"Rise of the Planet of the Apes" and What It Says About Our Increasingly Post Modern, Post Human Culture

About ten years ago, environmentalists commonly and proudly displayed a bumper sticker that said, Earth First. While no one wants a dirty planet, unnecessary pollution, and wasteful use of resources, “Earth First” was erroneous from a Christian perspective, for it made a pretty clear declaration that the Earth outranked humanity in terms of importance. But Scripture speaks of the Earth as having been given to man and that we are to be its sovereign stewards:

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air and all the creatures that move on the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.” And it was so. (Gen 1:20-28)

Later, God chose a man and his family, Noah, to be instrumental in “ecologically” saving all the living things of the earth, by building an ark to endure the flood. After the flood, God again renewed and extended the sovereign stewardship of humanity in the Covenant with Noah:

Then God blessed Noah and his sons, saying to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth. The fear and dread of you will fall upon all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air, upon every creature that moves along the ground, and upon all the fish of the sea; they are given into your hands. Everything that lives and moves will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything. (Gen 9:1-3)

Thus, from a Biblical perspective the human race is at the pinnacle of God’s creation and the earth is given to man for his sake. He is to rule over it as a steward. We are stewards for the world belongs to God. But he has given us an authority and primacy over other creatures.

Clearly to abuse creation by excessive and wasteful practices, or by permanently destructive practices is both foolish and a sinful use of the gift God has given us. There is a proper Christian environmentalism rooted in love for God, what he has created, and for the human family, here, now, and yet to come.

But extreme environmentalists set aside our biblical tradition and exalt the earth over man: Earth First! Man is something of a foreign element on the pristine earth of the radical environmentalist. They do not see the human family as part of the created world or integral to it. And surely they do not us as sovereign in any sense. We are really more like a destructive blight that must be turned back, a foreign element that has been introduced. Man is the enemy of the imagined pristine order.  Human = intrinsically bad. We are, to the extremists, an unqualified disaster for this planet and the greatest favor we could do the earth would be to cease to exist, or at least exist in dramatically fewer numbers. Never mind the complete economic and social collapse a dramatic drop in population would cause. Bring it on, say the radicals. Man is a blight, an infestation that must be removed from their imagined pristine world.

This sort of thinking has begun to make its appearance in movies and series. One example we have discussed here before is the series “Life after People” which imagines (fantasizes?) what would happen to the earth if all humans just disappeared.  It was a very creative series, by the way, lots of good special effects, and interesting information. I wrote more on that here: Life After People and Thermodynamics

Another example of this is the recent movie, Rise of the Planet of the Apes. I would like to present excerpts from an excellent movie review by National Catholic Register film critic Steven D. Greydanus to explore this theme. To be clear, he likes the movie, and it does sound very good. But he also does a good job articulating the problem of a kind of self-loathing that has crept into the post modern scene. I will present just a brief excerpt of his review here. The full review can be read here: National Catholic Register Movie Review of Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

As per usual I will put Mr. Greydanus’ text in bold, black italics. My own remarks are in plain text, red.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a smartly made, effective movie — but what sort of movie is it, exactly?

From its opening scene, Rise establishes a theme of innocent apes terrorized and abused by human beings. … Ape-on-ape cruelty is seen, but in captivity, where the apes are mistreated in a bleak animal-control facility by the facility director and his sadistic son.

It is typical of Hollywood to present a nemesis, or any opponent to “our hero,” or, “our side” in an extreme, almost cartoonish manner. They are unambiguously evil. In this case it is man, the whole human race, that is evil. Of course the nemesis, us, must be presented as sadistic, rotten to the core, thoroughly worthy of defeat and destruction. In the typical world of Hollywood we must not even have a small parcel of pity or understanding of the one, of the enemy, (us), who must be destroyed.

Even when we see some problematic behavior on the part of the apes, it would seem that it is somehow still our fault, that we have interfered with the natural harmony of these magnificent creatures. Never mind that apes, chimps and other primates often exhibit vicious territorial and mating disputes in the “pristine” wild.

So, it would seem, that man is the problem, and whatever problems the apes do have is merely the internalizing the behavior of the oppressor (us). No matter how you look at it, we are the problem.

The ape uprising is depicted as an oppressed population rising up against the oppressors. The climactic [moment], a clash of human and ape forces on a mist-shrouded Golden Gate Bridge….the film’s sympathies are with the approaching creatures, not with the humans. Nothing identifies the humans making their stand on the bridge with anything as nobly human as the ideals evoked in that climactic image from the original [Planet of the Apes] film.

