The year 1968 was marked by intense social and political upheaval around the world. The U.S. national consciousness in particular was fractured along racial, generational, and ideological lines. What better time to release a sci-fi film about the downfall of humanity and the emergence of a new order of beings, talking apes? The original Planet of the Apes reflected the increasing pessimism of the times and signaled a general disgust with human cruelty and oppression under the cold war threat of nuclear armageddon.
The film was nearly as misanthropic as its main character, the astronaut Taylor (Charlton Heston). Based on a novel by Pierre Boulle (who won an Academy Award for the screen adaptation of his novel The Bridge Over the River Kwai), and co-scripted by sci-fi guru Rod Serling, it was also enormously popular and spawned a slew of sequels, TV shows (both live action and animated), comic books, and merchandise, opening the flood gates for popular reception of “space operas” to follow like Star Wars and it attendant merchandising empire. The success of Planet of the Apes marked a shift in the perception of the genre from B-movie shock schlock to thinking man’s drama, space action flicks with political and social undertones.
Planet of the Apes
Mark Wahlberg, Tim Roth, Helena Bonham-Carter, Michael Clark Duncan, Estella Warren, Paul Giamatti, Kris Kristofferson, David Warner
(Fox Searchlight Pictures)
The first Planet of the Apes will, like the great ape movies before it, forever live in the annals of pop culture. If it seems that makers of this summer’s “re-imagining” of the film have a lot to live up to, consider that both King Kong and Mighty Joe Young were remade, and not too shabbily either. As Tim Burton’s new version of Planet of the Apes demonstrates in many ways, some subtle, some not so, the recycling of cultural milestones is not simply a marketing device, but a way to rejuvenate cultural mythology, be it science fiction or religious fable. The film revisits some of the still-relevant social commentary of the original movie(s) and investigates the ways in which religion and mythology provide impetus for a society’s greatest achievements and its most heinous crimes.
The film also updates the original, and, ironically, uses an initial setup that’s closer to that of Boulle’s novel. In this go-round, the space expedition is itself a kind of ape training mission, its cargo being a group of genetically modified primates, highly trained to perform a variety of complex tasks, including piloting a spaceship. The mothership Oberon, approaching a huge electromagnetic storm, sends Pericles, a cute little chimpnaut, out on a recon mission. When the little guy goes off radar, badass astronaut Leo Davidson (Mark Wahlberg) takes off after him, straight into the electromagnetic field, slips through a time warp, and crashlands on a strange planet. After his spaceship plunks down in a bog, Leo runs smack into Karubi (Kris Kristofferson, who, sadly, has about as many lines as the mute, feral humans in the first Planet) and his raggedy tribe of humans, all stampeding through the jungle in a panic.
Our hero soon discovers that this planet is ruled by . . . surprise! . . . fierce, intelligent, and highly evolved talking apes, and that humans in this upside-down world are rounded up like wild beasts and sold into slavery to the ape aristocracy. Leo joins the fleeing humans only to be scooped up by the ape army and sold, with Karubi, his daughter Daena (Estella Warren), and other unlucky humans (including Linda Harrison, who played Nova in the first two Planets), to sleazy slave-trading orangutan Limbo (Paul Giamatti). On their way to the slave pen, the captive humans are paraded through the heart of Ape City, where Leo and his new friends are treated to a spectacle that is part Ewok village, part Bronx Zoo: talking primates of all shapes, sizes, ages, and species playing hoops, working, and bustling about. The design of both the apes and their city is stunning, hardly a surprise with Rick Baker (Men in Black, The Nutty Professor, and Mighty Joe Young) on makeup and Industrial Light & Magic supplying “environmental enhancements.”
None of this impresses the cocky Leo much (looking mildly dazed, he stupidly asks, “How’d these monkeys get like this?”, to which Daena replies, “How else would they be?”). But he has a few things to learn. Where during the hunt-and-capture scene, the ape soldiers look merely brutal, the city scenes reveal many signs of civilization: social hierarchies, institutional religion, and culture wars. The major issue in apeland, we learn, is the “human problem.” As humans outnumber apes 3 to 1, and are, according to one aged chimp (played by Charlton Heston), “the most devious creature on the planet,” the militant ape army, led by chimpanzee General Thade (Tim Roth), would like nothing more than to exterminate humankind. On the other side of this debate is Ari (Helena Bonham-Carter), a freethinking chimp daughter of the powerful Senator Sandar (David Warner).
