Kosher Movies: Rise of the Planet of the Apes

A friend of mine has two dogs. Whenever he and his wife go on vacation, they place the dogs in what is essentially a dog hotel where they will be fed, walked, and cared for while they enjoy their time off from work. Several months ago, one of the dogs died and my friend went through a genuine grieving experience. He was depressed, very mellow instead of his usual upbeat self, and generally quiet as he processed his loss. When I spoke to him, I felt that the dog was not just a dog to him, but functioned as a human friend, always there with him in times of trouble to comfort him and provide a beacon of light in dark times. The dog was a real companion that made his life more happy, more positive, and more fulfilling.

The human dimension of animals, that part of them that connects to our humanity, is the subtext of Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Will Rodman, an entrepreneurial scientist, works at a genetic therapy pharmaceutical company, developing a drug that may heal mental disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Here, apes are used as test subjects for experimentation on gene therapy that will improve brain function.

A byproduct of this research is that the chimpanzees that are the test subjects become more intelligent, more like humans in the way they think and behave, and this endears them to humans who like animals. To Will Rodman, the apes become companions, not just subjects of experimentation.

Will convinces his boss that he has enough data to proceed with human trials for the drug after getting promising results from apes. When one of the apes subsequently displays violent behavior, Will’s research team is directed to put down all the apes. Will then breaks protocol when, instead of putting down the last baby ape as he is instructed to do, he brings it home and rears it in his own home, where he lives with his Alzheimer’s afflicted father.

The baby ape, Caesar, makes amazing intellectual progress and is able to communicate complex ideas. As the mental state of his father deteriorates, Will decides to steal some of the drug that he has been using with Caesar in the hope that it can reverse his father’s malady, which it does for a limited span of time.

Five years elapse and Caesar grows physically as well as mentally. But he cannot always understand the physical cues of humans. This leads to violent behavior by Caesar when he sees people threatening those about whom he cares. Eventually, his aggressive actions cause him to be placed in an animal sanctuary where he meets other apes. There he begins to develop a core group of apes who want to rebel against their human masters.

There is a concept in Judaism that one should not commit a sin in order to do a good deed. This, in fact, is what Will Rodman has done. He has abandoned scientific protocols in order to run tests that he hoped would cure Alzheimer’s and bring relief to his father and to millions of others. His goals were laudable but the means reprehensible. This is similar to a dilemma in which many of us find ourselves: do we follow the rules when our personal interests are at stake?

An example from my principal days: a girl in our high school was discovered with drugs in her locker. There was a school rule that any student who is caught with drugs at school is expelled. Her parents, generally supportive of the school, wanted me to make an exception to the school rule, arguing that if I expelled her from the school, it was likely to be the end of her Jewish education. Moreover, it would foster relationships with other troubled teens.

Inwardly, I knew that if I did not expel her, I undermined the school rule prohibiting drugs and sent a message to parents that in matters of health and safety, the school was indecisive. After some brief thought, I concluded that the school clearly had to be decisive. It was critical that parents trusted the school to look out for the well being of the students. And so I expelled the student despite the pleadings of her parents and social workers who felt breaking the rule in this case was justified.

Making exceptions to rules is risky business. Our Sages tell us to always consider the ripple effects of our actions. It is from the aspect of eternity that all our present decisions are ultimately judged.

About the Author
Originally from Mt. Vernon, New York, Herbert J. Cohen served in the pulpit rabbinate in Atlanta at the beginning of his career. After six years, he moved into the educational rabbinate and served for 23 years as Principal of Yeshiva High School of Atlanta. In 2010, he and his wife came on aliyah to Israel. His latest book, published by Urim Publishers, is "Kosher Movies: A Film Critic Discovers Life Lessons at the Cinema." He may be reached at rabbihjco@msn.com.
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