Popping Rotten Cherries – Planet of the Apes
We’ve all got gaps in our pop-culture knowledge – and I’m not talking about those bores who smugly swan about telling anyone who’ll listen that they’ve never seen Star Wars – but with such a yawning, ape-sized hole, there’s often a feeling that you don’t even need to see the thing in question for yourself. When you catch a movie everyone’s already spent a decade or three harping on about, all those little beats and iconic moments feel familiar and stale, from the various parodies and Simpsons references that have run the most famous scenes into the ground years before you got around to pressing play.
The opening ten minutes of Raiders, the dun-dun, dun-dun that signals the imminent arrival of a giant shark, a pea-soup puking child possessed by a demon; you don’t need to have watched the movies to know these images, they’re as ingrained in our primal subconscious as the fear of sudden loud noises. Just as everyone knows an approximation of Travis Bickle’s schizophrenic mirror monologue, we can all quote the line “Take your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape!” and know by heart the contents of that final frame, which must have been a killer twist before the days when it was plastered on the cover of the DVD.
What I expected
In the interests of full disclosure, I have half-watched the Tim Burton remake, which probably clouded my view, as well as putting me off catching the original. The picture of Planet of the Apes I had in my head was a wacky sixties action movie, with Charlton Heston hamming it up in animal furs and leading a slave revolt against evil poo-flinging monkey men. Basically I was expecting Gladiator in $5 chimp masks.
What I got
Well, not that. The first surprise was that Heston’s character, Taylor, didn’t crash alone like I’d always believed, but was part of a three-man team of survivors. The opening third of the movie is virtually a self-contained ‘men in the outback’ thriller in itself, like a non-cacky Gerry, with the trio of Earth men clambering over impressively rocky, silent landscapes, and generally getting on each other’s tits. At one point, Taylor’s verbal prodding pushes one of the other guys to warn him to “Get off my back!” Like, oh, a metaphorical monkey??
The tension is an awesome slow burner. Knowing as we do the title and set-up of the movie, it’s half an hour before you even see an ape, and when you do, well, that’s where my expectations got scattered to the winds like the tear-stained confetti of a jilted groom. Yes, Heston’s character is captured and caged, and initially it does goes down the path you’re expecting. Straight away we see the imperialistic, man-like nature of the apes, who chase down a pack of mute humans like they’re hunting game, posing with smiles over a pile of freshly slaughtered bodies. The early scenes that set up the ape society hinge on witty reversals of human/animal roles. People are dirty and stupid, and they stink, and monkeys walk tall and proud, stroking their chins and pretentiously pondering on the Simian Condition. Humans are there to be tested and domesticated, and the mention of anti-vivisection protesters, circuses and zoos is further hee-hee satire. But it does get more subtle, particularly with ape doctor Zira and sidekick Cornelius’s coy small talk about whether or not they’re free that evening, before exchanging a shy peck on the lips. This is juxtaposed with Heston’s character, who has a perspective mate shoved into the cage, with Dr. Zira expectedly looking on as though two differently gendered creatures of the same species will immediately take to each other and start humping.
It’s then that the movie switches onto tracks that take it far beyond the pop culture beats into a different genre entirely, and becomes a full-on allegory for the battle between science and the religious establishment. Taylor becomes a pawn for the Minister of Science – religious zealot Dr. Zaius – to expose the scientists as heretics and suppress their dangerous ideas. These ideas being those of evolution. “How can scientific proof be heresy?” asks Cornelius. Quite.
Taylor’s appearance is a dinosaur-bone of contention in the ape culture, which is beholden to the history and laws laid out in the ‘sacred scrolls,’ and as a possible missing link between Cornelius’s sacrilegious human ancestors and the gibbons strutting about with guns and brown plastic jackets, he finds himself on trial, with the apes looking to expose him as a Piltdown Man-style fraud. Visually, particularly as a film where ninety percent of the cast are under heavy make-up effects, Planet of the Apes is very much a movie of its time, but so are the heavy themes, coming as they do from a period when important social issues could often only be discussed under the subversive veil of science fiction.
There’s also a hierarchical racial structure between gorillas, orangutans and chimps, with their class roles pre-determined by their sub-species, although Heston’s crew are no 1960’s peace and love, one-world space brother beatniks themselves, with a weird moment where Taylor outright admits that the dead female crew member was basically on board solely to have a train run on her.
As is often the case with this kind of retro, social issue-driven storytelling, it’s almost a cliché to point out that it could have been written yesterday, because it’s so timely as to where we’re at as a people right now. Zaius speaking of “certain young cynics…perverted scientists who advance an insidious theory called ‘Evolution’…” brings to mind the court cases debating – in the 21st century – whether evolution should be taught in schools. I’d come in expecting the hurling of plasticy rocks and oversized, to-the-balcony acting, and instead I got lines like “The almighty created Ape in his own image,” or Zaius quoting scripture in the face of literal fossil evidence and countering with the zinger that “There are theologists on my staff who would laugh at your speculation.” Establishment challenging scientist Cornelius’s question of “Why must knowledge stand still?” is something that should be printed on an obnoxiously massive bumper sticker and driven through those American states containing the 66% of people who still don’t believe in evolution.
Taylor’s earlier arrogance about both how, before encountering the apes, the three humans would be running the planet within six months, and that everything his companions knew back home would be gone, (“Time’s wiped out everything you knew. It’s all dust…”) is a powerful contrast with his fists pounding against the waves come the ending, which in context is more effective than the gotcha-twist it finds itself culturally abridged to. And it’s unfortunate that it is a film that’s been boiled down to that Statue of Liberty coda, because there’s so much more going on here, and weirdly, given these themes, it’s a movie that might struggle to get made at a major studio today, given the currently regressive, frustratingly controversial climate towards science from certain sides of the church and churchgoing public.
“Some apes, it seems, are more equal than others.”
Grade – A