Earlier this summer at a media forum in Cambridge,
John Scherlis, a zoologist, rose from the audience to issue a challenge to Hollywood.
“All the best data show that the great apes are headed for
extinction,” he said. “Possibly in just 20 years. Best case, 100-but that will
only be isolated pockets of apes who happen to be in
protected areas where research is going on. Meanwhile, $80 million is spent on
a movie like Mighty Joe Young that
says nothing about the 600 real mountain gorillas on earth-when $15 million
could set up a permanent endowment for their protection. And now, again, $100
million on Planet of the Apes , when
it appears that earth is about to become the Planet of the Ape, where the only
ape is us.
“Isn’t there a way for the great apes to have their story
told? To let real-world issues piggyback in some way on the hype? There’s
product placement-what about issue placement?”
Mr. Scherlis’ questions nagged at me (we were boyhood
friends, growing up in Baltimore),
and I went to Planet of the Apes in a
zoological frame of mind.
The most obvious thing about the film is that it fully
deserves its dismal reviews. It’s about nothing. Poorly written and thinly
plotted, it is in essence a war movie in which a group of wild humans is
captured and enslaved by apes, then escape and wage a liberation struggle.
There’s lots of action and little character. Mark Wahlberg is wasted. The surprise
ending is silly and unearned.
Compare the new Planet
of the Apes to the Charlton Heston version and it’s even more dismaying.
The original had a prideful character (Mr. Heston) in the lead, whose
humiliations made for wrenching drama. The moral
climax came when Mr. Heston saw that a fellow astronaut had been surgically
rendered an automaton. The film is disturbing, caught up in issues of
intolerance and racism.
It was made in the late
60’s, when somehow the expectation was that an entertainment could be about
Jump cut to 2001, and an era of global companies focused on
international markets, and the new Planet
of the Apes is about nothing but Tim Burton’s ability to create an exotic
world. I can’t remember a thoughtful moment in the picture. (Right-wing nuts
used to say that globalism would cost us our sovereignty, and in this respect
they’re being proven right: Our media grow less and less pointed as they’re
pitched not to an elite people schooled in 200 years of democracy, but to a
world audience brought up on authoritarian newspeak.)
As for the extinction issue-well, in one scene, Mark
Wahlberg does mutter that apes were wiped off the planet Earth. But it’s an
aside. (“It’s a cavalier statement,” says Steve Baer, of the Coalition to End
Primate Experimentation. “The atrocities enacted on the humans don’t begin to
approximate the atrocities we practice on non-human apes.”) It doesn’t really
get at the issue.
Some of the apes in the film seem to be based on orangutans,
because they’re orange.
“New research shows that it’s entirely possible that
orangutans will be extinct within 10 years,” said Josh Ginsberg, director of
the Asia program for the Wildlife Conservation Society,
at the Bronx Zoo. “I don’t think people get that we are about to exterminate
one of our closest relatives on the earth. We’re not shipping them off to
another planet, we’re killing them right here,”
Orangutans live chiefly in Indonesia
and depend on large trees in forests for food and shelter. Their habitat is
being overtaken by loggers and palm-oil plantations so that we can have exotic
hardwoods and cosmetics.
The great apes in Africa are also on
a steep curve.
“Gorillas and chimps are facing tremendous pressure from the
expansion of all kinds of commercial exploitation,” said Tony Rose of the
Gorilla Foundation. “The incursion of logging roads and mining roads and
pipelines has given people access to forests they could never reach before with
trucks, guns and bullets.”
Here the issue is one that has only gained serious attention
in the last three years: the bushmeat trade-illegally hunted meat from wild
animals. Expanding human populations are moving into areas where they’ve never
been before in the Congo Basin.
They need food. Poaching numbers may be as high as 6,000 to 8,000 apes a year.
