Connect with us

Culture

The Power of the ‘Planet of the Apes’

Published

on

When the very first “Planet of the Apes” movie opened in 1968, the movie critic at The Times, Renata Adler, found it unremarkable. “It is no good at all, but fun, at moments, to watch,” she wrote, deeming it an “anti-war film and a science-fiction liberal tract,” with the apes representing “militarism, fascism and police brutality.” It’s probably safe to say she wasn’t expecting it to become one of the longest-running science-fiction franchises in Hollywood history.

I cannot quite blame her — and not just because endless sequels weren’t as ubiquitous as they are today. Watching the 1968 film, you see how close it could have veered toward a quick extinction. At times the whole thing has the quality of a skit. Actors wear monkey suits and masks (“wonderful anthropoid masks,” as Adler put it), and the attempt to draw a parallel between the apes’ civilization and the viewers’ can feel a little clumsy. It’s 1968, so there are winking catchphrases like “you can’t trust the older generation” and “never trust anyone over 30,” slogans that had been adopted by the counterculture. Had I been the reviewer back then, I might have called it “sometimes hamfisted.”

Yet with regrets to Adler, the movie does work on its own terms, and it has held up extraordinarily well over the past 56 years. Charlton Heston stars as the captain of a four-person space crew that crash-lands on a planet that feels unfamiliar, where talking apes rule and humans, such as they are, have been enslaved. (One member of the crew is female, which I suppose was meant to suggest something futuristic; the first American woman didn’t go into space until 25 years after “Planet of the Apes” premiered.)

The movie was based on a 1963 satirical novel by the French author Pierre Boulle, who also wrote the novel “The Bridge on the River Kwai.” Rod Serling, the creator of the wildly popular science-fiction TV show “The Twilight Zone,” was brought on to adapt the book for the screen. Serling’s influence is obvious from the first moments, which involve Heston in monologue about philosophical matters. More time has passed on Earth than in the spacecraft, since they’re moving at the speed of light. “Seen from out here, everything seems different,” he says. “Time bends. Space is boundless. It squashes a man’s ego. I feel lonely.”

“Tell me, though,” he continues. “Does man, that marvel of the universe, that glorious paradox who has sent me to the stars, still make war against his brother, keep his neighbor’s children starving?”

This introduction is a thesis in a thimble for the whole franchise, which combines an intriguing premise — what if apes evolved beyond men — with a host of other social and political concerns. Serling, for instance, purposely injected ideas about the Cold War and nuclear weapons into the film. As Adler noted, police brutality, militarism and fascism also make appearances, a good reminder that our time is hardly unique in those concerns. There are questions about free speech and religious fundamentalism, mythmaking and liberty, technology and scientific study, race, viral pandemics, animal rights and a whole lot more woven throughout the movies.

And there are a lot of movies. In the 1970s, the first “Apes” was followed by four more, plus a live-action TV show, then an animated one. In 2001, an ill-conceived remake directed by Tim Burton starred Mark Wahlberg in a version of the Heston role, and then a reboot series followed, starting in 2011. There have also been several “Apes” video games.

That reboot trilogy — “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” (2011), “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” (2014) and “War for the Planet of the Apes” (2017) — is widely considered some of the best franchise cinema ever, and I heartily concur. The trilogy posits that a cure for Alzheimer’s developed by humans had grave unintended consequences when it escaped its lab: It turned apes supersmart, but had the opposite effect on humans, killing vast swaths of the population and then mutating to turn most of humanity mute and less intelligent. A saga then follows in which the human characters change (none repeat across the three films) but the apes do not; they’re the main characters, and it’s their story. It’s masterful.

Sometimes this opinion surprises people. Really? The movies with the apes?

Yes, really. Part of the reason the films succeed is simply their artistry, especially notable in bigger-budget blockbuster fare. We’ve gotten used to rushed, sloppy action and muddy cinematography, so there’s something invigorating in seeing detail, emotion, shadow and rich color that feels real. It’s all led by Andy Serkis’s compelling and dynamic motion-capture performance as Caesar, leader of the apes. (He’s so good that it sparked a mini-movement for an Oscar nomination.)

Serkis, as Caesar, speaks and emotes with the kind of gravitas that we associate with people playing world-historical leaders — which, in a sense, is what he is doing. But that also points to part of why this trilogy, and indeed the entire “Apes” series, is so gripping: It is serious.

Serious, in the sense that it takes its characters seriously. Each has a personality and genuine emotions, and when they mourn, we mourn too. But serious also in the import of the issues at hand, spun throughout stories that are intriguing and grim. There’s a sense of grief in every “Apes” movie, and in the reboot trilogy it’s almost palpable. (I’m pretty sure Steve Zahn’s “Bad Ape” character was a studio addition to lighten the mood in “War,” and while he starts to veer a little Jar Jar Binks-ward, the director Matt Reeves manages to hold it all together.)

Why do these films grieve? It’s not about the lost world of humans, not really — it’s always been clear, even from the famous conclusion of the 1968 film, that humanity has only itself and its hubris to blame for its own destruction. Instead, the grief stems from the very issues that the films raise — the fascism, the nuclear war, the brutality — and the deep pessimism of the series about those issues ever being eradicated for long.

Apocalyptic films are increasingly obsessed with a question posed to the viewer, similar to Heston’s query at the start of “Planet of the Apes”: In light of humanity’s treatment of the planet and of one another, does the species really deserve to survive? Most of the time, the movie comes up with a way to say yes (most expensively, in “Avengers: Endgame”).

But the “Apes” movies (so far) say no, not really. Since they’ve shifted focus from humans to the apes that replace them, that works. Even in the newest installment, “Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes,” the humans who show up are not presented as heroes or even particularly worthy defenders of their own species.

Yet, as “Kingdom” also reveals, the “Apes” movies aren’t so sure that any other sentient, reasoning species will be better. Though Caesar taught a way of living that would produce more harmony and protect the planet, in “Kingdom” we already see power-hungry apes reproducing the sins of humanity, finding ways to perpetuate oppression and repression.

The 1968 film is set many centuries after the reboot trilogy and “Kingdom,” so we already know where things are headed, and it’s not great. That may be part of why the “Apes” movies have resonated for so long, across so many moviegoing decades. They are telling a truth in science fiction that’s hard to face in reality: There’s no perfect way to run a civilization, no way to fix things forever, no teacher so profound that their words won’t be twisted for someone else’s gain. Every generation has its own struggles and saints — and there is nothing new under the sun.

Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *