I am pleased to present the Veganomaly’s first guest post by a new contributor: D.H. Jeffries!
Warning: this article contains spoilers for all of the Planet of the Apes films. Proceed accordingly.
As a vegan and a Ph.D. student in film studies, I struggle with the use of animals in film. Seeing animals exploited in films is something that I despise as much as other uses – for food, for testing, for circuses, etc. – but I find it much more difficult to avoid. Exploitation is built into the medium itself: celluloid film contains gelatin, an animal product that serves as an organic emulsifier (this is why I’m one of the only people in my department that doesn’t lament the switch to digital film). Like all vegans, I have had to accept that my veganism isn’t ever going to ever be perfect, at least as far as films are concerned.
Film is a tricky medium for representing animals; if you want to tell a story about an animal, you have to – in most cases – manipulate an animal into performing the role. Babe, for example, is a film about the worthiness of pigs as moral agents whose production necessarily ignores their status as such. With the exception of animated films (La planète sauvage is one that I would recommend in a heartbeat), this is endemic to movies about animals and all movies in which animals appear. To represent an animal on screen usually requires exploiting that animal in one way or another. It would follow, from a vegan standpoint, that we should almost never tell stories about animals in the cinematic format; at the very least, we should avoid using animals in the production of films.
This is why the Planet of the Apes films are so appealing. Not only do they offer a fascinating, often thrilling, and sometimes funny science-fiction story about non-humans, they do so without – for the most part – violating the rights of the animals whose plight they are shining a light on. What I’m going to be discussing here is one film in particular, the recent reboot/remake/prequel Rise of the Planet of the Apes, its context within the Planet of the Apes franchise and what it has to say about animal use. If you haven’t seen the film, I’d suggest you do so before reading this! (If it’s not clear in the rest of the post, let it be said here that I rather liked the film, and am quite fond of the franchise in general.)
It’s rare to see a film that doesn’t use animals in some way. As I mentioned earlier, animal exploitation is built into the medium itself. Many films go further by employing “animal actors” that must be coerced into “performing” the actions required of them by a script. When the story calls for an animal to be terrified, or to fall down, the director can’t simply tell the animal to act the scene, as s/he would a human actor; the animal must be provoked into the behaviour in some way. For them, the terror is real, the pain of falling is real. And these animals do not go back to their homes after the shoot, compensated for their day’s work; rather, they are slaves in the truest sense of the word. The companies that own these animals are the ones who receive compensation, and the animal performers that they rent out to film shoots are not their employees but their property. And when scripts call for animals to be killed on screen, too often they are actually killed (a few examples that occur to me off the top of my head: Godard’s Weekend, Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, Iñárritu’s Babel, Haneke’s Caché, Von Trier’s Manderlay, etc.). Where no one would ever consider it OK to butcher a human being for the sake of cinematic authenticity, countless films have sentenced horses, pigs, fish, cows, birds and other non-human species to death for our collective entertainment.
With animal use so rampant in the film industry, the Planet of the Apes films are remarkable for how little they use animals. Most of the non-human characters in the film are played by human actors in prosthetics, and they are remarkably effective in their roles. In Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the apes are again played by human actors, but with the prosthetics of yesteryear swapped out for state-of-the-art motion-capture suits and computer-generated imagery. The films are not perfect by any means; while the ape characters are portrayed by humans, horses are still used, and sometimes violently. And we can always make the quibble that the films don’t value ape subjectivity as such, but only insofar as it is transformed into something recognizably human.
