We’ve had a Planet of the Apes frenzy this week. First we saw the new release, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, at the cinema, then we watched its prequel, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, at home. It wasn’t that we were enraptured by the first movie, but there was something compelling about it, and, well, in for a penny, in for a pound, as they say. So we watched them both, and they’ve left a certain odour trail behind them that’s stayed with me.
There’s no doubt Planet of the Apes, which was rated highly by both audience and critics, was a technological accomplishment. How did they get all those apes to learn to talk and sign and shoot sub-machine guns?—that’s less of a mystery to me than how anyone could figure out how to use computer graphics to create all that swinging in trees.
And the characters were believable, well-developed and engaging. You really wanted the good guys to succeed and the bad guys to bite the dust. You could see the forces that were driving them and empathise with them, as indeed they empathised with each other on occasion.
But it was so bleak, such a sorry representation of human (and ape) nature. There were two or three really good guys (on both teams), and about the same number of really bad guys. That in itself wasn’t a very nice ratio, but it was everybody else that was the problem. There were hundreds, maybe thousands, of other primates who were just following whoever happened to be in power, panicking, racing mindlessly toward destruction.
Not only that, as far as bleak goes (spoiler alert): the good guys didn’t even win by being good guys. The good human survived by getting lucky and the good ape won by pulverising his opponent. Caesar, the ruler of the apes and the first to have been genetically enhanced, clearly carries the mantle of leadership with some reluctance. He just wants freedom for his people; he doesn’t want war and he knows he’s the only one who can keep the peace. And he tells us at one point, sorrowfully, that he must always show strength—physical strength—to stay in his leadership role.
The message that seeps through is this: There is good and there is evil, and the only way to have good triumph is to use force to make it happen, which is maybe not so good, but, hey, what can you do? It’s a bit like life, really.
But I ask, what’s the point of having good guys and bad guys if they both just use force (or lies or manipulation or…) to get what they want? I’m not generally a black-and-white person, but in my view, the end never justifies the means. It’s an inherent contradiction. You mustn’t ever try to justify putting a good product on the market by lying to customers. You mustn’t ever push a good policy through by cutting corners with the voters. You mustn’t ever win a war by dropping an atom bomb on a city or two of ordinary just-about-their-business folk.
The means colour the end indelibly. Forever.
I wouldn’t make a movie that took the resigned view that force is ultimately the only way to make something happen. I’d recognise that you can’t just turn the other cheek either. Not unlike Planet of the Apes, I’d deal in language, will, purpose, intention, connectedness, love and reason—but I’d give my movie a positive outcome to reinforce the fact that it can be done.
You may have guessed where I’m heading. When Rick came in earlier and said, “Have you been following the news?” my heart dropped and I reached for the Sydney Morning Herald on my android. Someone has fired a missile at an airliner over the Ukraine and brought 298 lives to an abrupt end. It was probably a military action, and it probably wasn’t intended to kill those particular people—but it did, and a ground-to-air missile launcher doesn’t go off by accident. A missile launcher is trouble aching to happen.
Until I read the story again just now, I’d forgotten about the Iran Air flight that a US warship mistakenly shot out of the sky in 1988. At least the Americans ’fessed up but the article implied the US has never apologised and the bombing has never been forgotten or forgiven by the Middle East. It’s been theorised that the Lockerbie bombing later that year was in reaction. Actions have consequences and missiles launched have big ones.
It makes me extremely nervous to think about the possible long-term consequences of this one. The Sydney Morning Herald cautiously reported that a hundred of the people on Flight MH17 were heading to an AIDS conference in Melbourne. That’s a lot of empty seats at that conference, a lot of goodwill choked out forever, more people to die in developing countries because of that loss.
And that’s the tip of an iceberg of possible consequences of the downing of Flight MH17 in the days and years to come.
We used to play a game in the Negotiations course I taught. We’d line up two people on the opposite sides of an argument. The rules were simple: Person #1 makes an assertion from their position (e.g. “Abortion is never justifiable. It’s a pure and simple act of murder.”). Person #2 has to paraphrase that statement to the satisfaction of Person #1 before continuing with an assertion of their own. And so on. It’s a very simple game, right? Anyone can make an assertion and anyone can paraphrase. But it was amazingly difficult for the listener to get a tick on his paraphrasing. The person being paraphrased almost always felt they hadn’t been fully heard or understood, that empathy was missing—ultimately, they felt disrespected. Feeling disrespected is also trouble aching to happen.
Eventually, in the game, something would click for both people and real listening would occur. The heat would go out of the argument and they could grapple with the human condition. But, wow, it was hard work. It takes more than most of us are ever prepared to bring, to show that kind of willingness to listen, connect and respect. But nothing less can prevent a war or the possibility of downed airliners.
As Rick and I were cuddled in bed last night, he talked about empathy. He’s been working through an excellent book called Search Inside Yourself: The Unexpected Path to Achieving Success, Happiness (and World Peace), by Chade-Meng Tan, and has been observing how often he listens from a perspective of trying to fix or offer opinion rather than just listening with empathy for the deeper truth about how something is for someone. He’s on a renewed mission to make that more profound connection.
Now there’s a primate endeavour I can get behind.