War for the Planet of the Apes: an Interrogation of Human Nature

War for the planet of the apes, a mastery of the art of photography and camerawork, a film with a narrative so intense that the 140 minutes of its duration flew-by effortlessly. A thoroughly enjoyable film and more than worthy of its 95% rating by the American film review aggregation Rotten Tomatoes. It was a fine continuation from the prior Planet of the Apes movies (Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Dawn of the Planet of The apes) and successfully maintained the rigour that is so often lost in sequel movies. I must commend the Screenwriter, Mark Bomback, for vividly conveying his vision of a post-apocalyptic dystopia consumed by the tension between the surviving humans that are genetically immune to the ALZ-113 Virus or Simian Flu and the highly intellectual Apes that threaten the existence of man. Indeed, the cinematography and my desire to see how the confrontation between the apes and humans develops encouraged me to watch the film, and will encourage me to watch any following films; however, from the first to the most recent film an underlying interest persists. This interest looks to scrutinise human nature and it was through watching War for the planet of the Apes that I was somewhat immersed in a spirited interrogation of human nature. The movie forced me to confront question like: what are the foundations of human nature? Is our nature a transcription and translation of our genetic makeup? Are there universal inclinations that make our actions predictable? To what extent are we autonomous and free agents if we are slaves to our nature? A plethora of questions sprung to mind, some very difficult to answer but I hope the exercise of rationale via this blog post aids me in my endeavour to answer these questions. It only seems fitting to title this post: ‘War for the Planet of Apes: an interrogation of human nature’.

Caesar leading Maurice, Nova, Rocket and Luca on horseback by the sea as they journey to the border facility tailing the military faction known as Alpha-Omega.

Caesar, ruler of the Apes!

Julius Caesar! One of Rome’s finest military generals, a politician and consul with great talent in the art of rhetoric. Julius Caesar has left his mark on history as one of the greatest leaders of men, and with his leading of men it’s seems pertinent to draw comparisons to the leader of the apes, Caesar. One of the more significant reasons for my fascination with the Planet of the Apes films is the fact that it enables one to make comparisons between human and non-human species. I find this a challenging yet intellectually stimulating task because it requires me to adopt the perception of something other than human, which is a foreign practice to the anthropocentrism of our nature. If we could empathise with non-human species to the extent we can with humans, then I very much think that the world would be alien to the world in its current state. However, my admiration for the film War for the Planet of Apes was greatly increased by a gained ability to perceive the world through the eyes of Caesar. I felt so comfortable in acknowledging Caesar as non-human (despite being conveyed by Andy Serkis) and understanding that my adoption of Caesars perspective was an act of empathising with a non-human species. With that established, looking at human nature from an exterior or non-human point of view was something I thought to be possible and through watching the movie, this was a venture I was happy to undertake. In the movie, Caesar saw loss on it grandest level due to the murder of his Son and Wife and to some extent I could feel his emotional passion; but what are the ramifications of these feelings? As we saw, upon seeing the lifeless bodies of his loved ones, Caesar sought to exact revenge but more importantly his immediate reaction was irrational. Caesar attacked colonel McCullough, who took the lives of his wife and eldest son, and this nearly resulted in his death. The reason why I highlight this event is because I think it is telling of our nature as human beings; one of our most potent incentives for action is loss. Loss, whether it be loss of life (friends or family), loss of the material (possessions) or loss of sanity (mental stability), loss seems to be a strong stimulus for specific behaviours. On this basis, I came to appreciate loss as a primary driver for our actions thus making the feelings of loss and responding to such feelings central to human nature. Although through loss Caesar acted irrationally, like many humans do, it was loss that also encouraged his expertise in leadership thus living up to the name given to him. The colonel’s intrusion of the ape habitat meant that Caesar could gather his thoughts and offer a trajectory for the apes, which involved a great migration; tenuous biblical nuances, a potential reference to Moses, another great leader depicted in sacred literature. However, this journey for the apes, which encountered rather harsh difficulties, was orchestrated by Caesars own sacrifice, he decided to leave his young son Cornelius to branch of on a mission that would bring justice to the colonel. Might this have been a selfish decision based on anguish? Potentially, nevertheless, Caesar was of the belief that in leaving the Apes to exact revenge, he was aiding them on their journey, so in that respect, in giving up his close proximity to his beloved apes Caesar was showing a great deal of sacrifice. As I was watching the film I very much praised Caesar for this sacrificial act because it provoked thoughts of the sacrifices my own parents have gone through. It also emphasised that in the name of love (love for his fellow apes) and hate (hate for the colonel) humans are willing to compromise their own comfort for the comfort of other. Caesar knew that this lone journey would test both his physical and mental fortitude but he committed to the sacrifice he was willing to make. Through Caesar I was able to question whether it is within human nature to look to further solely one’s own ends. As I look at my mother, the answer became abundantly clear: there is a faculty within our nature that enables us to jeopardise our own comfort and future for the sake of others. Through Caesars leadership, loss and sacrifice I came to a greater understanding of what it means to be human. Ironically, looking at the world, empathising, through the eyes of fictional Ape, I was able to answer questions on our nature; Indeed, this was a paradoxical endeavour but was nonetheless meaningful.