This ape society seems like a collection of previous human civilizations. The intricate, stylized design of ape artifacts and armor appear Norse in origin, while their social and political organization, with its fine-tuned militarism, recall both imperial and republican Rome. Still, this civilization is built on its own foundations, complete with its own creation myths. The religion is based on a veneration of Semos, a mythical demi-ape who supposedly founded ape civilization and of whom General Thade is said to be a direct descendent. According to ape lore, Semos, like Christ, will return some day to save his people… uhh, apes. In another parallel to Christianity, the pious gorilla Captain Attar (Michael Clarke Duncan) utters, “All apes are created in the image of Semos.” This messiah-creator is the doctrinal bedrock of the ape’s claims of superiority over the humans and, as in most imperial civilizations in human history, such claims lead to slavery and genocide of the inferior species. In this case, the apes’ peculiar institution is similar to America’s slavery. Leo, Karubi, Daena, and some of the other “wild” humans make a break for freedom, with Ari, Limbo, and Tival (Erick Avari), a domestic human from Ari and Sandar’s house, in tow. The wild humans, especially Gunnar (Evan Dexter Parke), the only black character, display real animosity toward Tival over his position as a “house human.” The argument is quickly broken up by the pursuing apes. Eventually, the escaped humans ignite a revolution that leads to a climactic battle between man and ape, with some surprising revelations for both.
On the Oberon, the apes were kept in cages, like the humans on the unnamed Planet. In both ape and human civilizations, a firm conviction in the superiority of one species over another (and, metaphorically, one race over another) gives rise to a self-deceiving arrogance. Planet of the Apes imagines an ape society that mimics human (producing lines spoken by apes like, “Human see, human do,” “They [humans] all look alike”; and what would any social satire be these days without “Can’t we all just get along?”), and in the process throws light on some of the hypocrisy and overreaching arrogance of homo sapiens who, whether claiming superiority through “God’s image” creationism or evolutionary theory, make life difficult for other species. As Leo tells his new ape friends, Ari and her guardian Krull (Cary Hiroyuki-Tagawa), “Our apes are kept in zoos… We cut down all their trees and they all died off… except for some we keep for our amusement.”
While the humans in Leo’s “present,” 2029, hadn’t exactly declared genocidal war on all primates, according to him, they did manage to decimate the ape population of their time by destroying the apes’ habitat, a prospect that seems not unlikely in our own near future. There’s clearly more going on here than the extinction of a species due to ecological hubris, however. The apes have another stake: their sense of their own destiny is integrally bound with their belief in the creation myth of Semos and the power of his descendant Thade to rid them of the humans.
When those myths are undermined, ape society is turned on its head. In Planet of the Apes, myth and power go hand in hand, and the purveyors of myth are the shapers of a civilization’s destiny. General Thade, about to rush off after Leo and Ari (who have a really weird mutual attraction), must first visit his dying father (Heston, made up to look like a chimp Edward the Longshanks), who tells him the truth about the Semos myth and the apes’ connection with humans. Dad directs Thade to smash a teardrop-shaped shrine to Semos and inside it, he finds a gun left by humans previously on the planet. In this scene, we see how myths are created, disseminated, and guarded at the highest echelons of power. When those myths are exposed as false, the moral foundations for slavery, genocide, and imperialism are fundamentally weakened.
The first Planet of the Apes touched addressed the cultural climate of its time. The new version, full of (intentional) humor, spectacular action, and special effects, as well as superior acting, is heavier on entertainment value than social relevance, but themes of religious intolerance, racism (speciesism?), and the fascistic potentialities of creation mythology are woven into the narrative. Burton and Baker, both at home with the grotesque and bizarre, do a phenomenal job with the talking apes, making them much more apelike than previous versions, and thus that much stranger, and yet, more familiar. The apes lope around on all fours, they leap in the air and swing from trees, howling ferociously (things that the dignified, and rather effete, apes of the first films wouldn’t be caught dead doing), and it’s a shock to see such ruthless intelligence, compassion, and cunning, combined with such brute strength and cruelty. The human shock of confronting a talking ape is mirrored by the apes’ revulsion of the humans. Thade’s father warns his son that man’s “ingenuity goes hand in hand with his cruelty.” This may just be the bitter observation of a talking chimp on his deathbed, and yet, while the stormy events of 1968 have faded into history, and we in the United States imagine ourselves as a more civilized and humane nation, slavery, genocide, and impending ecological disasters still loom large across the globe. It’s past time to reexamine the myths of superiority that undergird man’s oppression of his fellow man, and fellow ape.