I remember coming to the Planet of the Apes not through the original movies but through other cultural products. There was the musical rendition on The Simpsons. There was the end of the neighborhood in Spaceballs. And I am sure there were others. I was, after all, not born when the series started, and given my love of science fiction even as a child, it would have been nearly impossible for me not to stumble upon the twist ending before seeing it.
But knowing the twist ending did not impair my love of the movie when I first saw it. Yes, the reveal is a perfect Twilight Zone ending to drive home the anti-war message of the movie. But the movie has many more layers than just containing an anti-war message. Indeed, a movie about apes was able to speak to many aspects and problems of humanity of the 1960s and 1970s, but also of the centuries before and the time after that tumultuous period. And the movies that followed have continued the thematic nature of the first, all the way up to the current Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.
French author Pierre Boulle wrote La Planète des singes in 1963, which recounted a futuristic story of a journalist traveling to another planet discovered to be ruled by apes instead of humans. The journalist has to defend his right to exist among them, but it does not go that well in the end. I won’t spoil the twist ending of the book, but it is different than the ending of the 1968 adaptation. That adaptation does feature many of the same narrative beats as the novel, but the novel also informed the third and fourth movies of the series. The novel was more closely adapted in Tim Burton’s failed reboot of the series in 2001.
The novel featured an element that became foundational to the film series and beyond. The ape society featured a very stratified class system, where the orangutans were the politicians, the gorillas were the military, and the chimpanzees were the scientists. It was a society built on racial segregation, and the dysfunctions inherent to such a system were exploited throughout the original five movies. The films positioned the orangutans and gorillas as politically and socially conservative, either unwilling to accept new thoughts based on scientific discovery that challenged religious doctrine, or willing to go to war at the slightest provocation or sense of uncertainty. As a counterpoint, the chimpanzees appeared to be more liberal pacifists, willing to question and probe for truth; at least, that was the understanding the films gave us, through the characters of Zira and Cornelius. I put Zira first because she was truly the most progressive character in the series, willing to challenge the status quo rather than let the society be run based on lies.
Placing a woman so dominantly in this role demonstrates how the film was influenced by the 1960s. First, the film commented on the political conservatism that was being challenged during the decade by the young Baby Boomers through civil rights, sexual revolution, and more. The film positions the audience to identify with the liberal apes, who want to see change in a stagnant society. They were the intellectual revolutionaries to serve as counterparts to the flesh-and-blood humans of the decade. More importantly, our primary character to identify with was Zira, which illustrates the influence of the women’s movement during the later half of the decade. Kim Hunter’s Zira was smart, tough, strong-willed, brave, and an equal to Cornelius. She embodied, in ape form, everything women were fighting for during that time. Which is why it is such a shame that Charlton Heston’s Taylor, Roddy McDowall’s Cornelius, and Maurice Evan’s Dr. Zaius are more remembered, more marketed, than Zira. But, given the stereotype that science fiction is for boys, it is not surprising.
The film thus contains messages on the very human issues of politics, race relations, gender relations, religion, and war, all from a liberal perspective. But, as Devin Faraci from Bad Ass Digest points out, the message is not necessarily a very hopeful one. The image of the destroyed Statue of Liberty, abandoned on some forgotten beach, is meant to reaffirm Taylor’s disillusion with humanity and its ability to survive. The film does not end on the positive note of Taylor being welcomed by the apes as they change their ways. Instead, it ends with Taylor learning that his disillusion was well-founded: humans could not survive. We the audience are meant to take this as a warning to mend our ways, but given how often this message is repeated over the next thirty-plus years, it does not seem we are any nearer to doing so.
In the next film, Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970), we learn that some humans did survive the nuclear catastrophe that led to the rise of the planet of the apes. But these humans have become mutated, twisted versions of humans — or, at least, that is what they appear to be. In fact, they are all still too human. They are religious zealots who would rather destroy themselves than seek peace with the apes. The apes, meanwhile, have become even more militant, as their fear of the unknown fuels a war into this forbidden zone where the humans, unbeknownst to them, reside. Rationality appears completely gone from this movie as fear fuels stupid decisions. In fact, the only “smart” decision comes from a place of anger, as Taylor lashes out at the entire planet by blowing up the Alpha-Omega bomb. Perhaps driven by the frustration of the Vietnam War, this film furthers the message that there is no hope for humanity, or those that act out the baser aspect of humanity, such as the orangutans and gorillas. Humans, whether in mutant or ape form, are too irrational of creatures to survive.
