As Dawn of the Planet of the Apes leaps and bounds onto humanity’s big screens, captivating audiences with its 3D “motion capture” CGI and eye-popping FX, putting us in touch with our inner ape and making a ton of cash for its producers (debuting at a whopping $73 million), it is dangerously misleading about bonobos.
What’s the big deal about bonobos? The rare and marvelous “Make-Love-Not-War” great apes, bonobos are, like common chimpanzees, incredibly close to us; in fact, they are almost 99% genetically similar to humans. Unlike common chimps, humans and all other Great Apes, bonobos have never been seen killing each other in the wild or captivity. Their remarkable, mostly matriarchal culture seems to use sex, erotic play and physical affection to prevent murder and war. This may sound fantastical enough to be science fiction, but it is primatological fact.
The most recently discovered of the Great Apes, bonobos are also highly endangered, thanks to humanity’s decimation of their native habitat in the Congolese rainforest and the illegal but all too common practice of “bushmeat” poaching. However, strong conservation efforts are underway to save our “kissing cousins” from extinction, and a vital part of that effort involves teaching humans just how special and worth saving bonobos are. These efforts are just starting to pay off, and a few groups, including our dedicated friends at Lola ya Bonobo and the Bonobo Conservation Initiative, are now making great strides in the extremely uphill battle against bonobo extinction.
Now galloping into this battle on the wrong side, with guns blazing, is this behemoth blockbuster sequel to another blockbuster remake. Both Rise and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes defame the good name “bonobo” by calling the most violent, vicious, murderous, warmongering—not to mention the ugliest and scariest-looking—ape in the film a “bonobo.”
Excuse me? This is like calling the Dalai Lama a Nazi or a dolphin a shark. Anyone with a passing familiarity with bonobos—including screenwriters who bother to do a modicum of research—knows how preposterous it is to villainize these extraordinarily peaceful primates as mass murderers. But most people aren’t very familiar with bonobos, and many are getting their first impressions of them from this movie. That is the crux of the problem, the reason why Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is more than “just” a movie, and why it should be taken to task for this egregious misrepresentation.
Yes, we all know that Hollywood typically takes broad cinematic liberties with reality in order to tell its stories, often getting the facts somewhat wrong in an effort to make a film more dramatic, entertaining or to keep it within the typical two hour running time. Filmmakers frequently stretch the truth, exaggerating, minimizing or leaving out complexities, and that’s understandable. What Hollywood doesn’t usually do is give us a character that is the exact 180 degree opposite of the reality of that character’s species. But that’s just what Dawn of the Planet of the Apes does with the character of “Koba,” the brutal “bonobo” (a CGI based on the motion-capture performance by Toby Kebell) who kills without remorse and bullies the other apes into forming a fighting force that almost destroys the human race with a maniacal grin on his face.
Not that Koba is called a “bonobo” during the actual film, but neither are any of the apes called anything but “apes,” whether they resemble common chimps, gorillas or orangutans. Indeed, the only apes that are not simply referred to as “apes” are the humans. But the Rise and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes PR materials and the movies’ websites all call Koba a “bonobo,” and fans of the film plus many others are going to those websites. Most of these folks probably don’t know much about bonobos to begin with, so what else are they to think but that bonobos are the most murderous apes on earth instead of being the most peaceful?
Years ago, I protested that the old Planet of the Apes, and even Tim Burton’s 2001 half-baked remake, didn’t represent bonobos in their mix of apes. Now I wish the franchise had stayed that way. Silly me, I assumed that any bonobo character they might concoct would be some kind of swinging hippie ape, a boho bonobo. Maybe I should have known better. Imaginative and provocative as the original Planet of the Apes was, the series has never been strong on accuracy in its portrayal of apes. Nevertheless, this latest installment goes apeshit-crazy when it calls the worst warmonger in the series’ history a “bonobo.” This makes me and the rest of us here in Bonoboville so mad that we’ve formed the Bonobo Anti-Defamation League to speak out against misleading, defamatory portrayals of bonobos in media, starting with this one.
