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The thin line between apes and humans

Megan Graham |  25 July 2017


War for the Planet of the Apes. PG-13. Starring: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Karin Konoval. 2 hours 20 minutes.


I came to the Planet of the Apes films a little late, thinking it was just a bit too far on the silly side for my tastes. But with time to kill on a holiday in 2014, I watched Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and found myself surprisingly invested in the emotions of the characters. Released in Australia today is the latest episode: War for the Planet of the Apes.

For a semi-digital character, Caesar (Andy Serkis, reprising his voice and motion-capture performance of the previous films) has immense gravitas, making the whole premise that much easier to buy. As the series’ protagonist, Caesar is a somewhat humanised ape, turned reluctant warrior, who protects apes and leads the rebellion against human oppression.

While War for the Planet of the Apes is perhaps not my favourite of the series, I was kept adequately enthralled by Caesar’s journey throughout, which is due in no small part to Serkis’ ability to convincingly embody a humanoid ape. I feared for the wellbeing of the apes, and grimaced in turn at the mirror held up to human tribalism and its atrocities.

In this latest instalment, apes and humans are engaged in an open all-out war which sees Caesar lead his followers into the forest where they set up and camp and defend their hideout. Importantly, their camp is located within access of an alleged paradise where the apes are promised all the food, water and freedom they could ever want.

This aspect of the plot flagrantly borrows from the story of Moses and the Promised Land—yet the suitability of this analogy strengthens as the story goes on. Caesar’s community endures a brutal attack from the enemy (along with several apes who’ve renounced their species in favour of human servitude). The attack is not without significant casualties, and Caesar’s purpose is set; he embarks on a journey for justice and revenge.

His motivations are conflicted, and the very essence of his character is put to the test. Is he a vengeful being, consumed by hate and no different to his infamous nemesis Koba who caused the community’s undoing? Or is he a devotee of non-violence (or rather, violence only in defence) simply seeking to keep his kind safe from human-inflicted harm?

Division and anarchy reign in the human world, too, as a contagious virus spreads through the population rendering its victims stammering and unable to speak; and thus, lacking in that very quality which is supposed to set them apart from animals.


"That the infected human characters maintain their humanity despite this loss of speech is quite a profound statement on the way we view the uniqueness of the human species."


That the infected human characters maintain their humanity despite this loss of speech is quite a profound statement on the way we view the uniqueness of the human species. As we witness the apes conjure elaborate plans through sign language, and show deep compassion for one another, the viewer must question the lowly status placed on them by the humans.

Of course, the recent reboot films all do this, while the humans continue to underestimate the apes’ intelligence, or infer evil motivations. The humanisation of the apes seems to be a key message, made clear by the favouring of viewpoint that sees humans as alien when compared to the humanity of the apes.

To sharpen this angle a little further, this episode sees a little girl added to Caesar’s traveling group of comrades. Her youthfulness, predictably, leaves her more open-minded and capable of dissolving the conceptual boundaries between human and ape.

Stereotypical skinhead-psycho, the Colonel (Woody Harrelson) is the human leading a war against the apes, as well as a battle against those carrying the virus that has infected swathes of the human population. At one point, with a deep sense of duty, he tells his troops: 'There are times it is necessary to abandon humanity, to save humanity.' A near-satirical line that requires little analysis to get to one of the film’s core messages.

This darker–themed episode delivers some poignant takeaways, but there’s also the occasional moment of humour, several superb action sequences, and mind-blowing CGI that all combine to make a stimulating two hours and 20 minutes of entertainment. The final scenes bring the journey to an end in a way that fans of the series won’t want to miss.


Megan GrahamMegan Graham is a Melbourne based writer.



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Submitted comments

When I see a piece entitled "The Thin Line Between Apes And Humans" written by an ape, I'll believe there's but a thin line between apes and humans.

HH 27 July 2017

Thanks Megan Graham for a very readable, concise account that's made me interested in seeing movies I wouldn't normally view. The issue for theologian/biologists is that primates (including chimps) have been well integrated into natural ecosystems for 10 million years or more. Our species, Homo sapiens, goes back at least 300,000 years, and possibly (in the form of H. erectus) to 2 million years ago, when Homo first spread out of Africa around the world. These First Peoples appear to have lived without warfare according to Robert Sapolsky (in 'BEHAVE: the Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst'. Penguin, 2017; which demolishes faulty analyses by Stephen Pinker et al.). Highly evolved hunter/gatherers are close to us in the Australian Aborigines. Latest research shows they've been here for over 65,000 years and their DNA indicates remarkable locality stability. Thus, most of Homo's 2 million years have been war-free. Interestingly, most animals flourished alongside hunter/gatherer humans. That's until war + human genocide + nature-destruction went ballistic about 6,000 years ago with construction of temples (e.g. Gobekli Tepe), agriculture, & city-living. We - the Second Peoples - are now a problem for apes, the Earth, and God! For more please see: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/318447873_The_%27Anthropocene%27_Misnomer_and_an_Alternative_On_De-obfuscating_a_Discombobulating_Descriptor