If Beneath focuses on the irrationality of anger and fear, then Escape from the Planet of the Apes, quickly released a year later, adds to these emotions the human tendency for over-indulgence in pleasure. While seeking pleasure may not seem to be a bad thing, the movie in some ways positions it as such, because it leads to mistakes. In the film, chimpanzees Cornelius and Zira, along with the smarter and quickly dispatched Milo, have managed to crash land Taylor’s original space ship on Earth, but in the year 1973. Apparently, the detonation of the Alpha-Omega bomb caused a rip in spacetime that led to the time travel (for someone raised on Star Trek, this was not at all a problem to accept). Once it is learned that talking apes from the future have arrived and pose no immediate threat, the humans shower them with affection — or, what appears to be affection.
What I like best about Escape is how there is such great hope for humanity’s future in the beginning, and how blown to hell that hope is by the end. The majority of humans appear to welcome Cornelius and Zira, but the happiness appears more due to the curiosity and spectacle of having talking apes from the future among them. That is, the happiness does not seem to be genuine for who these apes are as “people,” but for what the apes represent as oddity. Just as today we will celebrate people online for doing odd things, so were the chimpanzees initially celebrated for being odd things. Only two doctors appear to treat the couple, and their expectant child, as real people, while everyone else just wants to be seen with the oddities.
That the movie turns and results in perhaps the darkest of all endings in the franchise, as Faraci indicates, furthers the idea that the film is negatively commenting on humanity from the beginning, even if the beginning is far lighter in tone than the ending. Humanity can be done in through numerous irrational ways, and one of them is in seeking one’s own pleasure at the expense of someone else.
Putting aside Burton’s adaptation, a film with only one merit (that of its make-up), the rest of the franchises starts to repeat itself. Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972) and Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) both contain stories to illustrate what essentially leads to the dominance of the apes and the devolution of the humans. Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973) and this summer’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes both show the clash between what remains of humanity and the beginnings of the ape civilization. Each counterpart handles the story differently, but the themes are still intact: humanity makes stupid choices and thereby cannot survive.
Conquest shows a dystopian future even before the apes take over. Apparently, a world without cats and dogs leads to humans being more likely to accept a rather fascist government, and to be more willing to bring back slavery. There is not a lot of love to go around in this film, even before the apes revolt. While clearly the humans do not love their apes as they once did their cats and dogs, the humans do not even appear to love one another. The film does not even show any love between Roddy McDowall’s Caesar, the child of Cornelius and Zia who escaped their deaths, and the chimpanzee who would become his wife, Lisa. In a sense, this lack of love really is a lack of compassion, which does not appear in the movie until Lisa speaks and makes Caesar change his mind. A lack of compassion, then, could be considered irrational, given its necessity for maintaining the bonds and thus foundation for any society. What makes the ending interesting is that Caesar’s change of mind, to not subjugate and/or kill humans, provides a glimmer of hope in the franchise by illustrating the power of compassion.
I think Rise shares that theme of compassion. Jame’s Franco’s Will is driven by compassion, which leads him to develop the drug he hopes will cure his father’s Alzheimer’s. This compassion also fuels his taking home the infant Caesar and raising him, essentially like a son. Caesar learns compassion from Will, and this ability to care for others helps him develop strong bonds with other apes and become their leader in a quest for freedom. However, the film clearly positions Will as a mad scientist, willing to experiment on the people he loves, and this ambition eventually leads not only to his downfall, but to the downfall of the entire human race.
Now, Will alone is not responsible for this apocalyptic virus. His profit-driven boss shows no compassion for the apes, and he spurs along an experiment that leads to the virus. The one man who apparently did care of the apes, Franklin, was still willing to kill all but the baby Caesar, and he apparently had no qualms against experimentation; thus, his compassion is questionable. Of course, the men at the ape sanctuary had no compassion for their charges, save Rodney, who manages to escape, although his future is uncertain given the virus. Being driven by money, fear of losing a job, fear of losing a loved one, and just outright cruelty, the humans of the movie all end up making stupid decisions that lead to immensely bad consequences, such as the end of human civilization.
In Conquest we only see some of these stupid mistakes, since the major ones that lead to the slavery are off-screen. In Rise, all of these decisions are fully presented for us, to encourage us not to identify with the humans, but instead with the apes. This identification means that by the end of Rise, we feel hopeful for the apes, even as we realize all of humanity is in death’s grip. Thus, the hopeful ending becomes very different than the one in Conquest, where we see some possibility of humanity surviving, as long as the ape’s allow it.