Caesar!! ‘The Ape himself’

To oppress, enslave and dehumanise … an innate inclination?

Throughout the course of history, it is clear that our species has a predilection for oppressing and the taking of one’s freedom. Some of humanity’s most creative exploits have been encouraged by a relentless desire to see a fellow human being as lesser and unworthy of a certain amount of respect; and this has warranted the cruelty that we see in imprisonment, forced labour and slavery. So in the movie, seeing the apes imprisoned and forced to work in rather hostile conditions at the border facility governed by the autocrat, Colonel McCullough, I sought to comprehend the extent to which humans desire to see another individual or group of individuals as of less intrinsic value. The apes may not have been human but I still had a resentful stance of their subjugation, and due to their shows of compassion, empathy and intellectual prowess, I went some lengths in giving them equal intrinsic value to that of humans. This gave me reason to be discontent with their enslavement. So taking this into consideration, I had to question whether we enslave, or whether we sabotage the liberty in others based on inclinations driven by our nature. I believe it takes more than just rationale to come up with justifications for the enslavement of a people, I believe there must be a deep-rooted hunger to allow for any form of dehumanisation. Let’s take for example history’s most ruthless and destructive form of slavery and oppression against a people: the enslavement of Black Africans. For 200+ years of transatlantic slavery to persist, American and European imperialists did not just use logic-based pseudoscience (e.g. The black African man had more genetic and behavioural characteristics similar to an Ape than the modern man) to justify the dehumanisation of the African man, for such brutality and behaviours nothing short of pure evil to persist for as long as it did, they must of had a genuine yearning to see the black African man as inferior. But what truly gives my spirit reason to be full of trepidation is that this yearning, this hunger for dehumanisation, in being so deep-rooted, seems to be a manifestation of our nature. Such thought could give any person reason to lose faith in humanity and fall into despair. One could see in the eyes of colonel McCullough that beyond the threat of Simian flu (a fear that was exacerbated by the virus’s mutational abilities and the resulting pathological effects on the cognitive functions of who were thought to be genetically immune humans), McCullough had a profound hatred for the apes. It was this hatred that seemed so at one with his nature that incentivised the heinous treatment of the apes in the border facility. It seemed fair to conclude that exterior to the movie, it is within the nature of some, not all because human nature is very much multifaceted; nevertheless, it is in the nature of some to look to dehumanise and thus enslave. This is an incredibly daunting thought, particularly if those with power have this sort of nature; however, there are elements of our nature that look to liberate and increase the potential for freedom. Caesar, although not human, goes some lengths as a reflection of an individual who has given their life for the freedom and autonomy of others; In Caesar I see Nelson Mandela, Harriet Tubman, William Wilberforce and many other great liberators.

Lake lifting a rock as a sign of her and the apes’ willingness to continue the forced labour so that Caesar (who is being held at gunpoint by the Colonel) is not killed
The Apes behind bars, imprisoned at the border facility governed by Colonel McCullough

Freedom and determinism: is freedom an illusion?

