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.

Fall of the Planet of the Apes

Perhaps it is being under the influence of a head-cold that just won’t go away, or perhaps something deeper, I decided to watch Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Raised in a fundamentalist household, I was enamored of Planet of the Apes (the original one) and watched it and all its sequels repeatedly back before VCRs made owning such chestnuts possible. Perhaps it was that taste of forbidden fruit—evolution—that left such an exotic buzz in my head, or perhaps it was the unforgettable climax. The message that we’ve done this to ourselves. I once even missed seeing a high school friend after several years’ absence on a visit home because an all-day Planet of the Apes marathon was airing on TV. Perhaps it was the subtlety, the Rod Serling feel to it, or the deep level of empathy it evoked, for whatever reason, that original movie remains one of my personal favorites. In Rupert Wyatt’s slick new backstory, something was missing.

The CGI of Rise of the Planet of the Apes is pretty remarkable, except for the occasional jerkiness of violent scenes intended to pump up the testosterone. The subtle emotions visible in Caesar’s every glance conveyed the sense that animals share rights to this planet with us. I’ve been reading about animal intelligence again, and it saddens me that we’ve reached this far in our development only to continue the fiction that homo sapiens are unique among the tree of life. It’s not much of a tree when one of the branches is not and never has been attached. Our animal cousins have much to teach us, and perhaps that’s why I keep returning to Planet of the Apes, despite Charlton Heston. Even the new movie makes several nods to the original with naming the main family Rodman, Caesar building a three-dimensional puzzle of the statue of liberty only halfway complete, calling his mother “Bright Eyes,” spraying Caesar with a hose in his cage and calling the primate center a madhouse, and the cheesy repetition of “Take your stinking paws off me you damn dirty ape!” It simply can’t rise to the level set by the writing of Rod Serling and Michael Wilson.

The box-office success of the film tells us something about ourselves. Ironically, and perhaps intentionally, Wyatt’s version neuters the evolution. The apes don’t rise from an unspeakably long evolutionary track from us, but we create them with the nemesis of twenty-first century humans, the virus. Caesar and his friends are genetically engineered by humans, and God has nothing to do with it. In the original, a theological subtlety lingered as a religious court of orangutans condemned Taylor for religious reasons. His claim of human primacy was heresy to primate sensibilities. The new version takes itself too seriously for that. We can’t jangle the evolution keys anymore because of our own national schizophrenia concerning the raw power of nature. Just when we think we’ve evolved beyond petty superstition masquerading as righteousness, yet another state attempts to guillotine the entire scientific enterprise. It’s a sure thing that if the apes don’t get us, we’ll take care of it ourselves. That was the message already in 1968.