Academic journal article Science Fiction Film and Television

Simians, Subjectivity and Sociality: 2001: A Space Odyssey and Two Versions of Planet of the Apes

Academic journal article Science Fiction Film and Television

Simians, Subjectivity and Sociality: 2001: A Space Odyssey and Two Versions of Planet of the Apes

Article excerpt

Animals have long functioned as foils for humanity. They simultaneously serve to mark the outside of what constitutes 'the human' and as uncanny mirrors for humanity. Narratives of the human/animal boundary can equally be used to emphasise what humanity lost on entering into civilisation or what it has gained by rising above brute nature. Reflections on the human/animal boundary sometimes promote its deconstruction, and a consequent reconsideration of the ethical relations between humans and other species, but at other times endorse a boundary-buttressing insistence on the superiority and uniqueness of human being, even if ever-shifting grounds must be discovered to secure this distinction. Frequently linked to fears about the degeneration that might result from humanity's self-destructive tendencies, this boundary is often used satirically to critique the social order. Simians in particular have always provoked troubled responses, uncannily appearing both like and unlike humans. Since Darwin, they inevitably signify evolution, reminding us - regardless of how often religion and philosophy have promoted a radical break between human and animal - of our failure to be of another order.

In sf, the privileged figure of alterity tends to be the machine (robots, androids, AIs) rather than the animal. Bearing a symbolic burden similar to that which animals carry in the wider culture, sf 's machinic intelligences are both mirrors and others, critiquing human frailties and promoting human exceptionalism. The frequency with which intelligent machines feature in fearful narratives about the end of the human era could even be seen as the return of the repressed violent history between humans and animal others. This article begins with a detailed consideration of two films from the same year that might initially seem to be positioned at opposite ends of this spectrum of alterity - 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick UK/US 1968)1 and Planet of the Apes (Schaffner US 1968) - before turning to the remake of the latter, Planet of the Apes (Burton US 2001). Both 1968 films depict the replacement of the human species by another. While Kubrick's film is generally seen to promote technological transcendence and the starchild as the 'next stage' of evolution, Schaffner's vision is more pessimistic, lamenting with its protagonist that the Earth is now in the hands of a 'lesser' species. Both films, however, critique the trajectory of a human civilisation - developed from a once-shared culture with simians - that has produced the threat of nuclear annihilation. While HAL (voiced by Douglas Rain) has, for many, become emblematic of 2001, this AI - a typical sf figure of alterity - appears only in the middle portion of the film. This article will focus instead on the role of the apes in the opening 'Dawn of Man' segment, since they are as crucial to the film's critique of the Cold War arms race as is the image of the Statue of Liberty listing in the sand at the end of Planet of the Apes.

Donna Haraway argues that 'primatology is a First World survival literature in the conditions of twentieth-century global history' (369), including 'global, nuclear culture' (3). From this perspective, it is unsurprising that both films turn to simians as part of their plea to transform human civilisation before it precludes survival. Yet because the human/animal boundary is deployed in dialectical and complex ways in human culture, this focus on simian evolution can work in contradictory ways, critiquing the limits of human subjectivity as currently configured, but also reasserting the inevitable superiority of humans over other species (if we could just fix our fatal flaws).2 Furthermore, although the human/animal boundary is discursively constructed precisely as a boundary - a firm, thin line, on one side purely human, and on the other purely animal - in experience this boundary is fluid and contingent, shifting with time and place. Indeed, the boundary is better understood as a borderland, a terrain whose extremes might represent the radical difference implied by 'boundary' but which is a quagmire of ambiguity and hybridity, of existence that is neither quite human nor animal. …

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