At the Movies

Michael Wood

That two films about human entanglements with chimpanzees, a feature-length documentary and a fiction feature, should be showing in London at the same time is presumably an accident of distribution. That the two works, James Marsh’s Project Nim and Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, should resemble each other so closely begins to look like a message or a clue, a movieworld sign that we actually are rethinking our relation to other animals. You’ll see how eerie this notion is when I say that Wyatt’s film, for all its allegiance to a long franchise, is more like Marsh’s film than it is like any of the films to which it is supposed to serve as a narrative prequel. There was Planet of the Apes (1968), with a remake in 2001, and various relocations in between: Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970), Escape from (1971), Conquest of (1972), Battle for (1973).

It’s true that Rise of finally gets its sci-fi act together in an elaborate sequence of apes infesting San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge on their way to take over the redwood forest, but it lingers for a very long time on the dilemma that is the precise theme of Project Nim. Nim Chimpsky was a chimpanzee brought up from birth in a human family, playing with the children and the dog, being breastfed by the mother, and even, according to her, regarding her boyfriends with an Oedipal eye. He was then taken away by a researcher at Columbia University who hoped to show that Noam Chomsky – hence our hero’s name – was wrong in his belief that only humans have the capacity to construct grammar as distinct from recognising nouns and verbs as labels. Nim made formidable progress in sign language and was domesticated in all kinds of ways – I remember seeing him romping about on the Columbia campus in the 1970s, although I don’t think we got to have a conversation – but then two things happened. The funding ran out before Nim acceded to grammar, and for all his undoubted amiability, Nim became a dangerous and powerful adult ape. Not one of us, after all, as various incidents with keepers suggested, if only because he was so much stronger. He was transferred first to an experimental research station, then rescued by a well-intentioned Texan who knew all about horses but nothing about what a grown-up chimpanzee might need by way of comfort and recreation. He was rescued from his rescue, and ended up in a more congenial place, but still in confinement, where he died in 2000. It is one of many subtle effects in Marsh’s film that we realise rather late in the action that Nim had always been, even when apparently running free in the countryside, attached to a long leash.

The title Project Nim suggests an account of the scientific inquiry, but that is a ruse. The film is really a quiet, melancholy biography. Marsh doesn’t comment on his human subjects, Nim’s ‘parents’, keepers, teachers, questioners, but he doesn’t need to. With only one exception, they are so pleased to be interviewed on film, so content with themselves for being part of such an interesting story, that they stand thoroughly arraigned of thoughtlessness at the least, and of sustained cruelty at the most. One of Nim’s late keepers goes to visit him in his last abode, and he at least understands that chimpanzees like to play – Nim, when he sees the man, makes the sign-language gesture for ‘play’. Even this man, however, does his playing with Nim from outside the cage.

The initial adoption of Nim was playful, some would say frivolous – ‘it was the 1970s’ is the refrain figures in the film keep using. The adoption in Rise of the Planet of the Apes is an act of casual compassion that turns into something else. James Franco is a scientist working on a drug that will repair damaged cells, and when a test goes wrong – when a chimpanzee being used for the test goes berserk – all the animals are killed, except one, a baby that the handler has managed to hide away. Franco takes the tiny chimpanzee home, supposedly for a day or two, but his father (John Lithgow), suffering badly from Alzheimer’s, is much drawn to the creature, who happily stays with the family. They call him Caesar, but that’s only because someone has been peeking at his future destiny as ape leader.

Having discovered that the chimpanzee at the laboratory went berserk not because of the test but because she was trying to protect the baby no one knew she had, Franco decides to try the drug on his father. The result is amazing. This former piano teacher, who when we first met him couldn’t remember ‘Für Elise’, is now rattling away at a Bach toccata. What follows is the most interesting implied question in the movie: what’s the difference between a human and a chimpanzee when they have both been given the same magical drug? Or if you prefer, what’s the difference between a deteriorating human and an advancing ape? The effects of the drug begin to fade in Franco’s dad, and soon he’s back to thinking he still has the car he hasn’t driven in years. In this frame of mind he mistakes a neighbour’s parked vehicle for his own, but can’t drive it, only crash it. The neighbour is furious, and Caesar, now grown to full and all but uncontrollable strength, is furious at what he takes to be (what is) an attack on his ageing friend. Much violence ensues, and Caesar is put away, deprived of his right to live in a human household.

Both films place a great deal of stress on the moment of the chimpanzee’s severance from what used to be his life in human company, and it’s not hard to believe this is a terrible moment on any account. But does the chimpanzee feel what the films think he must feel? Marsh’s work has to leave us guessing, whether it wants to or not, and even though several characters in it, and no doubt most of the movie audience, are sure they know just what the segregated creature is going through. Wyatt’s film, of course, is under no such constraint, and we are entitled to know for sure that Caesar feels betrayed and that he will never forget this abandonment. It’s worth remembering, in the midst of the resemblances, that Nim is a chimpanzee and Caesar is an invention, an altered chimpanzee, only an allusion to a real creature.

This difference is cleverly rendered at the end of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, when Franco, alone with Caesar and the other apes among the redwoods, offers to take him home and protect him. Caesar, who throughout the film has communicated in sign language (not just with humans: he has intricate conversations with an orang-utan), plainly understands spoken English, and once, among the apes and angry at their ill-treatment by their sub-human keepers, has shouted a single English word: ‘No.’ Now, though, standing fully erect, taller than Franco, he says carefully in a deep bass movie-star voice: ‘Caesar is home.’ He is thoroughly anthropomorphised even as he asserts his alien nature.

This is the problem the movies bring into focus for us. It was rehearsed long ago by Kafka in ‘A Report to an Academy’, and more recently by J.M. Coetzee in his Elizabeth Costello stories. We can refuse to recognise the otherness of other animals by pretending they are like us, versions of us; and we can, it seems, understand their otherness only by a more refined use of the same method. But what constitutes the refinement?

When Nim’s ‘mother’, Stephanie LaFarge, visits him long after he has left her care, he throws her about his cage like a rag doll. Stephanie survives this treatment and she and her daughter are quite sure of the truth of a sequence of propositions: that Nim recognised her, that he was angry at her neglect of him, that his violence was a display of this anger, that his old affection was still sufficiently intact for him not to want to kill her, only to hurt her. This is a great deal to claim, a whole old-fashioned novel in fact, and it’s curious that Caesar in his movie has the same fundamental respect for human life. He is constantly getting the other apes to stop short of murder. Only the greedy head of the research institute is left by Caesar to the vengeance of another experimentee. All this seems to me admirable in one sense and deluded in another, especially since humans are not known for being able to control their actions under conditions of rage or resentment. But then what I really want to know is not what a chimpanzee would feel if he was human but what I would feel if I was a chimpanzee. That, and why I was so delighted by the sheer anarchy of the apes taking over San Francisco in Wyatt’s movie. Perhaps I felt they were more thoughtful than the Tea Party.