Devolving Apes

It would be difficult to overestimate the effect the movie Planet of the Apes had on me as a child. Raised a biblical literalist, evolution was, naturally enough, anathema to me. And yet here was a movie based on the idea that evolution had taken a different course. It was a transgressive film, but the screenplay had been written by Rod Serling, so well known for his trusted work on The Twilight Zone. I was utterly fascinated by it. Until the most recent iteration, I’d seen every sequel, spinoff, and reboot ever made. So important was this story line that as a child I found a copy of the book, in English, of course. Pierre Boulle told the story somewhat differently. Spying the book on my shelf after some four decades of my own evolution, I decided to read it again.

We all evolve. I noticed the improbabilities more this time through. The fact that, unlike the movie, humans wore no clothes at all must’ve scandalized my young eyes. I would’ve agreed, however, with Ulysse Mérou’s sentiments that humans were created in the image of God, not apes. In fact, there is an undercurrent of a somewhat conservative theological outlook here. Humans may experiment on animals, but when it’s reversed, it’s evil. In many ways, the cinematic version improves the story, but Boulle’s telling grows in intensity as the novel unfolds. Mérou develops a moral sense that includes the apes as well as human beings. The story, of course, is largely about prejudice and its evils. In that respect, it’s timeless.

As a child I realized that we lose something if we accept the fact of evolution. We lose that special feeling of having been intentionally created by a deity that made us God-shaped. Ironically, I also came to realize that those who rejected evolution often treated their fellow humans like animals. They held onto prejudices against other “races.” They castigated the poor for being lazy. They wish to remove healthcare from those made in the image of God. The contradictions and cruelties simply don’t comport with the Good Book they adore and ignore. Evolution, with the realities of nature impinging on our security, is far less dangerous than what biblical literalism has evolved to be. I can’t say why this book and its cinematic renditions became so deeply embedded in my young mind. But having read the book again, it’s pretty clear that the ideas have remained there, even as they have modified, with descent, over time.

Human Race

PlanetOfTheApesMythFor reasons no one fully understands, Planet of the Apes touched a deep level of responsiveness in American society. I have to admit to having fallen behind a bit; I need to see Dawn of the Planet of the Apes to be back up to speed, but nevertheless, I remember the television releases and airings of the originals, and even have gone through the entire series in the form of home theater offerings. One Saturday long ago on a visit home, I sat through a marathon of the entire five-movies sequence all in a day. It should be no surprise, then, that as soon as I saw Eric Greene’s Planet of the Apes as American Myth it went on my reading list. Race and Politics in the Films and Television Series, the subtitle read. I admit that I grew up in a conservative, but sheltered environment. Having friends who were African-American, although, admittedly, they were a small fraction of the demographic in my small town, I never realized that there was a problem. Not until I took history and social science classes in school. You have to learn things such as racial distrust.

Struck by Planet of the Apes when I first saw it, I had no idea that it was a racial tale. It makes sense now, in the light of Greene’s analysis. To a child fearing evolution as much as Hell itself, the movie was a kind of forbidden fruit, and by making it science fiction, there was no reason to suppose there was a message here. It was a powerful kind of captivity. I have watched the movie, and current adaptations, many times over. Greene does an excellent job of demonstrating that the movies came at a time of great racial distress. Civil rights, the Vietnam War, the fear of the Communist—xenophobia was perhaps at an all-time high when the apes invaded our planet. As the series goes on, the identifications become clearer and clearer.

But more than that, Greene pointed out some very obvious—in retrospect—religious symbolism in the movies. Some of it was so intentional that it was written into the script. Among the scenes from the life of Jesus, the movies borrow most heavily from Exodus. Moses figures abound. Even Charlton Heston, in his role as Taylor, was following up on the Ten Commandments. Holy families and sacrificial victims mark just about every stage of this dystopia, a world where trust is always far from any relationship with someone physically different. It’s about time that I watched Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. And after that, I need to go back to the beginning, and watch them all with renewed eyes. In the light of current events, also with the hope of a more just future.

Once and Future Ape

Battle_for_the_planet_of_the_apesThe original pentalogy of the Planet of the Apes franchise began a slow decline with Beneath the Planet of the Apes. Producing a movie per year from 1970 to 1973, the series died with Battle for the Planet of the Apes. Given that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes has been compared with this original final installment, it seemed time to reacquaint myself with it. The early seventies, as I recall them, were tense times. Social unrest both at home and abroad, coupled with a maddeningly increasing nuclear arsenal, seemed a recipe for disaster. Indeed, the world does end with the second installment of the pentalogy, a scenario set up in the final episode as the Alpha-Omega bomb, guarded by mutants, is declared worthy of reverence. Only through the magic of time travel do Cornelius and Zera travel back to the paranoid 1970s to start the whole series over again. The Battle for the Planet of the Apes, apart from its preachiness, does overflow with religious language and rhetoric. Indeed, it begins with a reading of Scripture from the Lawgiver. Pentalogy or Pentateuch?