The first Planet of the Apes film was released in 1968 and spawned four sequels, a live-action television series, an animated television series, and a 2001 remake. I’m most familiar with the original film cycle, which was a ground-breaking science fiction franchise and was largely responsible for 20th Century Fox’s financial stability in the late 1960s and early 1970s. (It was also the first film franchise to spawn such a glut of children’s merchandise: in many ways, Star Wars couldn’t have happened without Planet of the Apes.) The first film is a pop culture touchstone, most famous for its apocalyptic twist ending and lines such as “Get your paws off me, you damn dirty ape!” But like most good science fiction, Planet of the Apes is an allegory: it critiques human racism (while inadvertently reinforcing certain racist essentialisms: the gorillas, who are darker-skinned than the apes and chimpanzees, are inherently violent, bestial creatures) and warns us of our planet’s possible future in the face of nuclear war. But on a more literal level, the Planet of the Apes films are about the way that human beings interact with the other species with whom we share the planet, and how our wrong-headed sense of superiority will lead us all into calamity. Human domination, the films tell us, is not the only way to live on this planet, and indeed such an ideology has an expiration date that we only hasten with our arrogant behaviour.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes is essentially a contemporary remake of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, the fourth (and arguably best) film in the original cycle. In the new film, James Franco plays a scientist whose research accidentally leads to the birth of a super-intelligent ape. Franco adopts the ape, Caesar, and raises him as a part of his family, as a son. Though Caesar is capable of understanding human speech and communicating through sign language, he understandably struggles with his place in the human-dominated world: in one touching scene, he sees a dog on a leash and asks Franco if he himself is also a pet, which he rightly identifies as a degrading and subservient position. Caesar is no man’s pet; he is man’s equal and will be respected. After an incident in which he defends a family member with a violent display of simian strength, Caesar is forcibly relocated to an ape sanctuary, which proves to be more of a prison. Here he sees first-hand the horrors that humans subject animals to as a matter of routine, whether in the name of science or in the name of senseless and wanton cruelty.
With his advanced intelligence, Caesar is able to break out of the facility, secure the experimental vapour that triggered his own evolutionary leap, and bring it back to the imprisoned hordes. With an army of intelligent apes, Caesar leads a revolution, not seeking to overthrow humanity but only to be left untouched by it. This, I feel, is the valuable message of the film: that the most ethical way for us to deal with non-human species is to leave them alone to the greatest extent possible.
As Devin Faraci pointed out in his review on BadassDigest.com, the film basically assumes that the viewer believes that animal testing isn’t a virtuous or just phenomenon. He writes that “I like the idea that this is a movie made for a modern age where we are a little more advanced, where we accept the idea that maybe we should be kind of nicer to the animals around us.” In the film, apes are subjected to all manner of medical experiments in service of what is undoubtedly a noble goal: the curing of Alzheimer’s disease. But in my book it’s always more ethical to use consenting human subjects than non-consenting non-humans; in fact, I don’t think it can ever be considered ethical to use the latter (at least not without adopting a problematic utilitarian or “ends justify the means” approach). I would venture to say that the film is more ambivalent in its stance on animal testing than Faraci claims. Though Caesar’s intelligence seems to make him beyond the reach of science’s bloody hand, other apes are not; certainly other species, like rats, are not. The film, to my eyes, doesn’t make any definitive statements about whether this state of affairs is right or wrong, justified or not.
The privileging of Caesar above other primates indicates that Rise of the Planet of the Apes equates rights with intelligence, and it defines intelligence as human intelligence. Like Peter Singer’s “Great Apes Project,” the film reinforces the speciesist assumption that human-like characteristics are superior, more inherently valuable, and more worthy of rights protection than non-human-like traits. And when Caesar speaks, the film makes a grave error in associating intelligence with the capacity for speech, which is a privilege of human biology that should be considered separately from our IQ.
As we all know, we don’t grant human beings rights based on their performance on an IQ test – so why should it be any different with other species? We either recognize that these species have an inherent value and interest in living a life free of exploitation or we don’t. We can’t qualify rights eligibility based on criteria like intelligence without getting into seriously problematic territory.
These points aside, Rise of the Planet of the Apes would be a failure from an animal rights standpoint as a result of a single moment in which Caesar is seen to ride a horse during the battle for ape liberation. One would like to think that Caesar would recognize his own plight in that of the horse, just as he had recognized the subservience of the dog earlier, and promoted the horse’s liberation rather than himself taking up the reins (literally) of animal exploitation. If Caesar wants to be left alone, he should also recognize that the horse deserves the same. (Perhaps it’s fitting, however; while the apes in the film are all played by humans, the horses depicted are actual horses. The film couldn’t possibly make a coherent case for their liberation while also contributing to their exploitation.)
Ultimately, I think it’s more instructive to point out the shortcomings of films like Rise of the Planet of the Apes rather than simply to take them at face value. On the face of it, the film is about animal liberation, but how seriously does the film take the cause? On what grounds does its narrative promote animal rights? Like most films, Rise falls short of being truly abolitionist, for reasons stated above. But I hold out hope for a truly vegan cinema that tells stories of animal liberation using allegory or computer-generated animals. A film that tells us to leave the animals alone has to practise what it preaches.
Guest contributor D.H. Jeffries is a Montreal-based vegan and Ph.D. Student in film studies at Concordia University. His idea of heaven happens every September, when the Toronto Veg Food Fair and TIFF take place in the same week.