in a time of groundbreaking change in which more and more people (from the world of science and art) are arguing that we are not the only species to possess consciousness. Speciesism, defined by philosopher Peter Singer as “a prejudice or bias in favour of the interests of members of one’s own species and against those of members of other species” is becoming harder to defend.

There is one very clever and key difference between Reeve’s Planet of the Apes films and those from the late sixties. Rather than speak like humans, the chimps in the 21st century films use distinct ape language, breaking into human speech only when necessary. For the first time in my life, I realised I was watching a film that had subtitle translations of ‘ape’. This didn’t feel odd or intangible. It felt uncannily appropriate.

Steve Wise’s project website
Unlocking the Cage by Pennebaker Hegedus Films

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Ruby is a freelance journalist writing on popular culture, film and theatre, amongst other areas of the arts