Cinema For Social Change? (Part 2 Of 3)
By Loredana Loy (Former Faunalytics Graduate Intern, New York University)
Part 2 of 3
In the first post of this series, I discussed the importance of positive nonhuman animal (hereafter animal) representations in mainstream cinema and the inherent potential to create social change contained within these representations. In this second installment, I analyze the animal-centered discussion generated through movies, by looking at one movie that has created such discussion: the 2011 summer blockbuster Rise of the Planet of the Apes (hereafter Rise).
Rise tells the story of Caesar, a chimp born in an animal testing facility, who leads a simian revolution against humanity. Various social change messages are encapsulated in the movie; however, two of the most prominent issues showcased are the ethics of animal testing and of animal exploitation. One of the most unique aspects of Rise is that humans are neither the central characters nor the heroes of this movie. Thus, Rise departs from the ubiquitous anthropocentric  (or human-focused) narrative to which Hollywood has accustomed its audiences.
Other posts in this blog series:
At the same time, there are some serious issues with the fact that Caesar’s intelligence is artificially enhanced, which allows him to acquire human language among other things. This could suggest that human-like intelligence is what makes animals worthy of respect, one of the misconceptions the animal rights movement has been attempting to discredit. In addition, Caesar’s physical characteristics are anthropomorphized, (for example, his eyes are made to look more human); however, as noted by scholars, superimposing human values and characteristics on animals can help generate moral empathy for these animals. Furthermore, Caesar displays a speciesist attitude resembling that of humans and a lack of solidarity with other species of animals. Despite its shortcomings, Rise is a rare occurrence in the Hollywood matrix. Released in August of 2011, the movie was a box office success, having been seen worldwide by over 55 million people to date  (not including blue ray and DVD releases).
To understand how Rise was received in the media I analyzed media coverage broadly, with an in-depth look at coverage in The New York Times (NYT), the third most circulated newspaper in the country . NYT featured an extensive number of articles dedicated to or including some story or mention regarding Rise (48 articles from the date of the movie’s release to June 2012).
One article entitled “Fearing a Planet without Apes” laments our treatment of these animals: “as the human population expands, ape numbers continue to dwindle. In previous versions of the Planet of the Apes films, greed and consumption by humanlike apes threatened the world. In reality, it is these all-too-human traits that imperil apes.” Another article entitled “Looking Apocalypse in the Eye” describes the movie as “a cautionary tale about man’s domination of nature.” The same article calls the movie “a smiley wag (or flick) of the environmental finger” and concludes: “it’s the end of the world as we know it, and the animals feel fine.” One essay makes a point right from its title “Apes from the Future Holding a Mirror to Today” and states that the movie “encourages us to take a longer view than we’re accustomed to; maybe longer than we’re entirely comfortable with.” And finally, in an article entitled “Our Own Worst Enemies” A.O. Scott, the renowned film critic of NYT, says: “Caesar, [is] the chimpanzee who transcends his species-based oppression to become a simian Spartacus in ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’.”
It is certainly reasonable to suggest that the pro-animal exploitation forces have an easier time promoting their agendas to the media because the predominant ideology of animal exploitation, as noted in the first segment of this series, is prevalent in our society. On that note, the relative abundance of articles on Rise which aim at making a larger point about animal exploitation and environmental degradation seems to be unique. On the other side, some of the most encountered themes in these articles’ rhetoric are misanthropy (or the dislike of the human species), and blame for humanity’s destruction of the environment that consequently leads to our demise. This type of rhetoric ties everything back into the anthropocentric circle, making the discussion all about us humans once again.
Unfortunately, none of these NYT articles linked to nonprofit organizations’ websites to invite readers to look for more information about animal experimentation or to take action on behalf of animals. This points to an area where the movement’s “cooperation” with the media is pressingly needed. Ultimately though, the presence of positive animal-centric discussion in the media is a feat in itself.
In addition to the media discourse, it is also interesting to assess the construction of animal-centered discussion by audiences. For this purpose, I looked at audience reviews from the International Movie Database (IMDB), one of the largest motion picture information databases with over 100 million subscribers world-wide. This examination revealed that many reviewers made some note about the animal-centered message of the movie in a positive manner.
Some reviewers pointed to the ethical arguments of the movie, others simply noted being able to connect with the animals: “The best part about Rise of the Planet of the Apes is the fact that the makers have crafted a story where the audience connects with the animals.” This “connection” was one of the important points made in my first post regarding the restoration of the plight of animals in human conscience. One reviewer wrote about the departure from the human-centered frame: “mainstream audiences forget about those less fortunate than themselves, and what it drives them to, or in this case, what having too much drives us to.”
Even the negative reviews made relevant comments because they engaged with the issues highlighted by the movie, noting the movie’s lack of focus on humans, or calling the simian revolt “ape insubordination” in typical anthropocentric fashion that assumes human superiority over the other animals. One largely negative review included this comment: “The movie attempts to get audiences to sympathize with the primates’ plight by greatly expounding on the impassioned perspective of the apes unifying under a common cause, the quest for freedom…”
What can be said about the discourse on IMDB? With the clarification that this evaluation does not claim to be representative of anything else but of the audiences on IMDB, the general trend of ideas seems to be divided between those who liked the movie and who appear to be open to the concepts advanced by its narrative, and those who disliked the movie and did not consider the movie’s symbolism and messaging, or perhaps recognized it as opposing society’s dominant ideology and dismissed it.
Just as in the case of the media discourse around Rise discussed above, the fact that there exists a discussion is what truly matters. It is up to the animal advocacy organizations to use this momentum and transform the discussion into action, as well as to use the media attention to shine the light on animal advocacy issues. This process, the manner in which animal advocacy organizations can engage with the animal-centric public discourse, will be the focus of the final installment of this series.
Loredana Loy is a former graduate student at New York University and former intern at Faunalytics. Her research is focused on cinema as a potential tool for the promotion of the animal liberation movement.
- Anthropocentrism is the cultural ideology that assigns humans the utmost importance in human society.
- As pointed out by other reviewers http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/blog/2011/aug/19/rise-planet-apes-animal-rights
- Anthropomorphism is the attribution of human characteristics, or characteristics assumed to belong only to humans, to other animals.
- Kashani, T. (2010). Hollywood and nonhuman animals: problematic ethics of corporate cinema. In Frymer, B., Kashani, T., Nocella, A., & Van Heertum, R. (Ed.), Hollywood’s exploited: public pedagogy, corporate movies, and cultural crisis (pp. 219-234). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
- For example when Caesar is shown riding a horse in one of the combat scenes.
- According to Box Office Mojo http://boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=riseoftheapes.htm
- The articles that use the movie as a platform for creating discussions on various animal-centered issues range from animals in entertainment, to animal protection policy and ape protection programs.
- Mitani, J. C. (2011). Fearing a planet without apes. The New York Times, p. 8.
- A reference to the apes’ use in experimentation because of their similarity to human animals.
- Dargis, M. (2011, August 5). Looking apocalypse in the eye. The New York Times, p.1.
- Rafferty, T. (2011, July 31). Apes from the future, holding a mirror to today. The New York Times, p. 14.
- Scott, A.O. (2011). Our own worst enemies. New York Times Magazine, p.40.
- Gitlin, T. (1980). The whole world is watching: Mass media in the making and unmaking of the new left. Berkeley: University of California Press.