Caesar is said to be the savior of apes and, like in the current Dawn, the sympathies of the viewer are with the apes. Gorillas, the frat boys of the ape universe, do indeed cause troubles, with Aldo becoming a kind of Cain who slays a fellow ape, Cornelius. (They even got the initials correct, if reversed.) Religion, and prejudice, it seems, have brought this fictional world to a crux, caught in an endless loop of new futures. As Virgil says, there are an infinite number of lanes on this highway. Presumably, traveling back in time opens up all kinds of possibilities.

Despite the number of reused shots in the film—the first ten minutes or so are simply a recapping of the previous two films—and the unfortunate pacing (how could a climax of two angry apes climbing a tree have possibly dragged on for so long?), the movie does have a message. Race tensions, high at the time, are overtly and covertly addressed. Disarmament is praised. The only future that seems not to exist is for one more movie. Interest moved on to science fiction’s apotheosis in Star Wars just four years later. Once again we would find ourselves in a world of black and white, with simple choices. There was no ambiguity among the Jedi. Still, for all that preaching, equality never did reach its goal. So even with its faults (didn’t we see that same tree-house bombed four times?) it is worth dusting off the Battle for the Planet of the Apes once in a while and pondering better possible futures.

Forbidden Zones

Dawn_of_the_Planet_of_the_Apes

I grew up with talking apes. Well, I was actually about six when Planet of the Apes was released, but it quickly became one of my favorite movies. With a screenplay co-written by Rod Serling, and that very unorthodox conceit of evolution playing visibly on the surface, it was the forbidden fruit. Since, according to our fundamentalist doctrine 1) animals can’t speak, 2) evolution never occurred, and 3) the world was going to end long before 3978, we were not prevented from watching what was obviously fiction. And watch I did. There were spin-off cartoons, not to mention the following movie and television series. An unsuccessful reboot by Tim Burton was followed by Rupert Wyatt’s intelligent, if somewhat sentimental version. And I’ve seen them all. Finances being what they are, and, since my family does not share my enthusiasm for the apes, I’ll probably have to wait for the home-viewing release of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes to enjoy the latest offering.

In the meanwhile in a nearly glowing review in this week’s Time magazine, Richard Corliss has indeed whetted my appetite. The original series of Planet of the Apes movies had, like many films of the late sixties and early seventies, a strong, underlying social critique. Yes, one can see only so much of Charlton Heston’s bare chest, but there was something more going on here—something to which we needed to pay attention. The Burton version went for a parsimonious special effects extravaganza, but the storyline was devoid of much underlying reflection. Good ape, bad ape, all the way. Now, as we are moving into the third major incarnation of Pierre Boulle’s dark vision of our distant future, we see that the apes are maybe the real humans here. Maybe they were from the very beginning.

Perhaps because of its ability to slip beneath the Moral Majority radar in the guise of science fiction, the talking apes have been part of American culture for almost my entire life. The original movie introduced the idea of the Forbidden Zone, that region where the truth lay buried, waiting to be discovered. There was a not-so-subtle jab here at a world where politics was continually being revealed as just another human bid for power, and a Cold War was threatening our very existence. We survived and continued to evolve. Still, we find a kind of social catharsis in the apes, and I worry just a little bit at Corliss’s use of the word apocalypse. The apes have always been remarkably prescient. For some of us, they were more than mere entertainment. And so I’ll patiently wait until I can watch the apes alone in the privacy of my home, to learn what the future might hold.

Monkey See, Monkey Do

ConquestPlanetApesThe year was 1972. In the continuing saga of the Planet of the Apes, the fourth installment, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, addressed the civil rights movement directly. Caesar, the son of Cornelius and Zira, is the last speaking ape left in the past to which his parents had escaped. Inexplicably, the other great apes have all suddenly evolved by 1991—the year in which the story is set—into large sized, almost upright creatures whose population matches than of humans (almost). Initially purchased as pets since the cats and dogs had died off in the late 80’s, apes have been imported as slaves. They are given menial tasks and beaten mercilessly if they make errors. A deep fear pervades the establishment that these apes will try to take over. Breck, the governor of California, decides to find and kill Caesar, at any cost, while his deputy MacDonald tries to save him. When Caesar reveals himself to MacDonald, an African-American, he states that he especially should know what it means for a people not to be free.

Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated only four years earlier and although civil rights had made progress, there was still a long way to go. Still is a long way to go. As an affluent culture, we remain reluctant to share. We still see disproportionate numbers of African-Americans and Hispanic Americans forced to live in areas that the amorphous “white” population has fled. Xenophobia is one of the less noble traits with which evolution has endowed us. Even so, the classes we devise aren’t always helpful in determining who people really are. “White” can mean anyone from the southern tip of Chile to the tundra of eastern Siberia. On job applications now “Hispanic” is classified as “white.” I get the feeling that there’s a few unresolved issues here. The sense of entitlement did not begin with this generation. Those who have naturally suppose that they deserve. Caesar observes the unfair treatment and, down to the detail of the weapons the apes stockpile, leads a plantation-style revolt that overcomes a heavily armed command post. Gorilla warfare indeed.

