The Blockbuster World of Apes

Last night (October 11) Claud Bramblett investigated how apes are portrayed in film and how accurate those portrayals are. Starting with the original Planet of the Apes film in 1968, continuing with Escape from Planet of the Apes in 1971, and ending with the most recent Rise of the Planet of the Apes film this year, Claud discussed locomotion, the ape caste system, aggression, intelligence, and what it is to be human. Placing the films in the context of research on the speech abilities and cognitive abilities of apes over the last 60 years, Claud showed the public that “they’re not human” but that they do have high cognitive function.

In the 1968 version it was painfully obvious that the apes were just humans with “halloween masks”, and were consequently a lot more bipedal than any ape species actually is. Furthermore the caste system represented in the film with different ape species performing different jobs was inaccurately based on their behaviour. Orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus) were administrators, politicians, lawyers and religious clerics, gorillas (Gorilla gorilla) were police, the military, and hunters, and chimpanzees¬†(Pan troglodytes) were the intellectuals and scientists. Humans, who cannot talk, are considered feral vermin. I don’t disagree with the vermin allocation to humans in this system (as that is a central component of the plot), but the stereotyped depiction of gorillas is incorrect. Gorillas are folivores and do not hunt, whereas chimpanzees are prolific hunters in the wild. Chimpanzees are also known to be very aggressive and cruel disciplinarians, which seems more fitting with the gorilla roles in the films.

The most recent version of the Planet of the Apes storyline is anatomically the most correct. With sophisticated special effects the film accurately portrays the locomotion of apes and species-specific aspects of their behaviour. It also questions the use of apes in biomedical research and is well-timed with my recent post on Chimpanzees (captive and wild) being listed as Endangered in the United States of America.

A very good point that Claud made about the portrayal of apes in all these films is that in the films they have the capacity for human speech. In truth, ape vocal tracts and motor cortices are structured differently from that of humans, and it is biologically impossible for them to make speech sounds that sound like human speech sounds. Instead research on language abilities in apes has used American Sign Language (ASL), and the use of symbolic representation with tiles.

A video of Claud Bramblett’s presentation will be available on youtube at the following link in a few weeks

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