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"War for the Planet of the Apes": Reverse dehumanization?

A new trailer for War for the Planet of the Apes was recently released, and it promises to wrap up the trilogy with violent conflict as the world's remaining humans battle the dominant ape population. Just as the original POTA films reflected their social and cultural contexts, so do the current group of Apes films. War is no exception. In the new trailer the character identified at imdb.com as "Colonel," played by Woody Harrelson, is shown giving an inspirational speech to a large group of troops about to march into battle. In this speech he says, "There are times when it is necessary to abandon our humanity to save humanity." While it is difficult to interpret this line in the film definitively from the short clip, given that the second entry in the trilogy, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, set the stage for a violent showdown between the apes and humans, and that this plays out in the final film, this seems to be the context in which the remarks should be understood. Dots can be connected to this line from another image in the trailer, a rear shot of a human soldier hunting in the woods with "Monkey Killer" on his helmet. Fans of the original series of films in the late 1960s into the 1970s will recall that the apes considered the term "monkey" derogatory when applied to them, and in Escape from the Planet of the Apes when a human innocently uses this term in reference to a newborn ape, Caesar goes into a rage and accidentally kills him. The derogatory usage seems to carry over into this film, and when combined with the line in the speech from the Colonel it appears that an interesting phenomenon may be at play.

Previously I've posted on the topic of dehumanization connected to monstrosity and genocide. In my view the quote from the Colonel may be understood in this way. Although there are rules that are drawn upon in war to limit the brutality, nevertheless, in order to overcome the human hesitancy to kill others we tap into dehumanization. This involves the use of propaganda, as well as terminology and concepts where the enemy is conceived of as less than human. In the case of the battle between apes and humans, this is literally the case since the apes are animals, but these are intelligent social creatures who have built a culture. In this way they approximate human beings, and in order to overcome any possibility that there may be hesitancy in killing them, derogatory phrases like "Monkey Killer" are used, and the Colonel's speech seems to encourage the abandonment of aspects of humanity, such as our moral sense of empathy for others, making it possible to destroy the apes and thus save humanity. Curiously the Colonel calls for the suppression of essential aspects of human nature while trying to save humanity at the same time. But saved to exist as what? As a species that continues to define itself by tribalism where the moral circle of empathy continues to be small and exclude others in the out-group perceived as enemy, even if they are highly intelligent apes with a sense of self-awareness, social relationships and culture?

Previously this series of Apes films has served as a mirror for human violence. It appears that the final entry in the trilogy will provide us with another opportunity for such critical self-reflection.

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There are 1 Comments to ""War for the Planet of the Apes": Reverse dehumanization?"

  • Carl Rosenberg says:

    John's comments are very perceptive, as usual, and raise important questions. Nevertheless, I don't know if I'll see this film. Having seen the first two films in this reboot ("Rise of...", "Dawn of..."), and the Tim Burton film in 2001, I must say I prefer all the films in the original franchise in the sixties and seventies to any of the remakes and reboots since. The original films, whatever their flaws, had a charm and humanity (in spite of their sometimes grim themes), with memorable characters (whether human or ape) that I don't find in the subsequent films.

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