In classic 1960s-70s style, Caesar grandstands after his victory. He was about to order Breck’s execution, but stays his hand in the recognition that even humans deserve to live. We do have to wonder where he might have learned about God, being raised by a circus trainer and in what is an otherwise completely secular society in the film. In any case, his final words in the movie place the apes on a higher moral plane than humans. “But now… now we will put away our hatred. Now we will put down our weapons. We have passed through the Night of the Fires. And who were our masters are now our servants. And we, who are not human, can afford to be humane. Destiny is the will of God! And, if it is man’s destiny to be dominated, it is God’s will that he be dominated with compassion and understanding. So, cast out your vengeance. Tonight we have seen the birth of the Planet of the Apes!” Maybe it’s all the dead bodies around, but I’m still having a little trouble with the “Destiny is the will of God” part.

Theology of the Apes

“Alter what you believe to be the course of the future by slaughtering two innocents, or rather three now that one of them is pregnant? Herod tried that and Christ survived.”

“Sir President, Herod lacked our facilities.”

So the conversation between Dr. Otto Hasslein and the President goes in the 1971 continuation of the saga, Escape from the Planet of the Apes. Few probably pondered the weighty theological significance of this dialogue; it is not represented on IMDB’s quotes page from the movie. In fact, many critics aver that the Planet of the Apes movies devolved as they went on becoming less and less original. Nevertheless, the number of serious issues thoughtfully addressed in Escape made it one of the most well received pieces in the series. The world was a scary place in the early 1970’s, as I experienced it. It was easy to believe that we were on the brink of our own destruction—there were enough nuclear warheads to assure mutual destruction, and even a little boy in Rouseville, Pennsylvania could believe that his small town was significant enough to be a target. That message I’d heard as early as the final scene of the original movie.

The Planet of the Apes series is profoundly theological. I rewatched Escape from the Planet of the Apes recently, and was struck by just how many social issues were addressed. Consumerism, abortion, racism, espionage, the arms race, and even eugenics. In each instance the humans are inferior to the apes who had not even developed the combustion engine before learning to fly a spacecraft back through time. The conservative fear of Dr. Otto Hasslein drives the plot; he is ambivalent about the apes and what they portend. It is the destruction of his own comfortable way of life. He suggests quietly killing the apes, succeeding where Herod failed. (Think through the implications!)

“Before I have them shot against the wall I want convincing that the writing on the wall is calculably true,” the President biblically insists.

“How many futures are there? Which future has God, if there is a god, chosen for man’s destiny? If I urge the destruction of these two apes, am I defying God’s will or obeying it? Am I his enemy or his instrument?” Otto Hasslein does not know. His science which tells him there is no God also worries him that he is the very enemy of the non-existent deity. No, the Planet of the Apes movies are not the most profound films ever to escape the camera, but there is, as in any good theology, the raising of questions. And like any theology worthy of latter-day Herods, there will always be far more questions than answers.

Digging Deeper

A propos of apes, I’m not sure whence derives the draw of Planet of the Apes on me. I watched the movie with fascination as a child—since the obviously satanic delusion of evolution was impossible this had to be pure fantasy (and perhaps just a little dangerous). The movies just kept on coming, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, Escape from the Planet of the Apes, and Battle for the Planet of the Apes, each with their new twist on the theme that we are the beasts. Recently I watched the second installment, Beneath the Planet of the Apes. It had been years since I’d seen it, although I remembered the terrible mutants and their possession of an atomic bomb. Although the geography is badly distorted, it is made amply clear that the church where the bomb is stored is St. Patrick’s Cathedral on (beneath?) Fifth Avenue. As Brent makes his way into the partially intact cathedral he finds a priest praying to a missile with the letters alpha and omega inscribed on one of its fins.

Since last seeing the movie I spent a lengthy stint among the Episcopalians. Naturally I became thoroughly acquainted with the liturgy and therefore could appreciate subtleties in the movie I had missed before (nothing is ultimately wasted, it seems). As the mutants prepare to set off the doomsday bomb that will obliterate the entire planet—both apes and humans—they recite many prayers from the mass, substituting the word “bomb” for “God” and “Holy Fallout” for “Holy Spirit.” Okay, so maybe “subtleties” was the wrong word. Of course, back in the early 1970’s this was a very real concern, the arms race was well underway. Despite the overacting and forced script, the movie did offer considerable social commentary. Ironic and iconic Charlton Heston condemns the unadulterated praise of such a lethal weapon (or was it just missile envy?), even as he falls, shot, onto the controls, accidentally destroying the earth.

The fascinating aspect of this social critique is that the players may have changed, but the drama remains the same. Those who protest evolution praise the build-up of native strength so that the true Christians might obliterate their enemies first and better than they will obliterate us. One gets the feeling that destruction is not so bad a fate as being proven wrong. Somewhere along the millennia religion slipped its mooring from being an ethical way of life to become an extreme way of believing. And yet people are still the same. And the Planet of the Apes movies continue to appear, ever evolving. When it comes down to the final scene, however, it is not the evolved apes who destroy us. No, it is the utterly self-righteous humans who decide that if they can’t have it all, nobody will have any of it. In the name of the bomb, and the holy fallout, amen.