A film that posed a number of philosophical, sociopolitical and culturally relevant questions in an allegorical science-fiction epic that spanned several sequels, television series, animated programs, and present day reboots.
Consider the year in which The Planet Of The Apes was released, 1968. The turbulent years of the seventies were just about to hit while the civil rights movement was in full swing (as evidenced by the riots in Detroit). Here comes this movie, based on Pierre Boulle’s 1964 novel where astronaut/journalist Ulysse (anyone familiar with Greek mythology’s ears should be burning) lands on a planet inhabited by apes who have comparable technological advances. It was the film’s screenwriters and producers who felt compelled to set the ape civilization in a more primitive, shantytown environment and integrate relevant issues of the times.
In the film, the world inhabited by apes such as Dr. Zaius, Zira and Cornelius is a society that holds a mirror to our own; pointing out humanity’s cruelty towards the misunderstood and the unknown; the other. The apes are the ‘other’ in the film, while man (as in humanity) is reverted back to their primitive, barbaric state. As Cornelius reads from their ape prophet, the Lawgiver:
“Beware the beast Man, for he is the Devil’s pawn. Alone among God’s primates, he kills for sport or lust or greed. Yea, he will murder his brother to possess his brother’s land. Let him not breed in great numbers, for he will make a desert of his home and yours. Shun him; drive him back into his jungle lair, for he is the harbinger of death.”
Though the Apes’ society may seem very human-like; they clothe themselves, uphold class structure, and run a familiar society to our own, it’s all a bit skewed. Jokes and turn of phrases are misplaced slightly such as when one ape says to another: “You know what they say, human see, human do.“ The humans in the film are mutes, Neanderthals in a sense; reverted back to primitive instincts: wanting to eat, procreate and sleep. It’s why the character of astronaut Taylor (as played by Charlton Heston) is crucial to the narrative. He’s our “fish” in this “fish out of water” story. Much like Christopher Columbus, he lands in a strange place by accident and soon sees an opportunity to colonize, most likely through violent means if necessary: “In six months we’ll be running this place,” Heston expresses to the two other astronauts. It’s through his eyes that we experience this odd world. Others will point out the obvious racist overtones of the Planet Of The Apes series, and I absolutely agree, but instead of throwing the movie aside as being outdated, I would argue that the film is making an overall commentary on race rather than a victory statement. After all, depiction is not an endorsement. The ape society as a whole is a representation of minorities taking charge. However, just as humanity did, they fall victim to the same vices that come with being at the top of the food chain.
The Planet Of The Apes points out the hypocrisies of religion and politics as weapons of manipulation. Merely by changing the context in which we see ourselves; changing the corrupt system that we as the human race have created into a primitive, yet evolved city of apes, allows us to step back and witness, through a peephole of 112 minutes, the current state of our world. All this is disguised as entertainment with one of the great macho heroes of the movies, Charlton Heston, as well as iconic images, set-pieces, and make-up. The colonizer becomes the colonized, and the tables are turned as we face the very real possibility of the destruction of our world.
They call Taylor names and denounce his evolutionary achievements; his underlying fear comes from the idea of displacement. Taylor is stripped of his clothes, tools and ultimately (although temporarily), his speech. As the film goes on, it tries to switch our attentions away from Taylor and on to some of the more prominent ape roles such as Cornelius and Zira, but are ultimately never far from Heston’s Taylor. The macho white man who does what he must with a rifle by his side. Taylor is our questionable gateway to this world, but the questions he is subjected to seem to call just as much attention to the audience’s’ sensibilities as Heston’s character.
Many of the posters for the film stated: “Somewhere in the Universe there has to be something better than man.” This line is also spoken by Heston in the beginning of the movie. Taylor – much like Gulliver in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels – lands on a strange, yet not entirely foreign world(s), where he is no longer the dominant being, but the dominated.
As Taylor tries to regain his ability to speak after being attacked and imprisoned, Zira tries to convince Dr. Zaius that “Bright Eyes‘” (Leonardo DiCaprio’s nickname for Jamie Foxx’s Django in Django Unchained: a disturbing parallel) is unique, but Zaius quickly interrupts by saying “Man has no understanding, he can be taught a few simple tricks. Nothing more,” and maliciously states that “the sooner he is exterminated the better.” A terrifying scenario for any person to find themselves in, but not without real-world parallels. The film’s use of a twist ending, science fiction as allegory, and critique of socio-political motifs was the main forte of the film’s co-writer Rod Serling, creator of The Twilight Zone.
