Disability in Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Friday, 31 January 2014 14:28

As March approaches, so does my favourite conference: ICFA. After a successful presentation on disability in Star Trek last year, I thought I would stick with the film and television track of the conference. Not only do I thoroughly enjoy analyzing popular films, but it seems that everyone loves watching movie clips during conference papers. Win-win.

This year I am presenting on Rupert Wyatt's reboot of the Planet of the Apes franchise, Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011). I've seen all of the Apes movies--was alternatively amused and appalled--and went to see Rise in the theatre (by myself) because I was extremely curious about how Wyatt's film would deal with the offensive racial politics of the earlier Apes films. Rise of the Planet of the Apes did not fail to deliver a similarly problematic narrative of the primate other. And so another academic conference was born. Here is my proposal for my paper/clip show with analysis:

“Some Things Aren’t Meant to be Changed”—Disability in Rise of the Planet of the Apes

In Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), the Planet of the Apes franchise goes high-tech—both in terms of the films extensive use of CGI to create the lead ape, Caesar, and in its key plot device of the creation and misuse of a “neurogenesis” drug. Referred to as “the cure” for Alzheimer’s disease, the drug ends up significantly transforming the primate mind. Like most cure narratives in science fiction, the film speaks to Western culture’s preference for an idealized “wholeness” and imagines a scenario where only the most physically dominant and intellectually capable survive (represented by the technologically-enhanced chimpanzee, Caesar). As Elaine Graham writes in Representations of the Post/Human, however, it is essential that we interrogate such narratives of the future “ideal” body: “What is at stake, supremely, in the debate about the implications of digital, genetic, cybernetic and biomedical technologies is precisely what (and who) will define authoritative notions of normative, exemplary, desirable humanity into the twenty-first century” (11). As a way to distance itself from the overt racist politics of the original Planet of the Apes series, I argue that Rise of the Planet of the Apes instead emphasizes a normative humanity predicated on the erasure of the “undesirable” ill and disabled body.

Disability studies scholars Sharon Snyder and David Mitchell observe the tendency to frame the disabled body as “primitive throwback” to an earlier time in human development: “In a culture that endlessly reassures itself that it is on the verge of conquering Nature once and for all, along with its own ‘primitive’ instincts and the persistent domain of the have-nots, disability is referenced with respect to these idealized visions. As a vector of human variability, disabled bodies both represent a throwback to a human prehistory and serve as the barometer of a future without ‘deviancy’” (Cultural Locations of Disability 32). With its focus on “curing” Alzheimer’s disease and improving “natural” (but limited and “primitive”) cognitive abilities through medical testing on apes, along with a sustained focus on the animals’ institutionalization in “care” facilities, Wyatt’s film makes problematic ableist connections between primates and people with disabilities. Reading Rise of the Planet of the Apes with disability studies in mind, I want to address issues of agency, compassion, and the drive to “overcome” physical and cognitive differences. While there is a claimed desire to “cure” people, the lone female in the film, Caroline, nevertheless tells the (white, straight, able-bodied, and male) protagonist Will, “some things aren’t meant to be changed.” Where does this line of thinking—as well as the imagined apocalyptic consequences of creating “the (failed) cure”—situate people with disabilities both in the present and in the imagined future?

 

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