Reel Therapy

Unraveling the mind through film

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

A side-story of PTSD underlies the plot's tragedy

In “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” 10 years of an unchecked virus and bloody battles with the apes have reduced the world to a small group of desperate humans versus an equally small group of hyper-evolved apes.

The two groups try to live in parallel for a while but inevitably the needs of one group require interaction between both groups, at which point the question becomes are the two groups going to fight to the death or achieve a harmonious outcome? It goes without saying that the best option is to mutually commit to the healthy and totally-plausible path of peace and cooperation. It also goes without saying that the movie, as movies are prone to do, engages in the more violent option.

The explanation for this tragic turn comes from a series of interesting, sometimes-predictable miscommunications and missteps (on both sides – humans and apes). Interestingly, I think PTSD had a lot to do with it.

Let’s back up.

You’ve got the “good guys” from each group. For the apes it is Caesar, the sage protagonist, and for the humans it is Malcolm, the thoughtful scientist. Both leaders handle the challenging situation well - they think deeply about the realistic scenarios for resolving the inter-group rivalry and conflicting needs, they work hard to imbue some trust and affection with the other side, and they cautiously monitor the fluctuating degree of threat and all-out-warfare that hangs in the air.

Their hopeful plans would’ve worked had it not been for the repeated moves and counter-moves of two PTSD-ridden monkey wrenches – for the apes it is Koba, and for the humans it is Carver.

Koba was tortured by humans in an earlier chapter of this story; consequently, he not only hates humans but he mistrusts them and feels assured within himself that at some point in the very near future the humans will trap/kill all the apes. This assumption about what the future has in store for the apes is founded on nothing but his personal and miserable past experiences with a few humans, but it defines his vision of the future. As such, he over-reacts to some legitimately nasty/foolish things that the humans do early in the human-ape interactions; he even goes so far as to orchestrate some unprompted and highly-distressing provocations (I won’t spoil this blog with the dramatic plot points).

Carver lost a lot of family to the apes during the 10 years of cross-species civil war and it has made him perpetually jumpy with a hostile, embittered and mistrusting perspective on the apes. He engages in a series of panicked decisions and impulsively violent behaviors that are less diabolical but just as destructive as Koba’s efforts.

Fortunately, neither Koba nor Carver are fair portraits of PTSD victims, as their “symptoms” are amplified by uniquely dominant degrees of stupidity and evilness (for the record, there is no relationship between PTSD and stupidity or evilness, though, I suppose that, at times, PTSD symptoms can flare-up and influence sufferers of the disorder to be more unreasonable, angry and violent versions of themselves). Even with this significant grain of salt it can still be said that both characters have trauma backgrounds, and both characters engage in the sort of unhealthy tendencies and destructive self-fulfilling prophecies that, on a smaller scale, resemble what can happen, psychologically, with PTSD.

Think of PTSD as a perceptual lens that becomes glued to your mind (it can become unglued with treatment!) – all incoming information from the environment, including the ways in which that information is processed, goes through this PTSD lens and kick-starts an ongoing, PTSD-riddled internal monologue that is unduly dark and distorted.

Your internal threat detector goes haywire, so that instead of moving through the world with an assumption of safety, and a cautious eye toward the possibility of danger, threat is unreasonably assumed, if not over-estimated. It feels like threat is just around the corner, people are considered guilty until proven innocent, and the future is catastrophically set-in-stone like some Geek tragedy. This thought process has drifted far from the calm, reasoned approach to life that is needed for adaptive functioning in the modern world, and it fuels the re-experiences (i.e. intrusive thoughts or flashbacks about the near-death memories) and emotional reactivity (i.e. feeling unduly on-edge or totally numb) that make-up the tell-tale signs of the disorder.

In short, this PTSD lens that is glued to your mind keeps you stuck on the battlefield where it is killed or be killed, and the only thing that matters is who pulls the trigger first. This last point may a bit overstated and melodramatic when it comes to the typical subjective experience of PTSD but you get the idea...

Koba and Carver fire their bullets, physically and psychologically, from the get-go and ruin Caesar and Malcolm’s best laid plans, a tragic turn that perhaps also serves as a reminder that if you have acute, untreated PTSD then you should:

a. get help

b. avoid actual battlefields (in modern warfare I'm betting that most encounters benefit from self-restraint more than a quick trigger)

c. avoid a position of power in which decisions about battlefields are being made (here's hoping that Congress has many more Caesar's than it has Koba's!) 

Jeremy Clyman, Psy.D., attained his doctorate in clinical psychology at Yeshiva University.

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