With experts putting the ape population at 100,000 chimps and 100,000 gorillas,
they have 30 years at the outside, and the crisis will only deepen if it’s not
addressed. (For more information, check out the Web sites http://www.bushmeat.org and
“Virtually every species of animal that is visible to the
naked eye in African forests is threatened by the bushmeat trade,” John
Scherlis said. “More elephants are killed in Central Africa
for their meat now than their ivory. Apes are more vulnerable because of their
low reproductive rate and the consequences to such a social animal of losing
Mr. Scherlis has spent years in Africa,
and last year he helped to get great apes on the American agenda. The Great Ape
Conservation Act was passed by Congress last November. Jane Goodall showed up
on Capitol Hill to explain the issue in her intense, soft-spoken way. The bill
drew bipartisan support and was authorized at $5 million.
So far, Congress has only appropriated $750,000 for the apes.
The money is to go in small contracts to projects that work on the ground in Africa
(where the real heroes operate-people like Eugene Rutagarama in Rwanda,
who kept the mountain-gorilla conservation program alive through the genocidal
But imagine if Twentieth Century Fox had done what Mr.
Scherlis suggested this summer and put some energy into the plight of the real
creatures from which it was making such great art. At the very least, it could
have fostered public pressure to fund GACA at its ceiling of $5 million in
public money. Or set up a Planet of the
Apes matching fund. Or put together a short of Mark Wahlberg with Jane
Goodall talking about the real apes. What if such a promotion had been tacked
on to the end of the film?
“Attention on these animals is entirely lacking,” said Josh
Ginsberg. “One could have woven a really wonderful conservation message through
the film. Why were they angry at humans? Well, why not? The kernel of their
hatred was they were being eaten by men …. ”
O.K., nobody wants wildlife guys at the Bronx Zoo dictating
the plots of movies.
But Planet of the Apes
shows what a blind alley the culture has wandered into. Is there any connection
between our pleasure and obligation, between making money and idealism? The first
Planet of the Apes actually thought
so. But now we’re globalized, and markets stop our tongues. Everyone believes
in the rain forest-but look who’s buying sport-utility vehicles: urban liberals
who always vote environment. (Lately one public radio reporter claimed to have
seen Joni Mitchell, of all people, driving an S.U.V. in Los
It is only to be expected that a highly accomplished Hollywood
director makes a big movie about apes that is a piece of idiocy.
“There’s a dissociation,” says Mr.
Scherlis. “You see the nymphet from Planet
of the Apes [Estella Warren] offering a chimp a baby bottle on the cover of
Talk magazine [August], or Mark
Wahlberg holding a chimp on the cover of Premiere
[July], and there’s not a word about the real life of these animals. They’re
just a prop.”
We won’t even talk here about the unhappy lives of chimps
that are used in the entertainment business. This kind of stuff makes me
cynical, but John Scherlis is engaged, and he’s optimistic.
When African hunters are shown videos that demonstrate the
family structure of apes and the consequences of killing them, scales fall from
their eyes, he said. “They say, ‘I’m not going to do that anymore.'”
Americans need education just as badly, and Mr. Scherlis is
something of a connector, to use a pop-psych term. He’s courtly, passionate and
charming. He has integrity as a conservationist (several years in the bush in Tanzania,
along the way suffering many illnesses and losing some sight in one eye) and is
media-savvy; he knows how to use the word “mega-fauna” in a sentence.
“We seem to be ambivalent about apes,” he said. “Perhaps
because we’re apes, and they remind us of ourselves. But they tend to get left
out of the vision of many philanthropists who support the charismatic mega-fauna-elephants,
rhinos, tigers, pandas, whales.”
Last year, Mr. Scherlis spent weeks on end working to
connect the conservationist community to the political one in Washington.
For instance, he got the only scientific report with hard data on ape
extinction from one colleague and helped convert it into language that
Congressmen could understand.
“I’m only acting on something that I care about,” he said.
“I don’t want this to be a world where apes are extinct. You look in their eyes
and you know these are fellow beings. I don’t want our grandchildren to talk
about apes and elephants as if they’re talking about dinosaurs.”
I found myself desolated by seeing Planet of the Apes , but Mr. Scherlis still has hopes for the media.
“The challenge is telling the story right. How do you tell
it so that it works?” he said. “It certainly won’t happen if we feel anything
other than that it will.”