It’s unreasonable to expect scientific accuracy from a major Hollywood production. This is true even in the realm of science fiction, where the implied call of “because we say so” often supplants scientific and even narrative logic. The alien mothership is Mac-compatible? Fine. Wolverine is the only one who can travel back in time because his healing factor suddenly applies to his mind as well? OK. Great.
The rebooted Planet of the Apes series, especially compared to its campy forbears, has at least made some attempt at grounded scientific logic. The first effort, 2011′s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, was not only structured around the prolonged relationship between a researcher and his chimpanzee (ape-kind’s eventual ruler), lending credence to its themes of ape evolution and learning, but it put great stock in its admittedly stunning on-screen portrayal of our simian cousins. Through the aid of motion-capture technology and meticulous physical mimicry on the part of the actors, these new age apes move—and sound—much like their real-life counterparts.
Yet while these new apes more than pass the eye and ear test, their behavior suffers from some glaring inaccuracies, specifically regarding the role of sex in ape society. Obviously, some concessions have to be made if the movie wants to keep its PG-13 rating, but the lack of simian intimacy, whether deliberate or just bad science on the part of the filmmakers, has some profound implications for the film’s lead villain, Koba, a bonobo who usurps the peaceful Caesar to lead a war against humanity’s remnants, and even humanity itself.
The bonobos of our world would scarcely recognize the hyper-aggressive, warmongering Koba as one of their own. Utterly unique among primates, bonobos are a peaceful, egalitarian, and largely female-dominated society of apes. They possess a heretofore unseen combination of interpersonal politics and sexual congress. “Whereas in most other species sexual behavior is a fairly distinct category, in the bonobo it is part and parcel of social relations,” wrote Frans B.M. De Waal in his seminal study, “Bonobo Sex and Society.” “And not just between males and females. Bonobos engage in sex in virtually every partner combination.”
Sexual congress is key in group bonobo interaction, whether its divvying up food or cementing relationships between allies. Most important, though, is their substitution of violence for sex in almost all situations. Confrontations, De Waal observed, are extremely rare, and when they do occur they are almost always reconciled through intimate contact. “If two bonobos approach a cardboard box thrown into their enclosure, they will briefly mount each other before playing with the box,” he wrote. “Such situations lead to squabbles in most other species. But bonobos are quite tolerant, perhaps because they use sex to divert attention and to diffuse tension.” While there is no explicit mention made of Koba’s bonobo nature in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the film does demonstrate on at least one occasion, albeit in child-friendly form, his need for reconciliation after physical confrontation. Yet perhaps, the film seems to suggest, a simple handshake isn’t enough.
Koba was raised by humans in a lab and tortured. But more than that, he was denied intimate contact. Standing opposite Koba in the film’s narrative is Caesar, the apes’ peaceful leader, blessed with a wife and family, or, more specifically, a Hollywood-approved stand-in for prolonged sexual contact. Koba, meanwhile, suffers from pronounced ugliness and is depicted as an angry lone male. If intimacy with other apes can mitigate aggression, then Koba’s anger comes as much from physical isolation as it does a desire for revenge. Without it, he comes to more closely resemble another sexually repressed, hyper-aggressive species: humanity.
The transformation of Koba into a human caricature, a machine-gun wielding dictator riding through a wall of flames on horseback, is an important turning point in the film, and on its surface, speaks to humanity’s capacity for corruption and all primates’ innate capacity for evil and violence. The most important lesson, though, isn’t what happens when an ape gets his hands on a gun; its what happens when sex is replaced by diplomacy.