Evolution, loneliness, and the enduring genius of the original Planet of the Apes.

The Homo Scientificus blog looks at the ways Science and Culture shapes everyday life.

Planet of the Apes has been on my mind a lot lately. Last week, before William Shatner’s voyage to the edge of space, a Twitter meme was in heavy circulation, saying that people should dress up in ape costumes on his return. But even before that, it’s been popping in and out of my consciousness every time I browse anything on offer by Netflix, Amazon, HBO, Apple, blah, blah, blah. Dystopian movies are a dime a dozen these days. Some of them are good, most are pedestrian, few are truly great. As far as dystopian stories go, nothing tops the original Planet of the Apes.

The film was released in 1968, based loosely on a French novel by Pierre Boulle, La Planète des singes. For the sake of expediency (and the fact that I’m a terrible summarizer), I’m going with a succinct synopsis complements of Wikipedia,

Charlton Heston played 20th-century American astronaut George Taylor, who travels to a strange planet where intelligent apes dominate mute, primitive humans. Kim Hunter and Roddy McDowall played the sympathetic chimpanzees Zira and Cornelius and Linda Harrison portrayed Taylor's love interest Nova. Maurice Evans played the villain, orangutan Minister of Science Dr. Zaius.[14] The finale, in which Taylor comes upon a ruined Statue of Liberty and realizes he has been on Earth all along, became the series' defining scene and one of the most iconic images in 1960s film.

In Boulle’s novel, a journalist travels to a distant planet where he encounters an advanced ape society where animalistic humans are speechless and hunted. 

The Hollywood screenplay was reworked by Rod Serling, creator of the Twilight Zone. He made three key changes that turned a straight sci-fi yarn into the ultimate dystopian movie. First, he changed the film’s location from a distant planet to our home planet, Earth. Second, he shifted the timescale of the film to the distant future (the astronauts were asleep in space thanks to suspended animation, that well-worn device of lazy sci-fi). In order to explain how the future dystopia emerged, Serling injected some Cold War themes, namely mutually assured destruction. We wipe ourselves out, according to Serling’s Planet of the Apes. Even though his version underwent a significant re-write by Michael Wilson, the key changes Serling made were retained. 

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Now for the genius part.

A common knock against evolution from people not familiar with the theory simply cannot fathom the idea of descending from apes. As a friend of mine once told me when I asked what he thought of evolutionary theory, “I didn’t come from a monkey.” Of course, this is a misconception as we did not descend from modern primates. Rather than descendants, they’re more like way-distant cousins, if not a little further. Still, we belong to the same family. It’s not an idea many people can get down with because they’re commonly seen as animals below us on some ladder of existence. (There are also social aspects that are too deep for me to address here.) 

Enter Planet of the Apes

By bringing the story back to Earth, Serling tapped a deep aversion people have to seeing themselves as part of the Animal Kingdom. The idea was one of the most important and most resisted aspects Carl Linnaeus introduced in his groundbreaking work, Systema Naturae. Humans may be lots of things, but we are not animals. It also jibed with religious notions of God creating Man in his own image as well as the Edenic dictum that Adam ruled over the animals since he was able to name them. Thanks to the prevalence of these views, subservience to a gorilla represents perhaps the most dystopian futures imaginable. It’s really very simple and straightforward. That’s the genius of the original Planet of the Apes.

Heightening the dystopic elements is the profound and enduring loneliness experienced by Heston’s character in the film. It is born out of the cruelist isolation. He is surrounded by humans but can barely communicate with them since they have devolved into a state of non-verbal existence. So not only is Heston subservient to a bunch of horse-back-rising, gun-toting, tackily-dressed, apes that can talk. He’s also surrounded by his own “people” who are depressingly helpless. Talk about beating a man when he’s down.

While the newer iterations of the Planet of the Apes franchise may look a lot better than the limited budget ($5.8 million) 1968 version, they’re nowhere close in terms of dystopic vision. They’re made modern by bringing in the whole biotechnology run-amok trope that’s almost as tired as the suspended animation thing.

If you want a dystopic story, you can’t do much worse than the original.

WORDS: Marc Landas.

IMAGE CREDIT: Creative Commons.

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