Sunday, February 19, 2012

Primates Portrayal in Film

The human species has a special connection with and relationship to primates, and not simply because we share up to 96% of our DNA. Throughout media developments of the last 50 years, major motion pictures have addressed and engaged with the topic of primates. Sometimes monkeys are involved as sidekicks in popular movies such as Aladdin, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. However, most film makers choose to use primates as a method to achieve fear for cinematic purposes, rather than convey more meaningful messages. In this post, I will discuss three films in particular, Congo (1995), Outbreak (1995), and Planet of the Apes (1968, 2001, 2011) to analyze how primates can be portrayed.    
The movie Congo, released in 1995, is based on a Michael Crichton novel and stars Laura Linney and Dylan Walsh. In this film, a greedy corporation seeks a supply of rare diamonds and sends a research and recovery team deep into gorilla-dominated Congo. The gorillas in this film are considered a "special" breed, the "white ape" or a aggressive variation of the common Silverback Gorilla. The film makers present gorillas that are highly intelligent, organized, and combative and vicious as they battle with the humans sent to explore the diamond territory. An interesting undertone is that humans choose to insert themselves into this more "unpredictable" natural environment for personal and corporate gain. Sadly, the movie slogan sums up the theme and portrayal of these primates: "Congo: where you are the endangered species."

The next film, Outbreak, also released in 1995 (Year of the Monkey in Film?) stars Dustin Hoffman, Rene Russo, Morgan Freeman, and a very critical, white-headed capuchin monkey from Zaire. In this film, the film makers take a different approach from the movie Congo, developing a concept of fear around primates using a viral infection disaster. The plot features a monkey, carrying a lethal Ebola-like virus, removed from its natural habitat in Africa and soon sparking a deadly outbreak in a small California town. As scientists try to understand the virus, it becomes clear that the one primate is the cause and the potential cure of the disease. The film makers offer a fairly reasonable scenario of viral outbreak, but use a primate over any other carrier (rat, bird, pig, bat, etc). Once again, like in the movie Congo, human disruption of the natural environment in Zaire and the monkey's extraction to a California pet store are at the heart of the problem. Despite Dustin Hoffman's acting and the fictional plot, the movie made some media headlines highlighting the fact that government forces would struggle to stop an imported, deadly disease. 


The final film for our discussion is the blockbuster series of hits, Planet of the Apes. This movie has been done (1968), re-done as a TV series (1974), re-created as a modern film (2001), and again recently, completely refreshed as The Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011). In these films, film makers experiment with a much more interesting primate concept. In another world in another time, could monkeys have evolved to be superior to humans in intellect? Planet of the Apes explores a world in which monkeys rule, maintain order with law, develop poetry, art, and fine dining, and subject humans to cruel slavery. The newest version of the series of movies features more content from the primate's point of view, with experimentation on him as well as torture and neglect at a "primate rehabilitation center." Humans can be fascinated with the potential monkeys have to learn, think, and adapt as humans do, and these movies balance thought with action. Interestingly enough, The Rise of the Planet of the Apes concludes with a large group of escaped primates gaining something precious: their freedom to explore the California redwood forests. 

To conclude, primates are typically portrayed in film to produce the cinematic effect of fear. This presentation is questionable considering the generally peaceful nature of primates and our growing understanding of their ability to learn and reason. Perhaps, in the future, film makers will make better attempts to carefully engage with the topic and balance plot points with more realistic and thought-provoking representations of primates.

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