by Catherine Shoard
From The Guardian, August 2011
"Monkeys," said the Hollywood mogul Arthur P Jacobs, "make good movies. They always have." Such certainty was earned: Jacobs produced the first Planet of the Apes film in 1968 – the same year as another chimpy classic, 2001: A Space Odyssey. So immediate was Planet's success ($33m from a budget of $5m) that Jacobs knocked out four sequels before his sudden death in 1973. Once unleashed, the Apes were unstoppable, spawning two TV shows, a comic book, a ton of merchandising, a remake and a reboot, which is out next week.
Since cinema began, apes have been in on the action – evidence, says Variety's Stephen Gaydos, of the movies' debt to the carnival: "Primates were always an integral part of showbiz, so when circuses made way for film, they just moved over." At first it was freak-show stuff, either slapstick or schlock in which scientists try melding man and monkey, rarely to happy effect. But unlike, say, dogs, or ducks, this was a species that swiftly proved endlessly malleable to almost any genre. Farce? Easy. Horror? No problem. Pathos? Just hand me the shackles.
Some go so far as to say they saved cinema. In 1933, just as the talkies were looking like a busted flush, King Kong stormed into town. It was the first blockbuster and the first franchise (34 sequels and counting) – no chance of them staying in their cage after that.
Sidekick primates, from the Three Stooges' Dodger to Clint's Clyde, made for irresistible hits; murderous monkeys for easy metaphor. As Howard Hawks's Monkey Business showed, you could even set a screwball comedy in a vivisection lab.
Next week, two monkey movies open simultaneously in the UK. There's that reboot, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, an origins flick that shows how Earth came to be overrun in the first place (botched medical research, a genetically modified super-chimp, dim captors plus a nasty virus). At the other side of the multiplex is the latest documentary from James Marsh, who won an Oscar for Man on Wire. Project Nim is a study in hippy folly: a chronicle of an experiment in 70s New York to raise a chimp as a child – and its fallout.
So far, so superficially on script. Yet these movies mark a change in primate cinema: its purpose, its effect, and its message. Alongside Nénette (2010), Nicolas Philibert's quietly audacious film about a 40-year-old orangutan in a Paris zoo, they seem at first to confirm Jacobs's adage, then to confound it. Yes, monkeys have always made good movies – whether or not they'll continue to do so suddenly seems doubtful.
Why? Well, first off, none of these films is really about monkeys. For all Nénette's apparent documentary observation, its heroine is a red herring. As Philibert's editing priorities prove – shots of Nénette were cut to fit with an audio track of onlookers trying to guess her mood – it's all about us, exposing the human assumption that other species share our world-view.
Nim, likewise, features old footage of a real chimp, spliced with that of a furred-up actor employed to re-enact crucial scenes not recorded at the time. It was, says, Bob Ingersoll, a former carer for Nim – and one of the few humans who comes out of the saga with dignity – a condition of his involvement: "No way was I going to be involved in something that used real chimps," he told me down the line from Mindy's Memory Primate Sanctuary, his institution in Oklahoma. "It would have undermined the whole movie."
Rise of the Planet of the Apes does the same, but higher-tech: using an actor (Andy Serkis, who has played Gollum and King Kong for Peter Jackson), performance-capture technology and lashings of CGI. "It's frighteningly realistic," says John Lithgow, who plays the father of chief scientist James Franco, who adopts the orphaned chimp, christened Caesar, who in turn goes on to lead the revolt against humanity.
Lithgow saw the movie the evening before we spoke, and was still spooked by the "zoological" level of detail. "This isn't corny ape makeup and leather jumpsuits. That's why it's so powerful."
So: progress. Just as the PG Tips chimps were ditched for Johnny Vegas's sock puppet, shifting attitudes have meant flesh-and-blood monkeys are all but unemployed at the movies. And, says Patti Ragan, who runs an ape rescue centre in Florida (residents include Clyde and Bubbles), the real thing was hardly a guarantee of accuracy anyway. "They undergo rigorous training. No movie that uses live great apes really depicts anything true."
Rachel Mayeri, who makes films for a chimp audience (using human actors dressed as chimps, natch), goes further: wildlife documentaries are yet more pernicious. "They're under the radar. So often they're morality tales about human sexuality and gender relations, laying on a narrative that just isn't there, just treating primates as human ids – us without inhibition."
The sympathy we're supposed to have for the creatures in Apes and Nim, on the other hand, is on their own terms. Says Lithgow: "Your heart breaks for Caesar. He's so martyred and he overcomes it and then becomes a very dangerous hero." Director Rupert Wyatt echoes Ingersoll when he explains why he used CGI: "There was no way we could put actors in simian suits and it would have been a bit of an irony to be telling the story of our most exploited and closest cousins, and use live apes to tell that story."
This, then, is the other key difference: these films are contemporary angst monkey movies, penitential reflections of our mistreatment of our closest cousins. Cinema has long used primates to explore our own bestial nature, but what has happened lately is that brutishness has been transferred from ape to man, as the monkeys are sentimentalised as innocent versions of humans, and brutality is presented as something that only humans are capable of – unless, as in the climax of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the monkeys are really, really pushed.
Once anthropomorphising animals was sneered at as a childish indulgence, now it's seen as logical for grownups, too, especially as science suggests we're more like our primate cousins than even Darwin clocked. Nim, with its lovable humanoid chimp and beastly scientists takes this process to its logical conclusion. The medics in Planet are more misguided than vainglorious, but even in that film, we're rooting for the apes.
"It's the end of the liberal dream that you could change the world for the better," says Adam Curtis, who used footage of Dian Fossey's work trying to prove human goodness through our closeness to gorillas in the closing episode of All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace.
"When that failed it was taken as evidence of the dark genetic forces with humans. If we are all connected, we can't be made good. So now we're left with liberals going to documentaries that say to them: you are bad, you are flawed, we're all a bit crap and there's nothing you can do about it. That's nature."
Nénette and Project Nim can afford to say that. Rise of the Planet of the Apes, however, is a side-of-a-bus flick whose audience doesn't want to be sent home stricken with self-loathing. Given that, the extent to which it does peddle the same pro-primate agenda as those documentaries is remarkable.
Their message is clear: we must quit an idea of cross-species connection, not just for the primates' sake, but for our own, as when we tamper we risk unleashing dangerous forces. In fact, there's something lazily appealing about the idea that science doesn't know everything, that you must simply look for guidance to the chimp.
Curtis sees it as symptomatic of a wider mood, one that admits human fallibility but takes solace in the bigger picture. "It's a resigned acceptance that the great project is over; a lowering of the horizons of what's achievable. Most attempts to change the world for the better – in Iraq, with atomic power – have led to terrible consequences. This is the new democracy which says elites who tell us things are bad." Chimps on the other hand, lead by example.
So what are the movies to do with monkeys now? Turn them into superheroes and the humans their foe? Not likely. It might even, perhaps, lead to a backlash, to a return to the apes' vaudevillian role: there's something militant about Jeremy Thomas's assertion of our otherness in Not a Chimp – his rebuttal of Desmond Morris's The Naked Ape, whose thesis documented the evolutionary uncertainty that led to experiments such as Nim.
One thing is certain: as human individualism leads us to become ever more intolerant, and as species isolation exerts a stronger and stronger grip, the impulse to connect with something other than each other won't abate. Enter, then – or, rather, re-enter – the alien. Out this week is Super 8, J. J. Abrams's love-letter to ET (a monkey movie in sci-fi clothing), in which a final-reel connection between a boy and a creature from another planet proves Earth's salvation. If monkeys can no longer help us out of our lonely hole, cinema will keep searching for something that will.