Dr Marty Rice 27 July 2017

So, probably, one needs to enjoy these fascinating movies whilst keeping in mind that it's not ALL humans that the persecuted chimps are struggling against, but only a recent version (Second Peoples) who adopted a disconnected and instrumental approach to nature, to other animals, and even towards God! This is surely peaking as WATIC - that is 'western aggressive techno-industrial commerce', which is a meme originating in Britain about 300 years ago and now spreading into most human societies. WATIC is the fundamental cause of the so-called 'Anthropocene Catastrophe'; though 'Pleonexycene Catastrophe' would a better name as it refers to unsustainable demands on the environment, rather than blaming all humankind as does the misnomer 'Anthropocene'. Could the popularity of Planet of the Apes movies reflect unconscious feelings we have about the dehumanizing futures set before us by sci-tech gurus. Like chimps, one imagines, many of us actually enjoy being social primates! How many humans deeply desire to be downloaded on a silicon chip, and then shot into the ultra-freezing, super-vacuum of space in a last-ditch WATIC mad venture to 'conquer the stars'? I think the apes have it.

Dr Marty Rice 28 July 2017

Dear HH, what you posted has an immediate emotional appeal. Sadly, however it obscures some facts: (a) that genuinely human beings have walked this Earth without being able to read and write for at least 300,000 years (and possibly much longer); (b) that literacy as we know it arose for commercial purposes about 3,300 BCE in Sumer; (c) that many people around the world live full human lives but without having learned to read and write; and, (d) that some educated people - even some in Australia - never become literate. It's not writing that distinguishes humans from other types of primates. You would maybe enjoy reading Franz de Waal's popular book "Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Really Are?" (Norton: 2016). It is a corrective of our hubristic promethean self-perception which is currently endangering our only planet. As far as we know, Earth is the only place in the vast universe that has the wonder of living organisms - we need to share it humbly with all other peoples, apes, coral reefs, rainforests, etc. Isn't it the gaining of a balanced appreciation of reality that defines a properly educated person - rather than literacy per se?

Dr Marty Rice 29 July 2017

My point was not that if you merely can't write you're not up with humans, Dr M, but that if you *can* write you *are* up with us. Writing evinces sufficient proof of the kind of consciousness humans have: a self-consciousness that entails a moral element. Merely not being able to write doesn't exclude one as a human: but not having in principle the capacity to (eventually) learn to write (which even a one-second old human zygote has) does. Australian aborigines didn't have writing. But they were obviously capable of learning it, as are those humans who are still illiterate today. And no-one disputes that they had had language, self-consciousness, and a moral sense all along. (Plus painting, too, which is as significant in this regard as writing.) Apes and other creatures, amazing as some of their abilities are (including some form of painting), have yet to demonstrate they have them in a way that corresponds unambiguously to human abilities, especially the moral dimension. When and if it turns out that a given non-human does, well, we should see it praised and/or punished according to its decisions, as are humans. And not killed and eaten. (See Roger Scruton's "Eat Your Friends".)

HH 31 July 2017

Many thanks HH for your careful reply & interesting info. Am concerned about: "Writing evinces sufficient proof of the kind of consciousness humans have: a self-consciousness that entails a moral element." Haven't some highly literate people been repulsively immoral ('The Prince'; 'Justine'; 'Mein Kampf'; etc.)? Also, it's now possible to build robots that act self-consciously, communicate in several languages; &, murder in cold blood. I agree with you that the essence of our human nature is a capacity to make free ethical choices - we are cognitively EChOs (ethically choosing organisms). Interestingly, that fits a theological 'Image of God' descriptor, in that God is totally admirable in being able to freely choose from the whole range of goods & evils, yet always chooses the perfectly good, at whatever the cost to God. On a good day, humans can be echoes of God! (see 'Creatio Ex Ethica' on web). Megan's great film review tended to highlight the chimps (probably instinctual) capacity for social and ecological responsibility. This contrasts unfavourably with the irresponsibility of Second Peoples' wars, pollution, species depauperation, and habitat destruction. Yet, the original humans lived in harmony with Earth, without wars; with little use for literacy. Waddya think?

Dr Marty Rice 01 August 2017

Thanks, Dr Rice ... I'm very much enjoying your contributions. Slightly off topic, but addressing the issue of human consciousness/knowledge and its complexities, you might enjoy this IMO mindblowing short clip of the Thomist philosopher Eleonore Stump. It's an answer to a question from a student in class: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XKc-podgxAw

HH 07 August 2017

Thanks HH; much appreciated.

Dr Marty Rice 08 August 2017

Re HH: I don’t see what you prove by pointing to the kind of self-consciousness that entails a moral sense. What good is a moral faculty – in itself - if you are not good? The headline was that there is a thin line between apes and humans: but perhaps the line is not so thin when one considers that the planet may have done much better if the evolved “morally facultative” humans had never taken over and treated the planet and other animals and species as their own. That we can’t presume to think we know exactly how smart other animals are, seems a viable proposition and if that is the case, we can hardly be smug about assuming none of them have a moral sense of their own, or a creational worth every bit as important as our own. A film about ‘humanised’ apes, that shows both parallels and contrasts with humans, may be inviting us to question the traditional attitude of species and moral superiority [aka your “you are up with us”] , so that we can do what we can to mitigate what Dr Rice calls the Pleonexycene catastrophe.

smk 12 August 2017

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