He’s referring to final scene of the 1968 movie Planet of the Apes (which you can see HERE) in which Charlton Heston comes upon the ruins of the Statue of Liberty. The implication of that scene was that something truly good had been lost, destroyed. Humanity had achieved something good, and now it was lost.

It would seem that the humanity described as confronting the apes on the bridge in this current movie, have nothing noble that is worth saving. If this is so, then it is another example of the self-loathing so widespread in the post modern West.

We do not need to succumb to pride to say that there are wonderful things that the human race has accomplished, things that are good, worth saving and even advancing. This notion is increasingly absent in radicalized sectors of the West who see death and non-existence as preferable to any good we might accomplish. Here is an aspect of what the last two Popes have called the “Culture of Death” in the West.

The last act of Rise is both compelling and troubling in a way that reminds me of the History Channel’s series “Life After People” [series], a surprise hit that vividly extrapolates the science of how the natural world would reassert itself over the works of man if human beings suddenly vanished from the earth. The science of how abandoned buildings decay and crumble, domesticated animals return to feral conditions and so forth is fascinating, but there’s something disconcertingly nihilistic about the sensationalistic evocation of the world going on in the sudden absence of people.

Yes, a fascinating show to be sure. I watched every episode on DVD. To me it was a fascinating demonstration of entropy, which is related to the second law of thermodynamics. Fundamentally, unless complex systems are acted upon by a force or energy outside themselves, they tend to return to their basic elements. This is entropy. Take man, and the energy he supplies away from his constructed “complex systems” and they return to their basic elements over time. As we look at the Universe we also observe complex and orderly systems, which suggests that they are organized by an outside force or principle. We who believe call this Principle,  God.

This was the lesson of “Life After People” for me. But it became clear that some, watching the show, were just a little too excited about the idea of this planet without people, and it became a fantasy series for self-loathing post modernists.

[Life After People’s] tagline, “Welcome to Earth … Population: Zero,” captures the spirit of what troubles me. In a world rife with posthuman philosophy, in which human beings are often seen as a blight on the planet and eco-nihilists like the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement fantasize about “phasing out the human race” to “allow Earth’s biosphere to return to good health”…..We’re invited to contemplate a world without people, not in existential terms, but in terms of how fascinating the results are….that the achievements of human civilization no longer have meaning.

I couldn’t have said this better.

I’m not necessarily indicting Life After People, or Rise of the Planet of the Apes, as “posthuman…” For what it’s worth, I enjoyed Rise while I was watching it. It works well as a prequel to the original film, complete with obligatory quotations and clever visual references. My concerns may be as much a matter of cultural context as content. Still, cultural context can be as important as content in what a work has to say to us.

Register film critic Steven D. Greydanus blogs at NCRegister.com

So the Movie seems interesting enough.

But even more interesting, in a troubling way, is the self-loathing of increasing numbers in the post modern, post human West who seem to think that the best thing man can do is decrease and die. A tragic, but inevitable outcome of the culture of death, buffeted by waves of relativism, and a rejection of Biblical Revelation;  a Revelation that describes man as flawed, yet God’s highest and noblest creature here on earth, loved for his own sake; loved by God who made him, and who gave him the whole world to cherish and use with moderation and gratitude.

Photo Credit: Screenshot from the Movie

Here is a trailer for the Movie that also shows how some of the special effects are done:

Catholic Ecology

On Friday night, I went to see No Impact Man with two friends. It’s a new documentary about a man in New York City (along with his wife and toddler) who decides to live for one year without making any environmental impact. No cars, buses, or planes. No refrigerators or elevators. No plastic bottles and no Styrofoam. Only eating local, seasonal produce.

For me, this film is far more thought-provoking than anything else I’ve seen about conservation or ecology. I think that’s because it’s a family story, almost like a home video. It really shows the freedom, joy, and love in the way they lived. There was no evidence that the family was religious, but their sense of self-discipline, moderation, and respect would be inspiring to any Christian.

As far as I can tell, we haven’t blogged much about the environment or ecology, so over the next few posts I’ll be sharing some of my thoughts about the film and related topics. As an introduction, here are some documents for your perusal.

Common Declaration on Environmental Ethics
Pope John Paul II and Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, June 10, 2002

Peace with God the Creator, Peace with All Creation
Pope John Paul II, World Peace Day, January 1, 1990.

Global Climate Change: A Plea for Dialogue, Prudence, and the Common Good
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, June 15, 2001

Renewing the Earth
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, November 14, 1991

Caring for God’s Creation Project: A Program for Environmental Justice
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1993.