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Planet of the Apes
Ape, ape, ape, ape, ape, ape, ape, ape, ape.
How many apes is that? A lot.

(Part of our series on negative utopias and dystopia in media)

Given America's love of George Bush, I'm surprised that these movies haven't enjoyed more of a renaissance. The original Planet of the Apes movies were produced in an era of new-found civil rights, heightened social consciousness, and, well...apocalyptic Charlton Heston movies: The Omega Man, Earthquake, Two-Minute Warning, Airport 1975 , Soylent Green. For a new twist on the often ham-handed delivery of racial social commentary in these films, try substituting "Republican" or "Liberal" every time they say "chimp" or "gorilla".

While the films are dated in many ways that make them almost comical, they did have impressive production values, and without the makeup methods refined in the making of these films, the world would be lacking the bumpy-foreheaded sort of aliens that have made shows like Star Trek Deep Space Nine such a success.

Although Charlton Heston stars in the first two of these films (I've always found it ironic that such a Randian, NRA-pumping Republican like Heston so often played the good guy who was warning us of the perils of war and destruction of the environment), the real star in most of these films is "exposition man"; the fellow who describes in detail the crucial plot element that might have been more effectively revealed with visuals or in the context of dialog. (Like just now, when I could have just used the word without defining it). This sort of exposition is in many ways essential to a loveably bad science-fiction film, but is laid on heavily here, from the moment Chuck Heston opens his mouth in the first film. His crewmates (especially the one that dies before her character is introduced) should thank their lucky stars for "suspended animation" - traveling across several thousand years* with Heston babbling that way would make anyone go ape. There's an especially macabre moment at the beginning of the first film in which (while Heston babbles on, preaching about the meaning of life) we see a close-up of a tiny American flag Heston's crewmate has planted. Heston pauses, and in a low-angle shot backlit by the sun, begins laughing maniacally. This had a special poignancy for me, given our current attempts to plant a flag in another desert, right here on Earth and in the present.

Regarding this movie's dystopian theme, I've never seen mention of the fact that the story does something rather interesting: it takes the Judeo-Christian archetype of an apocalyptic end for mankind, and fuses it with a very Darwinian concept of species evolution, mutation, and survival of the fittest. This weird fusion of evolution and Christian apocalypse is especially present in the second film, in which the mutant psychic humans worship an ICBM with the Greek letters Alpha and Omega painted on it, and in voiceover, Roddy McDowall's character Cornelius recites the following:

"Beware the beast man, for he is the devil's pawn. Alone among God's primates, he kills for sport, or lust or greed. Yes, 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." The Sacred Scrolls (29th scroll, 6th verse)

The later films focus more obviously on the civil rights angle and time paradox prequelling**, a device that seems essential to the dystopian theme. This time-travel stuff presents some problems for the storyline though; how could Milo/Caesar be the progenitor of all future talking apes, if he's the offspring of Cornelius and Zara, who are from the future? In spite of the fact that these later movies are obviously just cashing in on a successful franchise, they're still entertaining, if only to see Ricardo Montelban in his pre-KHAAAAAAAAAAANNNNNNNN!!!!! role as Armando, the infant chimp Milo's protector.

Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes

I unfortunately have this disorder that doesn't allow me to dislike Tim Burton films. In spite of the fact that the Tim Burton version was widely panned, and that it frankly didn't offer anything really new to the story as told in the original film, it was still immensely stylish and pleasantly Burtonesque. Besides, Helena Bonham Carter is one hot chimp. I never thought I could find a monkey [sic] so sexy. This sexy chimp motif was apparently intentional, as I learned while reading about the makeup effects here.

Pierre Boulle's Monkey Planet

I knew the original movie was based on a book, but didn't learn until a few years ago (while watching an excellent A&E Ape-A-Thon hosted by Roddy McDowall) that it was a book called Monkey Planet written by a Frenchmen named Pierre Boulle. Although I haven't read it, I want to...perhaps you could by me a copy. It's on my wish list. In any case, there's a pretty amusing article on (see link below) about the "novelization" process of American films. If you feel like reading it, pay attention to which version you're buying.

*Every time I see the first film I can't help wondering why a spaceship that's sophisticated enough to travel at the speed of light can't navigate around a small lake.
**This raises a paradox I've always loved: how can you travel back to a time before the time machine you're using existed?

More About Planet of the Apes:

Wikipedia's Planet of the Apes Pages
Nice summaries complete with spoilers. Article By Joe Mullich
Novelising a movie based on a novel.

Pierre Boulle Bio
Some background on the author.

Ian Gray
February 2005

Read more about negative utopias and dystopia in film here.

Planet Of The Apes ('Monkey Planet')

the Book At

Chuck Heston
The Old Testament

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