Humans and Animals, Civilization and Barbarism: A Review of ‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’

Human civilization is in crisis. Economies are faltering, inequality is rising, and the climate is heating up. Social discontent is on the rise; political unrest simmers. In the meantime, people are polluting the planet, and we are consuming energy faster than we find suitable replacements. No matter how you describe the litany of problems, it’s hard to deny that there is something wrong with the world.

There has always been something amiss of course, and there will always be. But this one seems a bit different. Maybe things have become so bad that we have post-apocalyptic movies popping left and right over the last decade or so. From disaster films like The Day After Tomorrow and 2012 to zombie movies and programs like World War Z and The Walking Dead, even TV shows like The Last Ship and Revolution, more and more people seem to imagine the end of the world, or envision what life is like once social order completely breaks down. 

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (DPA) is the latest movie to do so. It is set in the future in which a virus virtually wipes out the entire human race; and few survivors live in an age where apes are in the ascendancy. But movies like this are not really about the future; like the prophets of the Hebrew Bible (what Christians know as the Old Testament), these films not so much divine the future as reflect grimly on the present.

While The Walking Dead dramatizes day-to-day morals amidst a kill-or-be-killed system and shows us how (literally) dragging the end of the world can be (with few exceptions of panicky scenes), the DPA reflects on and (re)thinks no less than questions of the relationship between humans and animals, progress and decay, peace and violence, reason and madness, and between civilization and barbarism.

On the surface, DPA is about the conflict between these dualities. We normally see them as diametric opposites, but as we shall see, the movie doesn’t go for such simple binaries; it doesn’t assign humans to civilization, peace, and reason on the one hand, and apes to madness, violence, and barbarism on the other. Instead, it illustrates that the boundaries between these dualities have broken down, as has the social order.  In this post-apocalyptic age, violence and peace are not a monopoly of either apes or humans. There are a few trigger-happy apes and humans, but they also have their cool, peace-loving counterparts. Neither is intelligence a human-only property; as the case of Caesar shows, apes can speak English, fire guns, and think and act like human beings. They can dissemble, lie, plan, cheat and steal, just as well as any person (or some politicians) can.

But this breaking down of binaries yields insights on a more nuanced relationship between reason and madness, civilization and barbarism, peace and violence, and the like. The movie teaches us that both sides of these dualities are not (always) mutually exclusive; only a thin dividing line stands between them, so much so that they implicate and necessitate one another; each lies deep within the other. Developing human-like intelligence among apes is a supreme achievement of reason and civilization, science and technology. Yet the apes also represent man’s hubris and madness, which then necessitate the downfall of the human race. Conversely, the apes themselves cannot simply dismissed as irrational, uncivilized barbarians, for they are unnervingly smart just as people are. Furthermore, the movie grimly reminds us that you cannot have peace without violence. Caesar may be peace-loving (“ape not kill ape”) leader, but he has to get blood on his hands and fight Koba to the death to maintain and restore order. Perhaps this is why the movie [spoiler alert] ends not in peace, but in anticipation of war, a fact that Caesar stoically accepts. He seems to understand that war and violence is a perpetual condition of civilization.

Furthermore, if peace and violence, reason and madness, civilization and barbarism are not simply polar opposites, they are also constitutive of or even mirror images of each other. Reason, some might say, is a form of madness; the Enlightenment, which championed Reason among other things, is said to have led to the Terror in France, World War I, and later on, the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. Violence, remarks the theologian John Dominic Crossan, comprises ‘the normalcy of civilization.’ The ancient Mesopotamians (they who gave birth to civilization as we know it ) knew that civilization entailed a continuous, titanic struggle; in one of their stories (myths to us), the gods forge life out of chaos, and the chief deity, Marduk, slays Tiamat, from whose corpse humanity is created. Creation involves destruction. The Greeks also grappled with the question of violence and its role in civilized life; in the Oresteia, the Furies chase and cry out for Orestes’ blood in vengeance for slaying his mother, who in turn had killed his father, Agamemnon. The cycle of violence did stop, but only because the Furies were enshrined and incorporated into the polis. Violence is not cast out of civilization, only contained. And as far as the relationship between civilization and barbarism goes, we can learn from Walter Benjamin, who said that “there is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a record of barbarism.” The glory and grandeur of Rome was bought at the cost of slavery and conquest, just as the culture, civilization of the West hinged on the exploitation of colonies.

As humanity reflects on such questions through films like DPA, one gets a sense that human civilization has come full circle. That we tackle these issues perhaps suggests that we’ve returned to the condition, time, or mindset wherein humans keenly realize(d) how fragile civilization is, how it demands a lot of hard work. As we have seen, the ancients knew this; they were only beginning to create civilization and knew firsthand how difficult the process was. We moderns, however, are destroying it; we’ve built so much and have come so far, yet given the various problems we face, it feels as if we’re almost back to where we started.

Understanding the interplay of civilization and barbarism, reason and irrationality, peace and violence, progress and decay ought to give us pause, if not humility. All of us champion progress, reason, and development; we all want things to improve, but we ought to realize that our quest for better, faster, larger often comes at a huge cost. We can’t have our civilizational cake and eat it too. And if we understood this, maybe we’d tame our appetites, accept our limits, and live within our means. Perhaps we’d take better care of our environment, consume fewer resources, work less, curb our desires for power and profit, and enjoy life a little bit more.

And when we see that civilization is not simply the enemy of barbarism, we’d perhaps stop clinging to the notion of a clash of civilizations, in which reason, secularism, enlightened values, and liberal democracy of the West are pitted against the fanaticism, bigotry, and backwardness of, say, the Islamic world (at least as imagined by right-wing, anti-Muslim critics). Indeed, DPA has much to teach us about dealing with the Other. It’s not a coincidence that an ape—an animal—is the protagonist of the movie.  DPA wants to shows u how the Other side lives, and urges us to sympathize with it accordingly.  However, as the movie progresses, we realize the Other is not really an Other; Caesar sadly remarks that apes are not so different from humans after all, and that both are as capable of peace and violence. Of course, it also helps that of all animals, apes resemble humans the most, at least as far as genetic material is concerned. DPA needed an animal who is different from humans, yet similar to them in many ways. The other has to be Other, but not too much.

At any rate, the point here is that there is no fundamental divide between both. Indeed, the scene that really unites man and ape in the movie is when Keri Russell’s character treats Caesar’s wife. Here, a frail, vulnerable body forges the bond, understanding, and solidarity between humans and apes. Despite their apparent differences, both share more or less the same body and respond to illness in similar ways. This reminds us that people are animals too; Alasdair Macintyre writes in Dependent Rational Animals, our rationality is part of our animality.

But more importantly, this point also offers us a lesson in how we treat others, one that some (im)migration policy makers would do well to hear. Some people may seem alien, different, and foreign; at extremes, we treat them as vermin (think the Holocaust). Yet for all our cultural, social, and political differences, we share the same body. That is enough reason not to exploit and discriminate against our fellows. Of course, it’s not as easy as that, for people are more than their bodies; however, any policy that ignores and doesn’t start from our vulnerability and creatureliness—what Marx called our species being—is bound to be flawed. Sometimes, appealing to the body can be a more powerful argument than abstract notions of freedom and justice.


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