Friday, May 21, 2010

Apes, Apes and More Apes

The Planet of the Apes series of movies was a phenomenon of the late sixties-early seventies that has had a deep impact on popular culture. It is something that nearly everyone is still familiar with, later generations thanks in part to the rethinking of the myth done by Tim Burton in 2001. However, it had already been an important part of the collective unconsciousness before the new project came out.

(For thoughts on the newest effort, see here.)

The original movie released in 1968 staring Charlton Heston, was a political/social commentary more than a sci-fi thriller. Heston stars as an astronaut who has become disillusioned with the human race. He has volunteered for a mission that will take him deep into space, to see if possibly there may be a better race somewhere in the universe. Of course, as everyone now knows, he is somehow turned around and simply returns to Earth some two thousand years in the future.

Intelligent apes now inhabit the planet, and Heston's character is now in a position to see humanity in a positive light and becomes its defender. In the end he discovers that his hatred of humanity is justified, as they had destroyed the planet and created the planet of the apes.

The moral is obvious, especially for those living in the cold war atmosphere of the late sixties. Humanity has the power to destroy everything and therefore has the responsibility to control themselves and get along. Of course, beyond this most obvious message, the film takes advantage of the ape culture to comment on (and ridicule in some cases) human culture. Everything from race relations and animal treatment to science and religion are targets.

The four sequels spawned by the movie all carried similar social commentaries, to a lesser degree of success depending on the movie. Two television series, one animated, also carried the torch of the apes into the seventies.

Most recently, Tim Burton "re-imagined" the story of the original movie. It no longer carries the large social commentary against war. The story is not set on Earth, but on another planet altogether. The idea that does come through from the original is the use of the ape society to comment on our culture. It also is in many ways a send up of the original, reversing many of its lines and situations.

For those of you who do not want to give this series of films an entire day of your life, here is “The Nutshell of Apes Series” spoilers and all:

"The Planet of the Apes" (1968)

The movie relates the story of Col. George Taylor, a US astronaut who has taken a mission into deep space. Flying at near light speed, he knows he will never return to the Earth of his own time. He is fine with leaving, though, because he is disillusioned with humanity and their warlike ways.

Something goes wrong while the astronauts sleep and they crash land on an unknown planet far into the future. Exploring the planet, they discover a tribe of primitive, mute, manlike people. While they are observing the tribe, however, a hunting party of apes arrives and hunts them down! The apes capture Taylor and his throat is injured in the process, rendering him mute as well.

In captivity he discovers that the apes’ society is advanced, very similar to the humanity he left behind, although not nearly as developed technologically. He demonstrates his intelligence in ways that surprise his captors, who are used to humans with only animal levels of intelligence. Dr. Zira, the Chimpanzee in charge of him theorizes that he has ape levels of intelligence. He begins to communicate with her through writing.

The scientific/religious leaders, headed by an orangutan named Dr. Zaius, are threatened by an intelligent man, and decide to kill him, but he escapes. His throat has recovered enough that when he is again caught in the city, he speaks in front of a crowd, proving that he is indeed as intelligent as Dr. Zira contends.

He is put on trial, (even though as a man he has no rights under ape law) and is sentenced to death. With Zira's help he escapes. Zira's fiancée, Cornelius, an archeologist takes them into the forbidden zone to prove that Heston is not the only intelligent man. He has found artifacts of an ancient, intelligent human society.

They are pursued into the dessert and prove to Zaius that intelligent men did exist. Zaius lets Taylor go, but destroys the evidence of the intelligent men. It turns out that he has always known about humanity, and kept the knowledge secret.

As Taylor rides of to find a new life, he comes across the Statue of Liberty buried on the beach. The revelation that he is on Earth in the future—a post-nuclear war future, hits him. His worst judgments against humanity have come true!



"Beneath the Planet of the Apes" (1970)

The first sequel to The Planet of the Apes is perhaps the worst or at least one of the worst. It makes the mistake of most sequels, repeating much of the stuff from the first movie without much logical reasoning.

The movie opens with the end of the first one, and we see Taylor and Nova riding of past the statue. Taylor explores some fake movie effects giving instruction to Nova to find Zira should something happen to him. It does (surprise!) and he disappears. Nova rides off to find the apes again.

Along the way she comes across another crashed space ship. James Franciscus plays astronaut John Brent who has been sent out to find out what went wrong with Taylor's ship! (Here is where logic takes a vacation. Taylor's ship was never intended to return to his own present day earth, so why send out a rescue mission less than six months after he left?)

Anyway, logic aside, the movie repeats much of the first outings ape culture situations. It seems the gorillas have perceived a danger in the forbidden zone, (the same effects that Taylor disappeared exploring) and want to go to war against the threat. John Brent and Nova get there first and discover that humans have survived in the remains of New York. They are super advanced, speaking in telepathic waves etc. Yet with all of their advances, they worship an atomic bomb as God!

The movie culminates with the apes advancing on the humans, who decide to set of the bomb. Taylor and Brent fight to stop them, but when Nova and Brent are killed, Taylor sets the bomb off himself, destroying the whole planet!