When talking about science fiction as allegory look at the scene in which Taylor’s tribunal is on display. The Orangutans are the judges, while Zira and Cornelius are present for Taylor’s defense. As Zira begins to suggest that Taylor may have sprung from apes, evolved from them, the Orangutans project one of the oldest displays of physical ignorance; they shield their eyes, their ears, and their mouth. They “see no evil”, “hear no evil” and “speak no evil”. It appears didactic and was as unsubtle during its premiere as it is now but its forcible parable is as striking as ever.
By the film’s end, we discover that Taylor was on Earth the entire time (sorry, it’s been out for almost 50 years). Being far out in distant space, he was thrown through time, without aging, and landed back on Earth thousands of years later. Apes evolved and humans devolved, and this scenario is explored through the rest of the series, but it’s in the original, that the story concludes with one of the most iconic endings ever put to film.
The rusted and destroyed top half of the Statue of Liberty, situated on the edge of a beach, in the desert of the Forbidden Zone. Taylor ‘damns man to hell’ for inventing such things, and damns all beings who seek to wage war on one another. Cornelius reads from their Lawgiver’s bible: “…He will wage war on his land and yours and thus to shun man and drive him back to his jungle lair.” It’s a warning to humanity, we cannot escape the nihilistic and innate chaotic mindset to destroy ourselves.
One could go on about the original, as well as its’ numerous sequels, and how they continued the allegorical trend (with varying degrees of success) through the rest of the saga. Instead, let’s take a look at the film’s influence, which has stretched from parody to outright copycats. References have popped up in shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Saturday Night Live, and films ranging from Mrs. Doubtfire to Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (Austin travels back to the 1960s and claims that in the future the world will be run by “damn dirty apes”).
But no timeline of parody is complete without The Simpsons. The animated series has used the film prominently throughout its ongoing run, such as when The Planet Of The Apes forms the basis of a stage musical starring Troy McClure or sneaks its way into Deep Space Homer, the episode where Homer becomes an astronaut.
The film’s original produced four sequels, both a live-action and animated television series, and an unfortunate remake in 2001 directed by Tim Burton, in which “Mark Wahlberg talks to animals.”
Currently the reboot of the series with Andy Serkis – taking on the role of Ape leader Caesar (Originally, the son of Cornelius and Zira born in the third film of the series, Escape From The Planet Of The Apes, now a present-day martyr of the Ape revolution) — broke box-office records and impressed both critics and audiences alike with its expert direction, infusion of entertainment, state-of-the-art visual effects, and confidence in subject matter.
Both Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes, and the incredible finale, War For The Planet Of The Apes are taking what was so essential to the franchise’s origins and recapitulating it for a new generation, even surpassing them in sheer quality and narrative.
Just about everything Star Wars did for its merchandising department, Planet Of the Apes did four years prior. Many of the items are now considered extremely collectible and range from action figures and posters, to board games and collectible DVD and Blu-ray box sets. Movie tie-ins have become integral to a franchise’s success, and Planet Of The Apes has continued to keep itself in the limelight for almost fifty years. Mego, Marvel Comics, Aladdin: they all made tie-in products for the franchise’s five-film saga and set the bar shared with Star Wars and Star Trek for successful merchandising. The history of Apes’ merch may have taught George Lucas a thing or two about catapulting your science fiction fantasy film into a global phenomenon.
You could look at the film and its sequels as pure entertainment, to be enjoyed by generations of young people and science fiction lovers alike. You could also look at it as a biting satire of race and class struggle, and the hypocrisy that religion and politics hold over society, or maybe just as an out-of-date, hokey film filled with racist undertones and primitive special effects. Regardless, It all makes for an interesting dialog.
The Planet Of The Apes is an allegory for dystopian devolution disguised as matinee entertainment. It ends with the main character damning all mankind to hell; damning all of us, giving into the frustration of humanity not being the forefront of the universe. Colonization, racism, prejudice, religious fanaticism and manipulation of science and state. All of these factors make The Planet Of The Apes a staple of science fiction. An entertaining and silly ride as well as a scathing parable of humanity’s lasting impact on this planet. It’s still one of the best sci-fi flicks of all time.
For further reading on Apes, check out: Signifying Monkeys: Politics and Storytelling in the Planet of the Apes series by Richard Von Busak, and Planet of the Apes as American Myth: Race, Politics, and Popular Culture by Eric Greene and Richard Slotkin.
Images: 20th Century Fox, NECA, Mego, Marvel, Aladdin