Movies that Matter: “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”

In this series, Movies That Matter, we examine films that have affected public policy. See the last MTM here.

Yesterday, the Senate Sub-Committee on Water and Wildlife held a hearing on S. 810, the Great Ape Protection and Cost Savings Act. The bill, known by its awkward acronym GAPCSA, will end the use of chimpanzees in invasive experimentation and retire those chimps who are currently languishing in federally-funded laboratories to sanctuaries. It has been introduced in three consecutive Congresses by a variety of legislators – the bill was penned by the Humane Society of the United States – but despite a high number of cosponsors, yesterday’s hearing marks the first time the bill has received any legislative action.

The GAPCSA hearing is part of a very big year for chimpanzees. Last July, “Project Nim,” a documentary by “Man on Wire” director James Marsh arrived in theaters to excellent reviews. “Nim” tells the story of Nim Chimpsky, a chimpanzee raised by humans in the 1970s. Just last week, Disney released “Chimpanzee,” which follows a young, orphaned chimp in the wild as he struggles for survival. While chimpanzee research is not the subject of either film, both documentaries are relevant to the subject. Nim, for example, spent time in a research lab, as well as a sanctuary that was more like a prison for animals. The filmmakers show the effect of these harsh conditions on Nim’s inner life, voicing an argument that animal rights advocates have been making for decades. They have a point: recent studies have shown that chimps in captivity even suffer from anxiety, depression, and even post-traumatic stress disorder. While “Chimpanzee” is in essence a nature film, it has been distributed in conjunction with the Jane Goodall Institute, which has come out in support of GAPCSA. In a recent petition to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Humane Society of the United States argued that chimpanzee experimentation in the U.S. hurts conservation efforts abroad, as it makes the U.S. look hypocritical on animal welfare.

But there was a third film, not a documentary, that I believe has been more instrumental in shifting the debate on animal rights issues and may be responsible for the forward movement of the bill. That movie is “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” and it pushes the boundaries of conventional filmmaking in more ways than one.

This reboot of the famous “Planet of the Apes” series, much like “Project Nim,” contains scenes that represent typical stages of life for chimpanzees used in research. The opening scene shows a female chimpanzee being captured in the wild and sold to a research facility. There, she gives birth to a baby, who is named Caesar. After she escapes her cage, only to be put down in particularly gruesome fashion in the building’s lobby, the company decides to kill all the chimpanzees at the lab. They were working on a drug to treat Alzheimer’s, but after the incident, they conclude that the drug is affecting the chimpanzees in unpredictable ways and they cannot risk another outburst.

Will Rodman (James Franco), a scientist at the lab, takes in the orphaned Caesar and raises him as his own, rather than watch him be euthanized. In a fun montage, Caesar grows up and finds himself smarter than the average chimpanzee. The drug that Rodman gave his mother has manifested itself in Caesar as hyper-intelligence. Caesar is happy as a clam, and Rodman just might be sitting on a miracle drug.

But this is when the trouble starts. As Caesar grows up, he starts to assert himself. After attacking a stranger in public, Caesar is shipped off to a sanctuary, not unlike where Nim Chimpsky found himself after attacking one of his handlers. Here is a clip, introduced by Andy Serkis, the wonderful motion-capture actor who plays Caesar, of the chimp in his new home:

By the time Caesar lands in the sanctuary, the movie has accomplished something quite miraculous: it has changed protagonists on us. Rodman may have been our entry point into the story, but we now recognize Caesar as the film’s hero. Even though the use of chimpanzees in laboratories (in the film, at least) could result in development of a drug to help humans, the filmmakers show us that the welfare and rights of these animals is paramount. This is what we call a new paradigm: the filmmakers could have argued that the benefit to humans does not outweigh the suffering of the animals used in experiments. But that would have been a complicated argument. Instead, they give us Will Rodman in the first half, grappling over that question; then in the second half, we follow Caesar, a near-human who has been bullied, tortured, and discarded. Caesar’s plight is visceral and universal, and as he figures out how to use his improved intellect by organizing his fellow primate prisoners towards a full-scale revolt, it’s clear who the filmmakers want us to be rooting for. The following sequences represent an animal rights fantasy, as the research animals, mistreated by humans for so many years, get their revenge:



You will notice that the chimpanzees do not hurt anyone in this film who wasn’t attacking them. The filmmakers are careful to present them in a positive light; they are sentient beings fighting for their freedom, not savage beasts.

It is clear that the writers of “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” were inspired by real-life chimpanzees, like Nim, who were raised with humans or suffered from captivity in research labs or poorly-maintained sanctuaries. Interviewed by the Huffington Post at the time of the film’s release, “Rise” screenwriters Amanda Silver & Rick Jaffa recounted how they came up with the idea:

Amanda: Well, Rick has this great habit where he cuts out articles of interest and keeps them in this big folder for when we’re in between — when we’re looking for jobs. And so we were looking for a gig and Rick had cut out these articles that fascinated him about chimps being raised as humans in homes. And what invariably happens in all these instances is that the chimp grows into an aggressive, powerful animal and things go awry. You know, he attacks the owner, he or she attacks the owner or a neighbor or… it always ends badly.

Rick: Tragically.

Amanda: Then the chimp is always put, like Nim, in some sort of facility and traumatized by that. And they’re extremely smart sentient beings without even having any extra smarts put in them, like Caesar.

Predictably, animal rights organizations are holding up “Rise” as a shining example of pro-animal filmmaking. The Humane Society of the United States recently recognized the film at its annual Genesis Awards, citing its pro-animal position on medical research. PETA applauded the filmmakers for using chimpanzees created entirely by motion-capture technology, instead of using real chimpanzees who had been trained as actors – a cruel and controversial practice. The non-profit Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, which promotes the health benefits of a vegan diets and of using non-animal research and training methods, created an online campaign entitled, “The Real Planet of the Apes,” in which individuals were urged to sign a petition to end chimp experimentation.

Given the work that these organizations are doing on Capitol Hill, not to mention those Members of Congress who have championed the bill’s passage, it would be wrong to give the filmmakers all the credit. Of course, there is no direct line from the paradigm-shifting narrative of “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” to the bill’s movement in the Senate. And none of the senators referenced Caesar in the hearing yesterday. But the timing of the momentum of the bill in this Congress leads to an inevitable conclusion: a watershed moment for the animal rights movement is maybe closer than we think, and the filmmakers’ dream of animal liberation – at least for chimpanzees – could soon be a reality.

(Full disclosure: I work for an organization whose work is cited above. As always, I speak only for myself and not for my organization.)

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