What's Missing from Planet of the Apes? Revenge.

This article first appeared on the Toronto Standard on August 18, 2011. I’ve been anxious to write about Rise of the Planet of the Apes for some time now, but before doing so I should come clean: I dream of the day the animal kingdom takes its final, ugly revenge on the human species.

Two summers ago, I spent ten weeks working as a volunteer caregiver at the Fauna Foundation just outside Montreal. Fauna is a retirement home for more than 100 abused and neglected animals. Its most famous residents are twelve chimpanzees who are being rehabilitated after spending decades as test subjects in a biomedical research lab, a lab not unlike the one from which Caesar the chimpanzee is rescued by James Franco’s character in Rise.

One might say I’ve got animal suffering on the brain. While at Fauna, I saw a chimp named Rachel ferociously attack her own fingers, a symptom common among traumatized lab animals called “floating limb”. I saw a chimp named Chance spin like a dervish in her enclosure when a thunderstorm struck, her anxieties ramped up to near-psychosis by the clamouring lights. And I saw a chimp named Tom gag – routinely, every morning – a direct result of having had feeding tubes thrust down his throat repeatedly in the lab.

So my dream of vengeance, while a bit tongue-in-cheek, involve a large amount of projection on my part. While I am not an animal activist, per se, I am one of those people who feels terribly guilty about what we as a species have done to them as a kingdom. The fact that this dream might actually be coming true, with elephants in the wilds of Africa and with tigers in the Russian taiga, fills me with a macabre happiness.

Does this disturb you, dear reader? Because it shouldn’t. It’s time you came clean, too; you have the exact same dreams. Why else would you have made Rise of the Planet of the Apes the #1 movie in North America last week [depends on when this runs], if not because you yearn to witness the same animalistic recompense that I do, writ large across the silver screen?

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Rise is really two movies in one. The turning point occurs when Caesar – surely one of the great heroes of modern cinema – first speaks. It is a chilling moment, but one that signals the movie is about to devolve into what we all expected it to be: a pretty good Hollywood bang-‘em-up thrill ride in which humans get smoked and the apes return to where they quasi-belong, the redwood forest of Muir Woods National Monument outside San Francisco (I said ‘quasi’).

But right up until Caesar utters his first word – a fevered, psychotic, growling “No!” – the film surprised this ex-monkey-researcher in almost every scene. For a science-fiction blockbuster, it is remarkably true to life. The sound design is wholly authentic. These chimps sound real, right down to their raucous pant-hoots and glorious, huffing laughter.

As for the CGI, the technology sent chills down my spine. Andy Serkis should win an Oscar for his portrayal of Caesar. And those wide-angle shots of the ‘sanctuary’ playroom, in which the chimps practice their daily politics en masse, made me feel like I was looking through a window at a zoo. The way these apes move is hauntingly familiar to me, especially the bipedal swaying of the displaying alpha, shoulders hunched and fingers dragging in the dust, followed by the inevitable, terrifying show of strength.

The classic chimp submission posture, in which an ape reaches out to another with his open hand, was a bit misplayed in the film – this posture is used more as a reconciliation technique between two chimps who have just had an argument, and not, as the film suggests, as a method of asking permission. And chimps are nowhere near as expressive with their faces as Rise might make you think. But these are both minor quibbles.

For me, the most touching moment of the film came when Caesar freed Buck the gorilla from his cage. I wasn’t moved by the gesture itself, but by the way Buck – such a powerful, rage-filled character – found himself momentarily overwhelmed by the idea of feeling soft grass beneath his feet. It reminded me of what can happen when ex-lab chimps are presented with outdoor play areas; they are often similarly stricken. Some of them never build up the courage to feel grass between their toes, so long did they spend in the lab, locked in cages suspended a few feet off the floor.

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The only real problem I had with Apes was the PG rating. As the movie began and the rating appeared, my heart sank, but I didn’t know why. I only figured it out near the end, during the climactic battle scene between humans and apes on the Golden Gate Bridge.

At no point in the movie does the audience witness a person being killed by a chimpanzee. The inevitable blood and gore is only alluded to, and happens solely off-screen. And while I understand this decision – for one, it allows millions of children aged 10 and up to buy tickets – I found myself deeply disappointed by it, and subsequently disquieted by my disappointment. I wanted to see, with my own eyes, a chimpanzee exacting the bloody revenge upon humans they so deserve but would never take.

It’s not that I want to see humans dying nasty deaths. And it’s not that I think chimpanzees should ever be portrayed as murderous beasts, because no matter what Lynn Crosbie thinks (having written in the Globe that natures hates us, and that she sees a desire for revenge in apes’ eyes), nothing could be further from the truth. Reconciliation, or peacemaking, between warring chimpanzees is actually more important to chimp society than aggression is.

Nature does not hate us. To the contrary, it is us who hate us for the way we treat nature. No chimpanzee has ever attacked a human without being profoundly messed up first, either by being torn from their mother just days after birth, locked up in a cage for years, dressed in frilly dresses and taught to eat with utensils, or physically and psychologically distorted in some other fashion. These rare attacks are best explained as by-products of human-induced psychosis, not some kind of natural affinity for human slaughter. Because let’s face it: if revenge were a part of normal animal behaviour, our species would have gone extinct long ago.

The USA is the only developed country on earth that still sanctions invasive research on chimpanzees. Seventeen years ago, six other countries did this sort of stuff, but they’ve all stopped. The reason? Chimpanzees are not suitable models for human disease pathology. No matter what Hollywood would have you think, we are never going to cure Alzheimer’s from research performed on great apes.

As I write this, the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine is holding public hearings into the use of chimpanzees in biomedical research. Both the U.S. House and Senate are considering legislation, the Great Ape Protection and Cost Savings Act, that would phase out invasive research on great apes once and for all. Meanwhile, the biomedical lobby – one of the most powerful in Washington – is circling its wagons something fierce. Another climactic battle is brewing, but this time, the chimps are still in their cages.

How is it that the same civilization that can perfect CGI motion-capture technology to the point that an ex-primatologist like me can sit spellbound watching a colony of animated apes on a screen is the same civilization that keeps more than 1,000 thinking, feeling chimpanzees – our closest evolutionary cousins – behind bars, without family or friends or a sense of dignity or any hope for the future, for no good reason?

I guess it was too much to hope for a little catharsis from a summer blockbuster. A chimp named Karen has been living in an American laboratory since 1958, when Dwight Eisenhower was President. Forgive me for wishing Karen a small dose of retribution for all the suffering she’s been through.

(chimp sketch © Peter Claes)