Two recent films take one back to the evolving man-ape relationship on celluloid that has been fuelled by fear and partly by fascination…

Aping man — is it a goal worth striving for? I think not, if only going by two new films about refashioning our simian relatives in a more human mould: Rupert Wyatt's exciting and intelligent reboot of an old franchise with the prequel, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”; and James Marsh's troubling documentary about a chimp, “Project Nim”. Hubris and misguided scientific zeal on the part of the human protagonists, in each case, create unhappy outcomes of varying magnitude.

Marsh's documentary investigates a 1973 experiment by Columbia University behavioural psychologist Professor Herb Terrace; he arbitrarily placed a baby chimp named Nim with a human family to see whether the chimp could be taught sign language, with little thought to what havoc this displacement would cause. The scientist (James Franco) who brings home baby chimp Caesar in Wyatt's movie may be a more sympathetic character, but he proceeds to enact the cliché of the road to hell being paved with good intentions.

The anthropoid apes or man apes — such as gorillas, chimpanzees, orang-utans — may be referred to as “higher” ape forms. However, the two 2011 films underscore what the daily news reminds us — that our perch atop the evolutionary tree hasn't exactly endowed us with collective empathy or wisdom.

Sugary stereotypes

I suspect that it's only in kiddie tales, animated films and cuddly toys that anthropomorphising animals have no nasty side effects. The stories of Nim and Caesar are cautionary tales unlike that of “Curious George”. The 2006 animated film, based on the popular children's books, deals with an inquisitive monkey named George who is brought from Africa to the big city by the “Man with the Yellow Hat”, and some happy adventures ensue.

You could argue, too, that the celebrated man-ape Tarzan is more fun in the cheerful animated version (1999), given a boost by Glenn Close voicing Kala, his gorilla mama. Even author Edgar Rice Burroughs, incidentally, once said that animation could well be the best format for Tarzan to work on the big screen.

Over the years, man and ape on celluloid has been an evolving relationship that is part-fearful, part-familial, part-fascination. In the multiple-film franchise that began in 1968 with the original “Planet of the Apes”, it was a fairly clear-cut case of man vs. ape. This darker aspect has continued to loom large — whether in a movie such as “Outbreak” (1995) where mankind is threatened by a highly contagious virus carried by a monkey; or whether it's mankind doing the threatening as in “Project X” (1987), another film where chimps are used for experiments.

Also fuelling man-ape tensions, perhaps, is the deep-rooted disagreement between the creationists and the evolutionists about whether man really evolved from the apes. Stanley Kubrick's “2001: A Space Odyssey” does offer a definitive answer, in the famously extended Dawn of Man opening sequence where our ape-like ancestors discover what “tools” are.

Some interesting trivia: the joke of the time was that “2001” lost the honorary Best Makeup Award at the Oscars to John Chambers for “Planet of the Apes”, because the voters failed to appreciate that the 2001 apes were really people in ape suits.

The process of aping apes, i.e. the human skill and technology needed to bring ape-related tales to the big screen, is part of the appeal. With due apologies to the immensely likeable Franco, I have to admit the main reason for going ape over “Rise of the Planets of the Apes” is Andy Serkis, who plays Caesar. Footage of how his performance was transformed through motion-capture technology and computer wizardry into a simian character makes for gripping viewing. To quote Kurt Cobain without the underlying irony, Serkis is “very ape and very nice”.

It's a far cry from the clunky prosthetic masks of the original, but as Franco pointed out in an interview, that's the trouble with technology: “You have to remember that when the first one came out in 1968, that was cutting-edge technology of the day.”

Serkis was also responsible for creating real magic around our most famous larger-than-life ape, in the Peter Jackson remake (2005). King Kong's enduring appeal goes beyond that of the scary monster film; it taps into our fear of otherness, and our kneejerk reaction to respond with cruelty to that which is different. The 2005 film rather than the 1933 original was braver about exploring these issues; it also cleverly allowed the big ape's object of infatuation (an excellent Naomi Watts) to respond with empathy rather than shriek mindlessly in fear.

Moving portrayal

Empathy in bridging the species divide was the most remarkable aspect of “Gorillas in the Mist” (1988), about the naturalist Dian Fossey (Sigourney Weaver), who dedicated some 13 years of her life to the study of Rwanda's mountain gorillas, till she was murdered in 1985. Some of the movie's best scenes are non-verbal, when the naturalist seeks to make a connection with the simians by mimicking their behaviour — rolling on the ground, squatting and grunting.

On the opposite scale of such nuanced performances is the tiresome staple of simians as — supposedly — hilarious adjuncts or sidekicks, whether it's Jack the pet capuchin monkey in “Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl” or the crassly exploitative cigarette-smoking monkey in “The Hangover 2”. Presumably PETA keeps an eye on the veracity of the “no animals were harmed in the making of this movie” disclaimers. But the Simian Style Police also need to be on standby, to keep an eye on the humans getting up to celluloid monkey business.