The difference in the endings to these two films become the difference in their sequels. In Battle, humans and apes are living together in a pre-Industrial rural community. While they are not the equal of the apes, they at least do not seem afraid or mistreated. Indeed, ape children and human children play together. Our first sense of danger in this community comes in the form of Claude Akin’s General Aldo, a gorilla who seems to be itching for a fight. Our second sense of danger comes not from the humans who live within the ape community, but from those in the irradiated city, who are already becoming the mutants of Beneath. These humans are led by a governor who fears the apes, and seeks to destroy them rather than establish peace. The machinations of Aldo and this governor lead to a battle, whereby Caesar has to reestablish his dominance. But the battle does some good, as it helps Caesar realize that for there to be peace, humans and apes must be as equals. The ending of the film thereby signals a potentially different future than the one seen in Planet of the Apes, where humans and apes equally dominant the planet.
Unlike Faraci, I find this to be the most hopeful ending of any of the films in the franchise. The film demonstrates the idiocy of both sides of the war through Aldo and the governor. The message is clear: people who seek war first cannot be relied upon in a society. Neither of them survive the film, and both receive ignoble deaths that further reinforce the anti-war message.
What is interesting, then, is how different this is from Dawn.
Now, I do not want to give too much away, as the film is still in the theaters. But, I will say, whereas Battle makes the anti-war message very clear, I do not think Dawn does the same. In Dawn, the humans and the apes are completely separated from one another, so much so that their first encounter results in immense distrust and apprehension. However, in this movie, the humans make the first move toward peace, and Andy Serkis’ Caesar is portrayed as an apprehensive leader with a conflicted mind regarding humans. Over time, the humans and the apes do learn to trust one another more, until this trust is completely shattered by a traitor in the apes’ ranks. Then there is war, just as in Battle.
However, the battle in Dawn does not result in the same type of hopeful ending that it does in Battle. Instead, humans and apes remain separate, and the apes are left to face more possible warfare. There is no indication of peace dawning in this world, as it did in the world of Battle. The alternative future that started with Rise is perhaps leading more fully to the world of Planet of the Apes than the alternative future that started in Escape. The current movies give us a bleak future, where apes may become more militant rather than less. In this way, the movies again remind us that we humans have not learned our lessons. The anti-war message is still there, but it has returned to its cynical beginning. There does not appear to be any hope. Especially if war can be seen as justified revenge, as could be argued for the main instigators in Dawn.
I do like how across the series there is a very pacifist message that considers how misperception and one improper decision can have huge and disastrous consequences. The best Apes movies represent the inherent tension of humanity: can we be smart enough to save ourselves, or will our idiocies ultimately doom us? Our idiocies are based on fear, anger, hatred, lack of compassion, desire for self-gratification, all of which drive bad decisions, ignorance, reliance on over zealous religions and military. The current reboot follows in this pattern, although these movies are taking us down a darker path than the one we ended on with the first films.
However, it does remain to be seen if we remain on this dark path. The original series had five films (plus a TV show and comics and more), and this reboot is only on film number two. Given Dawn‘s success, a sequel to it is guaranteed, and if they continue to be as good as the first two, perhaps we will get to five or even more with this series.
I do hope, though, that in the next one we get a strong female ape character. Given that we are in the 21st century, we should have another character like Zira or even Lisa. Thus far, in Rise and Dawn, we have had very secondary women whose names I cannot even recall without going to IMDb. If the films want to show any sign of hope, then the ape civilization should not just have male apes in charge. If a very strong patriarchal or misogynist undercurrent continues in that civilization, then it would only further place these films on a dark path in relation to the originals.
All doom and gloom all the time does not inspire people. It makes us more apathetic, cynical, reluctant, depressed, despondent. The original movies could start with such bleak endings as a way to shock people, but if no hope was ever shown, then why would we be inspired or think we can do anything? Likewise, Rise was good at getting us to consider our relationship to animals, and Dawn is good at getting us to consider the gray fog that is war. But at some point, I would hope to see some light in this civilization the apes are building to know that things can get better for humanity, whatever form it takes. Conquest and Battle, despite their faults, did just that. Here’s hoping that some future sequel to Rise and Dawn will as well.