Sure, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is an entertainment-oriented sci-fi film, not an educational documentary with an obligation to be accurate. Our First Amendment gives the filmmakers the freedom of speech to say whatever they want about bonobos, and I wouldn’t dream of taking that away from them. But I also have the right and moral obligation to speak out and school these filmmakers as well as their innocent audiences in the truth about bonobos, which is really much more interesting than Dawn’s predictable, plodding script anyway. Though, of course, a Planet of the Bonobos couldn’t possibly get that coveted PG-13 rating that can’t abide showing a naked female breast in a remotely sexual context, though shooting a bullet into that same breast, if properly covered up, is just fine.
When NBC’s Keith Wagstaff asked Dawn director Matt Reeves why “Koba, the film’s villain… a bonobo… practice(s) violence instead of free love,” the director replied, “He is not just a bonobo, he is a bonobo that was kept captive by humans and experimented on, which is kind of a horrific thing if you imagine yourself as that ape.”
That excuse might sound reasonable, except it isn’t. First, bonobos have never been used for human medical experiments, as depicted in Rise and referenced in Dawn. Even if they had, it’s extremely doubtful that any bonobo, real or “genetically enhanced,” would react in any way close to the murderous fashion in which Koba responds. Real bonobos may not have been the subjects of medical experiments, but they often go through a similar kind of hell. The orphaned baby bonobos that wind up at Lola ya Bonobo have usually witnessed their mothers being brutally shot to death by poachers, often while they are riding on Mama’s back or nursing at her breast. These little bonobo refugees are often wounded or terribly mistreated by the hunters who capture them and vainly try to sell them as “pets” or smuggle them out of the country to nefarious “zoos.” Many are horribly traumatized by these experiences, some fail to rally and others develop psychological problems like depression and compulsivity. Still, no bonobo has been seen killing another bonobo, nor a human nor any other ape.
So no, Mr. Reeves, spouting psychobabble about Koba being tortured through medical experiments isn’t a valid excuse for calling this irredeemably evil murderer a “bonobo,” bulldozing so much of the good work done by bonobo conservationists and further jeopardizing the real bonobos’ chances at survival. I don’t know if you and the film producers are selfishly exploiting the keyword “bonobo” as it is just becoming known to promote your film or you’re just breathtakingly insensitive, but the new Bonobo Anti-Defamation League is here to set you straight and defend the good reputation of the bonobo against your misrepresentations.
Not only does this misrepresentation defame the bonobo, it also helps this MOST dystopian of dystopian films give the clear impression that murder and war are so deep within our DNA as apes that we can never possibly evolve beyond it. In that sense, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes appears to make a strong, stark, evolution-based case for an ever-expanding Military Industrial Complex (MIC), except that it’s based on a lie, like much support for the MIC is based on lies. In this case, the lie begins with calling Killer Koba a bonobo and ends in extinguishing any human hope for peace.
Though calling the bad guy a “bonobo” is its most heinous crime, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, commits a few other significant misrepresentations of our ape relatives. One is anatomical. In an effort to keep their ratings at PG-13 (which means more kids can learn to be scared of bonobos), the filmmakers have opted to simply and completely excise the genitalia from all the apes.
As the great primatologist Dr. Frans de Waal puts it, “”They are a bit like teddy bears or something.” And as you might extrapolate from the fact that these apes have been fully castrated, there is no ape sex depicted in Dawn, not even so much as a French kiss.
The movie does support human “family values” though, essentially turning Caesar (with a motion-capture performance by Andy Sirkis), the alpha chimp, into a devoted husband and model dad. The reality is, as Dr. De Waal states, “Male chimps don’t really know who their offspring are and they don’t necessarily care.” Ditto for bonobos where ignorance of paternity, plus female solidarity and “mom power,” is one of the keys to keeping the peace.
Speaking of which, there is also a glaring lack of female apes in this movie. That helps make it even more dystopian. Certainly, there are no bonobo females who would soon set the guys straight on all the gratuitous murder and mayhem that ensues. Granted, a gang of bonobo gal pals might have ruined Dawn’s relentless march to war, but there are hardly any common chimp-type females either. The only identified female ape character is Caesar’s sweetly submissive “wife” Cornelia who, between giving birth to Caesar’s baby (a son, of course) and being sick, spends almost the entire film lying flat on her back, whimpering.
The film has its good points. It’s especially nice to know that Dawn filmmakers didn’t use real apes to make this film. Though not as horrific as medical testing or shooting them for bushmeat, putting apes in movies still requires keeping those apes in cages and harming them as well as threatening them with harm to ensure they “act” properly. Hopefully, this brutal practice has seen its last days.
