‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ puts humanity to the test
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
Photo: Jason Clarke as Malcolm in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”
Peter Singer, a modern philosopher who engages moral tenets head-on in practical living, penned a classic tome, “Animal Liberation” that has become a challenging examination of the ways humanity treats its fellow living creatures. In the chapter, “All Animals Are Equal…,” Singer starts things off in the broadest of terms, positing “the principle of equality of human beings is not a description of an alleged actual equality among humans: it is a prescription of how we should treat human beings.”
He then goes on to quote Jeremy Bentham, founder of the reforming utilitarian school of moral philosophy, during the age when the French had ceased their involvement in the slave trade – prior to the British and, eventually, the American end, which came much later and only after a civil war – who wrote:
“The day may come when the rest of the animal creation may acquire those rights which never could have been withholden from them but by the hand of tyranny. The French have already discovered that the blackness of the skin is no reason why a human being should be abandoned without redress to the caprice of a tormentor. It may one day come to be recognized that the number of the legs, the villosity of the skin, or the termination of the os sacrum are reasons equally insufficient for abandoning a sensitive being to the same fate. What else is it that should trace the insuperable line? Is it the faculty of reason, or perhaps the faculty of discourse? But a full-grown horse or dog is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversational animal, than an infant of a day or a week or even a month, old. But suppose they were otherwise, what would it avail? The question is not, Can they reason? nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?”
“Animal Liberation” was published in 1975, and Bentham’s formation of his particular school of thought came long before that, but the ideas remain curiously relevant today, especially in light of the upcoming release Matt Reeves’s “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” which offers an opportunity to re-examine our tenuous moral position in relation to the animal kingdom. We seem content to base our approach rooted in older notions of the ability of animals to reason or communicate as we do, in order to grant them universal respect. This goes beyond the reality of simple positioning atop the food chain; we continue to keep animals in cages in zoos for our entertainment and we domesticate animals for companionship without considering the state of servitude we are foisting onto them. To reverse this thinking, would it take an animal uprising founded on their ability to reason and speak?
That, in effect, is what the entire “Planet of the Apes” series states. “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” the recent reboot illustrates our desire to exploit apes for dangerous experimental medical testing, which triggers an acceleration in their cognitive abilities, and now in “Dawn” a mutating virus has decimated humanity, while extending the developmental curve for apes. Of course, what we see is a nation of apes taking on the worst aspects of human behavior. They react to our affronts with a more-than-equal degree of aggression.
In much the same way movies like “The Matrix” and “The Terminator” force us to consider a coming conflict between humanity and the machines we have created, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” should remind us it might not be technology we need to fear. The real battle is among members of the animal kingdom. Only when we can see and appreciate the suffering we unleash upon our fellow creatures and make decisions to overthrow this mindset, will we be able to achieve an enlightened approach towards more universal equality.
Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com and visit his blog for additional film reviews at terrencetodd.wordpress.com.