"Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" Review

"Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" Review

When discussing the new Planet of the Apes film, many people I spoke to seemed unsure of how I would react to it, since I have been known to strongly discourage my friends from seeing movies featuring chimpanzees. Chimps Inc takes a firm position against the use of apes in entertainment. Chimpanzees used for the entertainment industry in the US mostly come from breeding facilities and are taken from their mothers as early as days old. They are subject to a lonely life of small cages and physical abuse in order to keep them subjugated and cooperative. They are treated more like commodities than intelligent, living beings and they are exploited by humans until about seven years of age, at which time they become too dangerous to be handled by humans.

Thanks to new computer generated image (CGI) technology in modern films, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes uses no real chimpanzees, but rather motion capture technology, which allows visual effects to be placed on top of human actors, thus completely eliminating any need for wild animals to be used in film. Human actors even spent time observing the apes they would be playing in zoos, to get their movements just right. For this reason, Chimps Inc staff and volunteers supported the film and went to see it together, taking up an entire row and laughing at scenes no one else was laughing at.

Another question I’ve been asked about the film is how realistic the apes were portrayed. In most films, apes are “usually made to be clowns, which is not helpful for the conservation case or the ethical case,” says primatologist Frans de Waal. While the apes depicted in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes were very humanized, there are actually a lot of behaviors featured in the movie that are very realistic. Chimpanzees in the wild are aggressive and territorial, and have been known to wage war with invading groups. They also use tools so the use of weapons in the movie is not far off. The relationship between chimp leader, Caesar and his second in command Koba, is also a realistic depiction of chimpanzee behavior in the way that Koba grovels and reaches out his hand towards Caesar, asking for his forgiveness and then Caesar reaches out and touches Koba’s outstretched hand in an act of reconciliation. This is something that we see the chimps do here at Chimps Inc to reassure each other. Many of the gestures in this film were very true to life because the filmmakers chose to consult with primatologists on their behavior.

While most of the chimps in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes have learned to communicate through sign language, some of them have developed a labored vocal speech as well. Is this advanced communication something that chimpanzees could develop given the opportunity? There have been many instances of apes in captivity learning to communicate with humans and chimps alike using sign language, and recent studies even show that wild chimpanzees have developed their own advanced gesture based communication. When it comes to speaking vocally however, chimpanzees are unable to coordinate their larynx and vocal chords as freely as is needed to speak as humans do. While new discoveries are being made every day about ape intelligence, changes in their vocal tract physiology would also be required for chimps to start talking as in the film.

While researching deeper into this film, I was surprised to learn that Koba, the most aggressive and violent character, is a bonobo. Bonobos are closely related to chimps but could not be more different socially. Bonobos are peaceful to the point that no bonobo has ever been observed killing another bonobo, even one of a different group. Koba’s character seems to be the complete opposite of what we know of bonobo behavior. The film explains his aggression with his past years spent in a biomedical laboratory but even this is not in line with anecdotes of bonobos retired from research. As bonobos are a female dominated society, and it is the females who keep male aggression low, perhaps more female bonobos in the film could have prevented such violence from ensuing.

Overall this film is one that should be considered great progress in the fight for ape welfare. The phenomenal graphics and use of human actors in place of live animals is a major step forward for apes in entertainment. The film itself was thought provoking and brought to light issues such as the ethics of keeping apes in cages and testing on beings with cognitive abilities so similar to our own.

-Kaleigh, Volunteer