It’s prime primate-time again, with Rise of the Planet of the Apes now in theatres and the doc Project Nim opening across the country (it already screened here July 21 as part of EIFF’s Summer Series and should be on disc by October). Simians rose up on screen well before Rise’s famous ancestor, Planet of the Apes (1968), itself an adaptation of Pierre Boulle’s 1963 novel, La Planète des singes (the book ends with a different twist than the movie). And that’s largely because they became a symbol of evolution, etched into public consciousness, in a Tennessee courtroom in July 1925.
The Scopes monkey trial was a face-off between the State of Tennessee and the American Civil Liberties Union after the ACLU backed a test case—John Scopes, a high school teacher, taught evolution in defiance of the Butler Act, pushed through in the state by the head of the World’s Christian Fundamentals Association. In the small town of Dayton, on July 21, Scopes was found guilty and fined $100 (about $1250 US today).
Inherit the Wind, a 1955 play based on the trial, was turned into a number of TV movies and a 1960 film; a book about the case, The Great Monkey Trial, looked back on the showy show-down of religion and Darwinism as a media spectacle. That circus atmosphere, of humans behaving less than reasonably as they debated a theory derived from scientific reasoning, was the kind of irony that Boulle’s book and its movie franchise were based on. In a world where we already often behave “primitively” and less than humanely, what if our apparently closest animal relatives were our masters, sure of their own superior intelligence?
But even then, twelve years before the Scopes monkey trial hit the news, Edgar Rice Burroughs had launched his pulpy romance-adventure series about a blue-blooded Englishman, ignorant of his ancestral rights, who was raised by apes in the jungles of west Africa. In the course of more than two dozen wildly popular books stretching on into the 1940s (and nearly 100 movies since 1918), Tarzan battled intruders and invaders, discovered more about his birth, and faced off against the savage ape leader, Kerchak. White imperialism, racism, human superiority all ensued as Tarzan’s romance with the first white woman he ever saw, Jane, blossomed. (In the real world, chimp researcher Jane Goodall is one of the famous trinity of ape researchers, along with the late gorilla researcher Diane Fossey and orangutan researcher Birute Galdikas; Galdikas’ cook was raped by an orangutan and Julia Roberts nearly was while making a documentary at Galdikas’ camp.)
The appeal of these “apes of wrath” stories seems to lie mostly in their odd marriage of Darwin and Marx—a species treated as inferior rises up in revolt … but against us, the ones who’d thought we were once God’s special creatures. It’s a mixture of envy and fear, of wishing to revolt and containing revolt, of acknowledging that we may not be quite as masterful a species as we thought but still, usually, reasserting our mastery. (At least, Tarzan does, though in most of the Apes movies, we remain slavishly subjugated to our simian betters.)
Project Nim, like many of the fictional films that get on with monkey-business, is preoccupied with “intelligence”—it looks back on Columbia researchers studying the language acquisition of a chimp, Nim Chimpsky. Most of our five-fingered forest-dwelling friends seem to communicate with some kind of verbal language (“Mangani” in Burroughs’ books; Nim’s name is a riff on Noam Chomsky, famous MIT linguist), to use tools, and to be taught new skills by researchers. But in many of these books and films, intelligence—much like many movies’ conceptions of too-brainy robots—comes to involve exploitation, betrayal and rebellion. Tables are turned and power’s reversed as the mentally probed break out of their cages.
In the ’60s, growing revulsion at our own atomic-bomb inhumanity, the chilly Cold War atmosphere, and other timely concerns only added to the first Ape movie’s power. Rise of the Planet of the Apes updates the story of simian subversiveness by introducing genetic engineering and animal-testing—the apes are being experimented on for a cure to Alzheimer’s with an engineered retro-virus, so the quest for a solution to the disintegration of aged-human intelligence leads to the super-acceleration of youthful-ape intelligence.
And most of all this wildly romantic or sci-fi speculation stems from a much-repeated, super-simplified scientific “fact”—that 98.7 percent of the DNA in chimps is the same as that in humans. What that “intelligent” discovery ignores, of course, are the exponential differences that environment, culture and “civilization” can make … for better and worse. Like most primate pics, The Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Project Nim—though in starkly different ways—examine the danger of the Darwinian doppelganger, and the hopes, horrors and hubris behind thinking another creature is so human-like.
And while simian showmanship, some say, may have “saved cinema” in its early days, from the bigtop’s stars swinging their way onto the silver screen to King Kong clobbering the box-office in 1933, these days, real chimps aren’t made to act for the camera and their CGI counterparts offer up “penitential reflections of our mistreatment of our closest cousins. … ‘It's the end of the liberal dream that you could change the world for the better,’ says [documentarian] Adam Curtis … ‘When that failed it was taken as evidence of the dark genetic forces with humans. If we are all connected, we can’t be made good. So now we’re left with liberals going to documentaries that say to them: you are bad, you are flawed, we’re all a bit crap and there's nothing you can do about it. That’s nature.’” Apes’ on-screen evolution—from chimp-imp clown to lab subject to “erotic cipher” to killer to sidekick to “moral superior”—really only reflects our own halting “progress” in thinking about how we treat and portray our fellow hominids.