This movie carries the religion critique further than the previous one had. The first movie had shown an ape funeral. In doing so it had the apes talking of being made in God's image etc. Of course the intent was probably to ridicule Christianity, but it really serves to highlight the vanity of many religions that merely elevate gods fashioned in our own image. Even Christianity tends to do this, when we limit God to our own ideas of who He should be.

However, Beneath the Planet shows a worship service for the bomb that sounds just like a Christian service, complete with hymns changed to mention the bomb instead of God. A perfect picture of how empty religion is, when idols are worshiped instead of God. (Though disturbing when we think so many Christians could merely be going through the motions of worship and might as well be worshiping a bomb and not the all-powerful God of the universe!)



"Escape from the Planet of the Apes" (1971)

Escape is another great ape movie, some even say greater than the first! This of course is ridiculous, although it is a lot more fun in parts.

The movie opens with yet another crashed space ship. This time however, it is apes that have crashed in present day America. (Present day being the 1970s.) The apes are first taken to a zoo, as the humans have not realized that they are not normal chimps, (even though they are twice the size of a chimpanzee, walk upright and wear clothes!) Animal psychologists analyze Zira, and find her extremely intelligent. When she solves a puzzle to get a banana but won't take it, they speculate:

"Why won't she get the banana?"

"Because I can't stand bananas."

The doctors take the chimps to a hearing of the government, designed to solve the mysteries of why chimps landed in Taylor's ship, and where is Taylor? The chimps speak for themselves, and reveal that they are from the future of earth. They become instant celebrities. This is the fun part of the movie as the chimps explore human culture. Cornelius decked out in a very "seventy's" bathrobe is memorable indeed.

Dr. Otto Hasslein, a scientific advisor to the white house has suspicions about the apes, and gets permission to question the apes in more detail. He discovers that in the future apes rule the planet, and that ultimately, just as the apes escaped, the whole earth will be destroyed by an atomic bomb! He convinces the government that the unborn baby of Cornelius and Zira is a threat and must be killed. The apes escape and have the baby. Zira switches her baby with a circus chimp in the care of a friendly man named Armando, played by Ricardo Montalban! (You know, "Fantasy Island.")

The government eventually kills the apes, but we know this is not the end because the movie ends with a baby chimp in a circus cage saying "mama."



"Conquest of the Planet of the Apes" (1972)

The fourth installment of the series is in many ways the first fresh look at the themes. All the others have had some element of the first idea, an astronaut landing on a planet of "others" and exploring the differences.

This one takes place in the 1990s with Caesar, the child of Zira and Cornelius fully grown. The earth is different. All cats and dogs were wiped out by a plague in the 80s and apes have become mankind's pets. They have advanced enough to be given complex chores to do for the humans, but are now treated as slaves more than pets.

Caesar infiltrates the slave system, and begins an underground effort to prepare for revolution. He is discovered to be the talking descendant of the space apes, but begins the revolution before he can be killed. The apes take over San Francisco, and the movie ends with the understanding that the revolution will continue, as normal apes have begun to learn to speak as well.



"Battle for the Planet of the Apes" (1973)

If the second movie is not the worst, then this is. Caesar is attempting to build a society where humans and apes are equals. He is thwarted in his attempts by the gorillas and mutant humans. All plot is given up for action and battle. Enough said.



"Planet of the Apes” (2001)

This movie is not a retelling or remake of the 1968 movie, but it does make many references to it. It is really a retelling of the concept based on the same book the first movie used as its source.

Mark Wahlberg is Leo, an astronaut for the U.S. Air force on a mission in deep space. He is a pilot, but is limited to sending chimps out instead of flying himself. The base encounters a storm in space and sends out a chimp to investigate. They lose the chimp and Leo goes after it against orders. He is catapulted by the storm into the future and to a strange planet. (We know it is not earth, because there are two moons.)

On this planet, Leo is hunted down by Apes and sold to Ari, a chimp who is a "human rights advocate,” (Similar to our animal rights advocates on earth.) played by Helena Bonham Carter. He escapes with other humans, and the aid of Ari.

They are pursued by Thade, a chimp general who hates all humans. He is on a mission to kill all the humans on the planet. He especially hates Leo, for he knows Leo comes from space and that the humans were once the masters.

Leo traces his base, who are somewhere on the planet already, they have apparently come to find him. However, when they get to the ship, they discover it has been there for thousands of years! The same storm that sent Leo into the future did not send them as far. What's more, the chimps and humans on the ship gave rise to all the current inhabitants of the planet!

A battle ensues between the apes and the humans, but it is interrupted by the arrival of a space ship. It is the first chimp that Leo went after in the beginning of the movie. His arrival exposes Thade as a mad-chimp seeking power and brings peace between the apes and humans.

The movie ends with Leo going back to earth through the storm. However, Thade has left after him and arrived thousands of years before him, for now the planet is run by apes!

This movie pretty much leaves all commentary and message aside for a simple action story. It is of the school of Science Fiction that relies on time travel for its entire plot twists. (A rather cheap way of being able to trick the audience, as there is no rule of timeline.) The only subtle message lies in the "messianic" nature of Leo to the humans on the planet. He is an unwilling savior to the planet. (Yet at the same time he is also the cause of all the problems.)

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