"Planet of the Apes" (1968) was a deeply satirical film about the decidedly non-Simian society that was the 1960s USA and, by extension, the western world at that time. While its liberalism was smuggled in under gorilla and chimpanzee masks to the ignorance (in more ways than one) of its lead actor, right-wing Republican Charlton Heston, its theatrical release brought a paean of praise for more than its groundbreaking special effects. Released at the height of the Vietnam war, both the original film and its first sequels ranged over a range of subjects including civil rights, nuclear war and religion.
|Planet of the Conservatives|
At the core of the Apes mythology is as fine a demonstration as any celluloid production could capture of a deeply conservative society (the Apes) confronted by, but desperate to avoid, the truth of their origins. The leader of their Police State is the autocratic Dr Zaius, ironically titled Minister of Science & Religion, or, as Heston's character Taylor derides him, Guardian of the Terrible Secret. Taylor does not initially know what the Secret is, but it is clear throughout that the apes, however superior they are to the humans, fear homo sapiens as inherently destructive and threatening to their kind. An area of the planet known as the Forbidden Zone is a wasteland, but according to Zaius was once a paradise, ruined by humanity.
Now, a mere 43 years later, comes the prequel, "Rise of the Planet of the Apes", currently doing the rounds in cinemas. Again using state-of-the-art special effects - the Ape actors no longer wear masks but have their Simian appearances grafted on by virtue of CGI - there is more emphasis on adventure than the original, but the film does retain a significant chunk of the earlier films' commentary on human society, albeit less satirically. Set in a near-future San Francisco, the lead character is a genetic scientist seeking a cure for brain diseases like Alzheimer's by experimenting on apes. He is funded by a multinational corporation which repeatedly puts profits first and last, regardless of the consequences.
As with the original movie, the subservient place of animals in our thinking and actions is highlighted by the disposable approach taken to their welfare and lives in our human-centric world. This was evidenced strikingly enough in the original film by the topsy-turvy planet where the human astronauts found the tables turned on them - in the prequel, it is by necessity more blatantly exposed through the animal experiments in the genetics lab and then by the caged zoo apes that are liberated when the newly-empowered primates make a break for the woods.
Like much science fiction, the Apes series is at its best in its fictional observation of the real society and world we occupy. As highlighted elsewhere in this blog, we are harvesting our global resources to extinction - capitalist consumer society is putting immediate, short-term profit for the rich ahead of any need to conserve our biosphere; the manufactured needs of humanity - created and marketed by faceless corporations that function as if on an amoral, profiteering autopilot - drive all other considerations aside; and cash-driven science justifies all manner of cruel experiments on animals, including apes, in the name of human progress.
In the midst of this hubristic attempt by humans to ape the gods, our environment is poisoned as carbon emissions continue to rise unabated; most humans live in dire poverty and, often silently, thousands upon thousands of species are driven to human-induced extinction at a rate unprecedented in history. Included in this destruction are the Great Apes themselves - the Mountain Gorillas in the Congo, caught in the midst of a human war zone are reduced to barely 700 in number; the orangutans in Indonesia are seeing their forest habitat destroyed for logging and to farm palm oil plantations for western cooking, energy and cosmetic products (Dove Products being among the worst offenders). With chimpanzees and bonobos hunted for bush meat, if any real Planet of the Apes were actually possible, it would be effectively knocked on the head by the likely extinction of apes, at least in their natural habitat, by their human relatives in the coming decades.
Perhaps the most galling thing though is that it does not need to be like this. Even with our growing population, humanity has the ability to live at peace with ourselves and our planet. There is enough to go round without destroying our own habitat (and ultimately ourselves) and those of other species. Our problem is not fundamentally with scarce resources, but rather how we use and distribute them, the gross inequality and the short-termism that infuse our socio-economic systems. If we challenge these and work for more co-operative, socially just societies, it will mean a radical change to how we live, but the world that emerged would be far happier for all the Earth's inhabitants - perhaps most especially for us. But until then, with our current rapacious ways, humanity faces little but a very bad press should any other intelligent species stoop to consider our legacy in the future.
The closing scene of the original Planet of the Apes is one of the iconic moments in cinema history; but in case you haven't seen it, there are no spoilers here other than that it neatly summarises all the moments of comment on the human condition that have gone before. Equally powerful though is the penultimate scene, where a captured Dr Zaius asks Chimpanzee scientist Cornelius (played by the late Roddy McDowell) to read a passage from the Apes' Sacred Scrolls to explain to the stranded astronaut Taylor why he has so long feared his coming. The passage begins, as this blog ends, "Beware the beast Man..."