What do we see when we look at an ape?
Throughout history, we have been drawn to how much they resemble us. No other animal comes close in our anatomical, behavioral, developmental, physiological and reproductive similarities. These parallels have provoked much introspection and debate bordering on the primal and the inspired. Is it any wonder that the word “ape” has come to mean the mimicry of human action?
Non-human primates have existed on film from the art form’s inception, primarily as sideshow spectacles, most notably in King Kong (1933). Their display for our amusement is perhaps an extension of the tradition of the zoo and the circus, where such creatures are viewed more as oddities than as fellow earthly denizens.
Rarely have these creatures been viewed on their own terms. They have been human sidekicks, villains, accomplices and lab rats. They’ve drank our booze, laughed (or cringed) at our jokes, and played our sports. Even in the most thought-provoking films that feature them, rarely have we been given the benefit of their perspective. But in reality, how can we? W.G. Sebald once said that “Men and animals regard each other across a gulf of mutual incomprehension.” We cannot help but humanize creatures in which we see our resemblance so that we can relate to them.
But as time goes by, our understanding of all creatures big and small continues to grow. Non-human empathy no longer feels wrong when we start caring about what cows are fed and if chickens are caged. Animal testing on apes and other intelligent species has now become taboo. The future philosophical and ethical implications of “personhood” in all its forms only looks more and more challenging as we reconsider our evolutionary kinship. The gulf is shrinking.
This has become apparent in cinema’s past two decades or so, as primate portrayals, if not entirely genuine, have become more convincing with each acting generation. No simian sidekick would get the same kind of box office traction today as it did before. Advanced animatronics, makeup and knowledge of animal gesturing have made ape-like portrayals a far more absorbing experience than decades past, thanks mostly to the unmatched genius in makeup and special effects by Rick Baker, and in physicality by Andy Serkis. Could the creators of Kong ever think that actors would try to ape apes so completely for entertainment?
Will this result in films that truly contemplate our fellow simians on their own terms? I’m certainly hopeful. But for now, if anything remains constant throughout the history of cinematic primates, it is that at their best, they continue to be a marvelous cinematic device of self-examination. Look into an ape’s eyes, and we see ourselves.