Planet of the Apes and Philosophy: Great Apes Think Alike
US: May 2013
My first job after college graduation was at a small Southern newspaper with a circulation about the size of a bus station waiting room. The most memorable thing about the job was a discussion I had about Planet of the Apes and its sequels with my boss. My argument was that the first film was an Academy Award-winning masterpiece while the other films expounded upon the challenging philosophical notions found in the 1968 film for a cul-de-sac of thought-provoking science fiction. My boss thought this was no end of hilarious and was the stuff of fanboys.
That is, of course, not exactly the case as film buffs will tell you. Planet of the Apes is more than just a Sci-Fi/ Fantasy set of b-movies, but a brilliant set of metaphors that formulate the thinking person’s sci-fi series. Planet of the Apes and Philosophy, the new book from Open Court Books (edited by John Huss) is another step in the proof of this outstanding and exceptional series. This book (subtitled “Great Apes Think Alike”) is a series of 22 essays that cover a surprising range of topics delving into the philosophies and sciences found in each of the films.
Interestingly, the essays don’t start with metaphors and the dichotomy of Platonism and Aristotelianism, but with hard science from real primate zoologists. The questions of whether animals (especially non-human primates) can think and feel even, and especially without languages, are explored and reasoned and exemplified. Questions of primate communication and even deception are chronicled in fascinating documentaries in the first essays, all are rooted in hard science, but related to the mythos of Planet of the Apes.
The book continues through the dogmas of science, exploring the seeming antithesis of Doctor Zais’ nature as both Minister of Science and chief Defender of the Faith as compared to our own separation of religion and science. Further explorations delve into the human equality and the Planet of the Apes metaphors for slavery, revolution, activism and change as well as time travel philosophies (of multiple kinds) and politics, such as the failed Platonic city state we find in the original Planet of the Apes, which turns the caste system into a parody of itself.
Planet of the Apes and Philosophy is nothing if not thorough in its mission. If there is a science, philosophy, psychology, or even pseudoscience touched on in any of the Planet of the Apes films or television shows, or the original Pierre Boulle novel, you will find it here. However, this is not for the casual reader or science fiction fan looking for a simple tie-in to the established series. This may not be a heavy, dense read in all places, but the book is not without its prerequisite reading and understanding. There’s a learning curve that is expected to be met as the writers are all professionals, not prone to talking down to their audience.
This is not Open Court’s first foray into such territory, of course, in that a full 73 volumes of the “Pop Culture and Philosophy” series have been produced prior to this. The series has covered everything from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Johnny Cash to SpongeBob SquarePants to Jeopardy!. Nor is this Huss’ first time as editor and contributing writer.
That said, Planet of the Apes and Philosophy can be repetitive in its essays and can be occasionally confusing. Because the book does cover every film including all five from the original series, the ill-fated Tim Burton re-imagining from 2001, 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes and even touches upon the upcoming Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (due in 2014), there is a lot of (often contradictory) ground covered here. Many of the book’s authors will address the original series and then shift to a discussion of “Caesar” without acknowledging that there are (now) two Caesars, one from Rise of the Planet of the Apes and one from the original series. This would be forgivable if the Caesar they almost invariably shifted to wasn’t from Rise of the Planet of the Apes (without being declared so), instead of the obvious train-of-thought choice of the original series’ Caesar.
Meanwhile, each author is careful to set up and explain their arguments in each essay, ensuring that the most obscure subjects are defined, even as the tome on the whole remains high minded. The good and bad of this is that each writer tends to define the exact same semi-obscure subject matter, making for an occasionally redundant read. In this way, Planet of the Apes and Philosophy is best as an informative, challenging and even entertaining reference as opposed to a cover-to-cover read.
Another problem, even as a reference is the fact that for all its thoroughness as a scientific and philosophical work, Planet of the Apes and Philosophy has a very incomplete and often inaccurate index that runs for seven pages. There are many references to, say, the 2001 version of Planet of the Apes, however none of these references can be found on pages 82 or 87, in spite of the fact that the index indicates that the references would only be found on these pages. Thus, an otherwise fine book loses its most attractive use.
Planet of the Apes and Philosophy does raise (and attempts to answer) some challenging questions on a wide range of topics, most notably speciesm and what makes a creature sentient as opposed to worthy of being enslaved, controlled or consumed. The cover, featuring Charlton Heston’s Taylor in his farewell kiss with Kim Hunter’s Zira, says it all. The cover may… well, ape that of a harlequin romance novel, but whimsy aside, it’s indicative of the strange and deep questions to be found in Hess’ book.
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