Earlier this year, I offered some thoughts on a few of the religious-themed movies that have been popular in theaters, including Noah, Son of God, and Heaven is for Real. I commented on the fact that 2014 seems to be a banner year for such movies with overtly religious subject matters; God is hitting it big in Hollywood these days. But I never expected the most profoundly religious movie of the year (thus far, at least) – and one of the most well-made, thought-provoking movies I have seen in a long time – to be about sentient apes engaging in an epic battle with the remnants of a devastated humanity. Everyone should see Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – and then think and talk about what it means to be human, what it means to be created in the image of God.

Picking up ten years after the most recent Planet of the Apes movie from 2011 (Rise of the Planet of the Apes), this new story takes place in a world in which millions of human beings have died because of a virus – a simian flu – that at the same time resulted in genetically evolved apes that exhibit extraordinarily human-like characteristics. The sentient apes have established a community in a forest outside of San Francisco, and when a group of human beings encounters them while trying to restore power to their struggling compound, there is an extraordinary journey of discovery, curiosity, fear, and questions about what this encounter means. Can the various species live in peace with one another? Can they establish systems of communication? Do they want to co-exist peacefully? Is one superior to the other? What do they have in common? Are they willing to fight and kill to preserve their rights and future?

But the heart of the encounter – and what turns this sci-fi adventure movie into a springboard for religious conversation – is the question of what makes us human. Or, from a Christian viewpoint, what does it mean that we as human beings are created in the image and likeness of God? Is it language, the ability to communicate and reflect on our existence in conversation with others? Is it free will? Is it the ability to love, selflessly and unconditionally? Is it the ability to live at peace with all of creation? Or … is it the capacity to hate, the desire for war and dominance and selfish ambition?

One of the apes, Koba, who was cruelly treated by human beings in a laboratory, seems only to have learned how to hate. He wants power and control for himself and doesn’t care about community or family or peace. It sounds very familiar – and it seems that it was human beings who conditioned him to be like that. What does that say about us? But for another ape, Caesar, what he learned from human beings was love, and compassion, and the importance of family, and a desire for peace. So which is it – what is our legacy? What is our dominant human characteristic? How have we embraced or abandoned the gifts that we have been given by God?

In the end, I would argue that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is about forgiveness – and that the movie suggests that the ability to forgive is what makes us most human. By extension, could we as Christians say that the ability to forgive is what makes us most like God? There is a remarkable scene at the very end of the movie that at first glance appears to show the ape community worshipping Caesar, deifying him like the Caesars of Rome. But that’s not what they’re doing – they are asking his forgiveness for having turned away from peace, community, love, and compassion toward power, hate, war, and death. In this fictional world, many of the sentient apes exhibit more truly human – God-like – characteristics than the human beings do, although there are notable exceptions on each side.

So what about us – in the real world – today – we who really are created in the image and likeness of God. Do we live up to that image – do we reflect a God of love, peace, and forgiveness? Or have we turned away from the image of God that is inside each of us so that it becomes harder and harder to see God’s presence among us? Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a remarkable springboard for these conversations, but then we have to look at our own lives, in our own world, in light of Scripture and the living presence of God among us … and, perhaps, to change our attitudes, habits, and behaviors to become more like God, to become more fully human.