Revealing deeper anxieties of modern society, stories have been told in the medium of film as a form of social commentary. Dystopias often tell of a broken alternate reality of twisted, once-idyllic societies, while apocalyptic tales showcase the consequences of post-modern life. In the grand scope, the purpose of such genres is to highlight the realities of society today. A prominent film in the field is I Am Legend–a movie in which a brilliant man, left as the last man on Earth after a virus turns the major population into vicious creatures, researches for a cure and connection with any possible remaining survivors. More similar than originally anticipated, the recognized franchise, Planet of the Apes, tells the story of a turn of apocalyptic events in which apes become dominant over humans, thinking and behaving in a civilized, united order. Merging the worlds of dystopian and apocalyptic symbolism by societal classes, these films tell narratives of oppressive, “Savior” beings held superior to the alternative, putting into question the ethics of instrumental research and warns of how far individuals might push nature for the sake of scientific advancement–ultimately representing the inner beast within that is capable of defeating humanistic souls.

 Throughout both films, the inner fear of inferiority reigns over the actions of the previously dominating species: humans. As seen in the main character of I Am Legend, Neville, humans have an attachment to normalcy and superiority. Having prevailed over other species for all of history, even treating other species as inferior–not merely different–it is a natural anxiety to fear losing such an advantage. This is reflected in the general behaviors Neville conducts, not only in combating the majority population of zombies but acting out scenarios, such as with mannequins as if they were alive, that would only exist in a world prior to the one now dominated by a new species. His dedication to research for a cure, despite being seemingly alone, reflects this unreasonable sense of attachment to normalcy and power. Humans want to be powerful. Neville not only combats out of a sense of morality, as will be discussed later, but a fear of accepting the reality that he is the minority, symbolically fighting against a course of nature that is no longer his to reign. He is the villain of the story–if the audience takes a step with the alternate ending and recognizes that the zombies have humanity as well. Similarly in the Planet of the Apes franchise, humans have fallen back to a state of inferiority to apes, mostly by their own consequence. The key reversal leaves the audience sympathizing with the apes over humans, especially with the latest films following the lead ape, Caesar, who shows more humanity in his countenance than many humans. The repeated scenes reflecting racism speak on the societal draw towards separating classes, where rather than any civilization having equal classifications, there is always a higher and lower order. In the 2011 film, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Caesar is caged because of behavior seen as inhumane and monstrous. There, he is treated worse by humans, even being waterhosed. Such a ritual can directly correlate to the historical events of systemic racism involving the waterhosing of African Americans. The theme of racism, seen even in the earliest films, with light-skinned monkeys at the top of society and dark-skinned gorillas at the bottom, shows just how strong the role of dominion can play in compassion and ethics.

 Both films ultimately fight the question of what makes something humane. The bounds and qualifications that make someone of humanistic worth are relative to the story and perspective. One might even argue that as science changes, or rather the perspective of such does, so does the definition of humans. The art of society built by apes in Planet of the Apes showcases not only the foundations of every basic organization but the greatest threats. Many believe that humans are humans based on the grounds of their mental capacity and civility. However, this film opposes such natural beliefs by placing apes of higher capacity of the criteria. As a sequel to the first film appearing in 2011, Dawn of Planet of the Apes is the peak of ape civilization, where they perform structured, military advances and design organized shelters built in the way humans might be expected to. Most powerfully, several apes are shown to speak and have relations of romantic and paternal natures. Entering into the complex, political realm of society, triggered by human involvement, modernists and extremists juxtapose to force individuals to understand whether similarity makes someone of worth or the human nature of self-interest and personal influences. I Am Legend builds a case in support of Neville’s fight for survival, searching for a cure to return to the normal in which he believes so strongly. His moral right to destroy another species to do so is on the basis that the creatures, once infected, lack personhood. Many might define this personhood on the bounds of agency, free will, and reason–as scientists continue to explain the innate fear reflected by zombies as unreason and betrayal. However, this only leads to the tragic ending in which the creatures not only show affection in fighting for the woman creature, not killing Neville upon returning her but agency in the fact of their choice to demand. Critics describe this moment as the point of psychological discovery in which humans, represented by Neville, might have previously victimized themselves, but actually find that they are the true villain–abandoning true humanistic qualities.

 At the heart of desolation is technology, as is repeatedly seen in both films. Rise of the Planet of the Apes grounds on the field of research ethics, the apes’ decided lack of “personhood” allowing humans to feel morally right in treating them inferiorly. Dawn of Planet of the Apes reverses this behavior, where humans become so reliant on technology and science, which once defined them as the superior species, that they become uncivilized and desperate without it. Such a man causing Koba’s pain could be identified in Neville’s perseverance for a cure, based on his background in science and technological epistemology. This not only leads to the dangerous quality of divine command and authority but disrespect of natural course. When he meets a fellow survivor, she sees the many pictures that Neville has taken of creatures he has experimented on. Pointing, she asks, “‘Did they all die?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘My God.’ ‘God didn’t do this. We did.’” His blatant recognition of human’s ability to destroy themselves fails to recognize the same quality continuing in his own demeanor, fighting a species that may not necessarily be evil, but rather, a power change. Humanity has not gone it; it has simply changed. Perspectives of science must follow suit.

 By definition of his displayed symptoms, Neville believes he is some sort of “savior” to the world. Reflected in the title of the film, I Am Legend, he seeks to make a legacy of himself by returning the world to a state of civility. This desperation is directly mentioned by his cries at the laboratory when the creatures crash into the glass in desperation: “I can help! I can save you. I can save everybody!” It is not his place to heal. The zombie species does not need healing. In fact, he himself may be the greatest threat to the course of a developing society. The storytelling “Messiah” complex is utilized by storytellers to highlight the divine command theory, making higher beings the deciders of morality rather than being defined by a moral order. In Planet of the Apes, in additional support of the theory, Caesar is raised by a man, Rob, who is compassionate and morally inspired, yet is troubled by an unfailing God complex, seeking to cure his father’s Alzheimer’s, by whatever means necessary. Once again plagued by the powers of technology, the very virus that destroys humankind brought about by human research and laboratory experiments, he fails to do so, while apes arise above such advances. The moment they gain access to advanced technology and military weapons, however, the civility that held them superior is lost.

Written April 2023

A.R. Hansen

Author of Battle of the Mind