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“Careful. Human no like smart ape.”
George Dvorsky   Aug 13, 2011   Sentient Developments  

It’s been a while since I’ve been so excited about a science fiction movie. But can you blame me?

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (hereafter abbreviated to ROTPOTA) is the first feature film that I can remember that explicitly addresses a number of topics so near and dear to my heart—namely biotech, transgenics, enhancement, non-human personhood, and animal welfare. Admittedly, I went into the theatre expecting more spectacle than cerebral stimulation, but I’m happy to say the film offers considerable food for thought.

This movie explored two primary themes, one of which is new to the franchise, the other being a staple of the series. Specifically, I’m referring to (1) intelligence augmentation and its empowering and civilizing effects and (2) the ongoing perils of in-group thinking and tribalism.

posterIn terms of the latter theme, ROTPOTA held true to the original 1968 film which largely served as a metaphor for contemporary social ills like racism, bigotry, elitism, class struggle and, of course, animal abuse. What made ROTPOTA particularly fascinating from a stylistic perspective, however, is that it turned the original movie on its head by showing apes being prodded by tasers and locked behind cages—a clever inversion of the original film’s clever inversion. This was done quite effectively and it brought about a sense of pathos for the chimps—enhanced or otherwise.

Okay, this is the part where I start to introduce some plot points and spoilers. But don’t let that stop you from reading on if you haven’t seen the movie—I don’t think it’ll detract from your experience.

Uplift and Away

In ROTPOTA, the reason for animal enhancement is somewhat glossed over; it’s a plot device that furthers the story and serves to explain the ascendancy of the apes. It happens because scientists inadvertently augment chimp intelligence while testing out a potential cure for Alzheimer’s disease. It was a kind of happy accident. But as a result, the film never properly addresses the ethics involved. Consequently, the “ought or not” in regards to uplift is never fully articulated or fleshed out. And in this sense the movie feels a bit incomplete.

That said, the underlying commentary about how intelligence can serve as an empowering and emancipatory force was very much at the forefront. The film’s protagonist, the enhanced chimp Ceasar, used his cognitive gifts to overcome his predicament—that being his confinement to an ape shelter in which he was forced back to a primitive existence and abused by both the staff and other chimps.

Indeed, the scenes in the shelter were some of the most poignant, bringing to mind such films as 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Truman Show. Reminiscent of the apes in 2001, Caesar was caught between animal savagery and civilized potential. And like the outer boundaries of the giant studio in The Truman Show, the walls of the sanctuary were a giant illusion that presented a false sense of freedom. Though painted with trees and skyscapes, the walls were a hard boundary, a metaphor for limits, constraints, and oppression. The shelter offered Caesar a glimpse into what life would be like in the natural state—a life filled with mind numbing brutality and devoid of any potential.

It was only until Caesar successfully took charge of his tribe (a classic case of brain over braun), uplifted his primate brethren, and outwitted his detainers that he and the other apes were able to escape. It was intelligence augmentation as a force for liberation. Moreover, Caesar introduced to the pack a kinder, gentler way of being. It was important to him that they work cooperatively in their struggle for freedom and mete out as little violence as possible. In this sense, uplift was portrayed as a force for increased benevolence and enlightenment.

Us and Them

In terms of the second primary theme, that of tribalism and prejudice, the film demonstrated the dangers of ‘us and them’ mentalities and how it gives rise to alienation. It was through the exclusion, isolation and exploitation of the chimps that humans caused a sense of in-group tribalism to emerge among them.

Caesar, who was raised by humans, could initially relate to his human family. But as time passed and as he came to understand his situation, he felt more and more unsure about his place and identity. Forced to wear a leash when out in public, Caesar wondered if he was more of a pet than a person. His alienation grew complete after he was abandoned and abused in the draconian ape shelter. No longer willing to relate or even associate with humans, Caesar organized an escape along with the other apes and sought refuge outside the human community in the Redwood Forest.


