Monkey See, Monkey Do

Man and Ape in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
“Monkey See, Monkey Do”
A Review of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes by Nick Olszyk

MPAA Rating, PG-13
Reel Rating, Four Reels      

            In the Genesis account of a new sentient race, 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes served as the Creation story, where non-human members of the family Hominadae (chimpanzees, orangutans, gorillas, and bonobos) gained consciousness. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is their fall from grace, when a conflict breaks their calm society and causes some to commit great acts of evil. Sin is the price of moral freedom, and it is a heavy one. The film is effective in this portrayal if a bit uneven and long; yet, the special effects, acting, and attention to detail – especially primate sign language – is spectacular. In the end, it is one’s choices, not DNA, which determine what makes a “man.”
            Dawn begins a decade after Rise when the Simian flu has wiped out most of humanity; the first sentient ape Caesar (Andy Serkis) now governs a community just outside San Francisco and has not seen a human for a long time. The apes live a peaceful existence hunting deer, building elaborate tree houses, and developing a rudimentary education system. Suddenly, they come into contact with a group of survivors searching for a hydroelectric dam in the hills. For years, they’ve been rewiring the electrical lines in the city in hopes of bringing the power grid back up. Caesar is hesitant but thinks helping them will bring a truce, preventing a bloody war. His advisor Koba (Toby Kebbell) believes all humans are evil and assistance will only make it easier for them to destroy the apes. The humans are just as restless. The colony’s leader Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) wants an immediate strike while scientist Malcolm (Jason Clarke) believes it’s immoral to kill them.
            The central issue is empathy, the ability to feel and understand another person. While Caesar did lead the ape uprising, he was raised by a kind primatologist and now rears two sons of his own. Koba was a lab monkey, the subject of countless experiments. “We will help the human work,” Caesar says. Koba grunts and points to the various scars on his body: “Human work.” On the other side, Malcolm and his wife work with Caesar, playing with his newborn son and healing his sick wife. Dreyfus can only think of the family he has lost. “We were attacked!” He screams. “They are animals!” He cannot, or will not, see that they too have family and were abused, tortured, and oppressed by humans.
            In the beginning, the apes lived in quasi-innocence. They do get angry, bored, and frustrated but work seamlessly together and never raise a hand to hurt one another. This changes as many apes begin to question Caesar’s leadership and factions spring up in the society. Suddenly, Koba commits a Cain-like offense, and all Hell breaks loose. Caesar realizes he now lives in a very different yet oddly familiar world that will require him to think outside his own species. “Caesar loves humans more than apes!” Koba accuses. “Koba does not care for apes,” Caesar asserts. “Koba cares for Koba.” This is an important revelation, that a human can act inhuman – an ape can act “inape.” Freedom allows a person to act against their nature, sometimes in terrifying ways.
            In this review, I have treated the apes as they are portrayed in the film – persons. They have a soul. In reality, apes, dolphins, and elephants, while very intelligent, do not posses a spirit. It is not moral to treat them as humans; they do not have rights. However, as part of God’s creation, it is immoral to treat them in a disrespectful and wasteful manner – especially abuse, which is a grave sin. Dawn is a work of science fiction and cannot be used to argue for or against certain aspects of animal welfare. This does not exclude the possibility of non-human persons. Indeed, the angels precede man. There is nothing in the deposit of faith that would limit God’s ability to create other material creatures that are rational beings; as technology penetrates into deeper and deeper space it is not so much a question of if, but when this will be discovered. To avoid again committing the genocides that occurred at the discovery of the New World, it would behoove Catholic theologians to prepare for this eventuality.

            As expected for a large budget action flick, Dawn ends with a final climatic battle, but, regardless of the winner, this will not end the war. Life for apes and humans will only become more and more difficult. At the same time, there are a precious few – man and beast alike – who find solace in what they share: the capacity for good. A sentient being does not choose consciousness but it can choose holiness or depravity. Koba believes that militancy is the answer, but such a society will always need an enemy. When it runs out of external forces, it will consume itself. Caesar and Malcolm understand that empathy is not simply righteous; it is the only way to survive.

This article first appeared in Catholic World Report on July 14th, 2014.