Physicalism (a prerequisite of determinism) is the philosophical position that there is nothing beyond the physical basis of this universe, that is to say that the universe is governed and operates by the confines of the laws of physics. This position holds that the universe functions by cause-and-effect, and notion akin to the Domino theory (every action has an antecedent cause). This means that human behaviour, human inclinations are somewhat predictable because we are beings subject to the laws of physics, thus we may argue that our actions are determined. If our actions are determined by things like our genetic constitution, this makes our actions foreseeable and if we judge our nature by our actions then logic tells us that our nature is therefore predictable. This deterministic stance has many implications; for example, in regards to the criminal justice system, to what extent can we say an individual is guilty of a criminal act if they acted based on their nature, bearing in mind that some argue that an act based on nature is inevitable; should we prosecute an individual based on actions beyond their control. The more important implication or query that I sought to address when watching the movie was to what extent can we think of human beings as autonomous agents if our actions are confined strictly to our nature and our nature is simply a behavioural manifestation of our genetics. Does this suggest that Col McCullough and his followers couldn’t have treated the apes in any other way, that is to say that they had no control over the cruel way in which they treated the apes at the border facility. Is our freedom to act simply an illusion? Are our actions part of an infinite chain of antecedent actions? Maybe humanity’s fear of the world developing to a state where the dominant species are apes and acting so to prevent this being realised is hardwired in our nature. This suggests that the hostility shown to the apes by humans may not have been entirely volitional. However, the theory of an infinite chain of causal events remains very much hypothetical. There are credible arguments from the libertarian position that suggests that humans are fully autonomous agents and are capable of acting against what may be inscribed in our genetic make-up, consequently acting against our nature based on our ability to reason and think rationally. I personally sway more to libertarianism then to determinism, which gives me reason to condemn Col McCullough for his subjugation and oppression of the apes because his desire for such is fully volitional. Furthermore, I look at libertarian arguments like that which uses Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle or indeterminacy principle, which in analysing quantum mechanics suggests that the universe may not function by cause-and-effect. Human freedom and an ability to make fully autonomous decisions is to me, possible. Therefore, for every action performed by humans to benefit or disadvantage the apes in the movie, the humans are to be held accountable for these actions and I extend this understanding beyond the movie to real life.

Caesar and Nova on horseback, Nova is unable to speak due to infection by the mutated pathotype / strain of Simian Flu
Colonel McCullough (played by Woody Harrelson) standing before Caesar

Does an Ape know right from wrong better than humans … surely not … maybe?

Is there correlation between the increasing intellectual capacity of a species and their ability to act morally? War for the planet of the apes displays the ape community schooling the human community on how to be moral. The irony is bittersweet seeing as it is difficult for humans to conceive of an ape acting outside of what is thought to be an unscrupulous nature.  The ape community seemed to show more harmony and cohesion than the human communities, and yes there were some exceptions in the ape community, namely Koba from Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (the ape that haunts Caesars memories in the latest sequel), but on whole the ape community had an admirable sense of togetherness. This togetherness and encouragement for goodness is a clear indication of the impressive moral nature of the apes which is at a stark contrast to that of the humans. I was forced to reflect on the nature of human goodness to an extent that I never had before. I was really touched when Caesar had the opportunity to kill Col McCullough, the Col who savagely took away his wife and eldest son, and in the intensity of the situation Caesar decided not to pull the trigger because Caesar knew that in killing the colonel and in exacting revenge, he would be no different or more righteous than the colonel himself. At this intense moment in the movie I realised what it means to be of high moral character. I believe that the writers of this movie fully intended for us to contemplate on our moral nature, I believe that the writers wanted us to awaken to the potential of our moral life and they did this by using apes as a means of evoking feelings of humility. We are forced to ask how is it that apes can reach the zenith of moral fortitude when moral behaviour is something we as humans believe is exclusive to our nature. This is what makes the movie so powerful and so meaningful because it encapsulates us in thoughts of what it means to be human and what it means to act based on human nature. I was forced to do an exercise which is very much foreign to what I’m used to doing: self-interrogation, and I uncovered much understanding of my own nature and the nature of others and this is why it seemed apt to think of War for the Planet of Apes as an interrogation of human nature.

Caesar, Cornelius (Caesars youngest son) and Lake (partner of Caesars late son, Blue Eyes); Lake was to take care of Cornelius as Caesar set out to exact revenge on Colonel McCullough. I use this image as an indication of the togetherness and affection amongst the ape community
war 3
War for the Planet of the Apes: an Interrogation of Human Nature


Written by Timi Sanusi

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