Indeed, Caesar’s hand was largely forced on account of his poor treatment. Tortured, neglected, and ridiculed, he became increasingly radical. The division between the apes and the humans, he believed, was far too inalienable—he had to act. What made this particularly obvious to Caesar was that his human handlers were not just unwilling to recognize and acknowledge his intelligence, but they were clearly threatened by it. As his orangutang comrade indicated through sign language, “Careful. Human no like smart ape.”

Interestingly, I feel that this is a prevailing fear among many of those who oppose animal uplift.  The worry is that humanity could lose its exalted place at the top of the food chain. Creating human-like intelligences would force us to acknowledge the personhood of these animals. We’d have to find a way to live alongside them. Moreover, they may eventually supercede our own abilities, which would pose a potential scenario reminiscent of the original Planet of the Apes story.

But as ROTPOTA suggests, it doesn’t have to be this way. Exclusion and indifference gives rise to tribalism, and when gone too far, it creates radicalism. The ultimate take-away from this movie is that it’s through the abandoning of in- and out-group mentalities that we can strive to minimize these types of situations from occurring.

What do you think about animal uplift? In response to this provocative new movie, we’ve posted a poll question for our readers. Give us your opinion!

George P. Dvorsky serves as Chair of the IEET Board of Directors and also heads our Rights of Non-Human Persons program. He is a Canadian futurist, science writer, and bioethicist. He is a contributing editor at io9 — where he writes about science, culture, and futurism — and producer of the Sentient Developments blog and podcast. He served for two terms at Humanity+ (formerly the World Transhumanist Association). George produces Sentient Developments blog and podcast.


I loved the movie too.  Just loved it. I live in San Francisco which is the setting and it was gloriously used, especially when the apes crash through the windows in the Financial District and battle cops on the Golden Gate Bridge - finally escaping into Muir Woods.  Five Stars Check It Out.

I saw the film with a friend who was very disturbed by it, interesting, he was unnerved by his “ape-phobia”—the vision of our primate cousins attacking us.  I wasn’t.  I was rooting for the monkeys.

@ Hank.. Thanks for the ultimate spoiler! Although I woulda, kinda, guessed that be the case, (sequels pending?)

And yet STILL we are projecting our own human values, emotions, hopes, fears and aspirations for equality and social justice onto our nearest cousins? Seems we need this timeless story concerning apes to perpetuate these primal dreams of equality and unity - but why do we rely on movies to enact our “human” hopes? Why don’t we practise the social justice we preach?

It is poignant that in the same week as UK riots we have the release of this movie here - coincidence? Yet the symbolism is globally relevant!

@ George.. You touched on tribalism, political and social divisions and the need for “underlying unity”.. Getting there eh?


I think there is no more appropriate time for this song then now:

Tool - Right in Two

Monkey killing monkey over pieces of the ground

Angels on the sideline

I am Monkey.

You are Monkey.

“Give a human a brain, and he’ll swear he’s the center of the universe” - (I think that’s Fishbone, but please correct me if I’m wrong)

I doubt this will get published (hey Mike: you need to figure out how to open up this forum to make it more free/egailtarian)

But, I think George is probably 3rd in my most favorite transhumanists, within a certain parameter, behind Clay Shirky and John Smart.

He is one of the few people who “almost get’s it”.

Speaking of apes and people:

This movie is a direct warning to groups of people on this earth that “think” they are superior because of a gift from God.
To place your people and self higher then other races of people on earth is a ticket to hell.
Once the other animal humans gain intellect and knowledge via the internet and social media, we shall see a class warfare, and the rise of the Goyim!

I really feel the smart or not debate to be not poetic. I liked the movie as a good american super production and wasn’t surprised they could go deeper. I really wish to see enhanced apes, but more than enhanced plainly, explore the diffetent kinds of enhancments we could create like, some apes good at music, some other good at something else etc.

A bit like US humans are (but more extrem)

Philosopher Peter Singer discusses a recently released documentary about the life and travails of “Nim Chimpsky,” a chimpanzee who was taken from his mother a few days after birth and was removed from the companionship of other chimps for four years in order to be the subject of language experiments during the 1970’s. Nim’s career, both as an animal subject and as an inmate abandoned at a primate center, has uncanny similarities to Caesar in The Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

The film, titled Project Nim is currently in limited release in the U.S.

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