Another good point of Dawn is that it continues to pose some of the same questions as the original Planet of the Apes: “What gives human apes the right to cage and control our fellow apes?” and “What if the tables were turned?” Also, as Dr. De Waal has pointed out, the film depicts certain common chimp practices with eerie accuracy, such as the way the apes all bow low before their alpha leader, Caesar. There are some awesome scenes of the apes in action. I especially enjoyed seeing them climbing and swinging from the Golden Gate Bridge, as I climbed the great Golden Gate several years ago with the old Suicide Club, though I wasn’t much of a swinger (at least not from the bridge).
Both Rise and Dawn probe the dynamics of human conflict, how good intentions can lead to very bad results, especially when the ape trying to do “good” has a gun in his trigger-happy hands. Dawn also explores the nature of war, its ape-human struggle having been compared, somewhat plausibly, to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
But these good points don’t excuse defaming the bonobos through the loathsome, utterly unbonobo character of Koba. In some ways, they make it worse, since they render the film more worthy of being taken seriously in every way, including its wrongful depiction of bonobos.
Therefore, I hold the producers at 20th Century Fox, director Reeves and the screenwriters, Amanda Silver, Mark Bomback, Scott Z. Burns and Rick Jaffa, responsible for defaming bonobos. But unlike their false depiction of an unforgiving bonobo murderer, I’d like to hold out an olive branch of peace real bonobo-style, in hopes that these filmmakers (whom I believe have their hearts in the right place), will do something to make right what they have gotten so horribly wrong.
Right off the bat, here are three suggestions:
!. Donate a substantial tax-deductible percentage of Dawn’s sure-to-be-massive profits to organizations helping to save the bonobos from extinction. For direct input into conservation, I highly recommend Lola ya Bonobo, the amazing Claudine André’s sanctuary that is saving bonobo orphans and ultimately releasing them back into the wild, and BCI, Sally Coxe’s organization that is building a “Bonobo Peace Forest” that engages the local populace in protecting the native wild bonobos from hunters and keeping those hunters out of the forest. Good public relations is also important, and since Rise and Dawn have generated a great deal of mendacious, misleading and just plain old bad PR for the bonobos, you should dig a little deeper into those deep pockets and donate to my foundation, which specializes in bonobo promotion, as well as my new social media site Bonoboville, both of which donate to bonobo conservation organizations.
2. In your next Planet of the Apes installment, create a bonobo character who represents the true “bonobo way” of peace-through-pleasure. As the next movie in the franchise has already been announced with a July 29, 2016 release date, there’s plenty of time to do your research. If you need a consultant to make sure you get it right this time, you know where to find me.
3. Make a Planet of the Bonobos sequel. The plot is simple, but it would need at least an R rating: With more reality-based bonobos in charge of the earth, sex and sensuality are everywhere. There are virtually no racial, social, species or gender boundaries on Planet Bonobo. Females are at least equal to, if not somewhat more powerful than males. Little alliances and jealousies occur, but for the most part, everyone has sex with virtually everyone else. Orgies are as common as barbeques, and often they go together. Politicians are elected on the basis of their sexual prowess. Judges are selected based on their tolerance and empathy. Porn stars are held in the same high esteem that we hold professional athletes. Sex is purchased, bartered or given away freely. There are occasional bursts of violence, but murder and war do not exist, in accordance with the Bonobo Way. On the Planet of the Bonobos (as in real-life bonobo communities), different forms of sex are used to reduce hostile tension. Into this crazy sex-positive world tumble our human protagonists (let the script committee figure out how). Having been brought up in strict, puritanical human cultures, they are pretty freaked out at first by all the Free Love, but as they release their inner bonobos, they learn how to really enjoy their lives on this beautiful, wild, sexual planet Earth, some for the very first time. Too bad such a film will not be cumming soon to a theater near you. Then again, perhaps someday, with enough positive media about the bonobos, it will be. It could give a whole new meaning to the word “dirty”… Damned dirty bonobos!
Dr. Susan Block is an internationally renowned LA sex therapist, author of The 10 Commandments of Pleasure and the forthcoming Bonobo Way, occasionally seen on HBO and other channels. Visit her at http://DrSusanBlock.com. Follow her on Twitter @DrSuzy. Email your comments to her at email@example.com and if you say you found her on Counterpunch, you will get a reply.
© July 13, 2014.