Monday, June 13, 2011

Planet of the Apes (1968)

With Rise of the Planet of the Apes coming out in August, I figured it’s finally time to dive in and do the massive Planet of the Apes marathon I’ve been itching for these last few years. Not just the five films, but the live-action series and the cartoon as well.

It’s difficult to say something new about the original film. As awesomely cheesy as its concept is, it still holds up as a serious masterpiece of science fiction. Or social science fiction anyway, if you want to be specific. Yes, Charlton Heston overacts the hell out of this movie, but it’s got a really smart script that raises a lot of questions without feeding the audience all the answers.

Take Heston’s misanthropic Taylor for instance. He’s a man of contradictions. He signed up for a dangerous, life-changing space mission simply to get away from other people, but when forced into the role of the last member of his race (as he defines it anyway), he becomes proudly defensive of his humanity. He also casts lots of justifiable judgment on our willingness to cheat and wage war on each other, but none on the decision by his mission’s planners to send a lone female astronaut to act as “Eve” on a long journey with three male team-members.

He’s not the only contradiction. It’s challenging to watch the film through 21st-century eyes and keep track of which social issues the film actively comments on and which ones it’s blinded to. Gender equality obviously isn’t something it’s thinking about, for instance. But it has plenty to say about race, represented by the apes’ caste system with the orangutans’ superiority over the chimpanzees and warrior-class gorillas. Even in this conversation though, the film is inconsistent. In Taylor’s world, races are equal enough that having a black scientist on the crew isn’t remarkable. He’s just a member of the team. On the other hand, he’s the next astronaut to die after the woman, leaving only the two white guys left to face the apes.

One of the film’s biggest themes is the conflict between Faith and Science, but it’s here that I appreciate the (clearly intentional) ambiguity in the way the film approaches it. I almost wrote “perceived conflict,” because as one of the characters points out in the film, there doesn’t have to be a disagreement between the two values. Both seek Truth and it’s not necessary to discard Faith when Science comes up with a surprising revelation. The two aren’t mutually exclusive propositions, because they seek the Truth about two entirely different things. Or should.

But there is of course a conflict between them when advocates of either don’t understand the questions that their preferred system is equipped to answer. Faith isn’t about learning the origins of things any more than Science is equipped to determine humanity’s purpose. Because of this, they approach their quests for Truth in entirely different ways. Faith operates from a position of presupposed knowledge: “I accept this to be true, so all new information must agree with it or be rejected.” Science – good Science anyway – continually questions itself and its assumptions. If new information conflicts with old, the old is called into question.

Planet of the Apes illustrates this difference clearly. The orangutans and chimpanzees have each chosen a preference and are trying to reconcile it with the other option. The orangutans are their culture’s defenders of Faith, but in the name of Science. The chimpanzees represent pure Science, but one that hasn’t completely disregarded Faith. Each group manipulates its second choice as needed to protect the integrity of its first choice.

In discussing this, Planet of the Apes chooses a side (Drs. Zira and Cornelius, the chimpanzees are right), but it’s impressive how sympathetically the movie allows the losing side to be. After a mockery of a trial in which Faith has to literally shout down Science in order to win its argument, the movie offers further conversations between Taylor, the symbol of doubt for everything the apes believe and Dr. Zaius, Faith’s most steadfast defender in ape culture. And while the film never suggests that the audience should agree with Zaius, it presents him sympathetically. He’s wrong and makes bad choices, but he knows that he’s wrong and he knows that they’re bad choices. He struggles with it and the internal battle turns him into more than a one-dimensional villain.

It’s also because of this that Planet of the Apes avoids speaking in absolutes. It finds value in both Faith and Science. The only thing that has no value is ignorance, especially willful ignorance. That’s what Zaius truly represents.

That’s also the message behind the film’s other social issues like racism and violence and taking advantage of your neighbor. The apes believe they’ve rejected human thinking and culture (though they don’t think of it in those terms) in order to create a perfect society, but they’ve actually inherited a lot of their ideas from humanity. It takes a human’s showing up to make them realize this, but they choose to ignore him and remain ignorant. Zaius certainly chooses that. Zira and Cornelius’ decision isn’t as clear, but Zira’s nephew Lucius has seen the truth and wants to do something about it.

There’s an interesting correlation between this theme about ignorance and the movie itself. The apes are as unaware of the damaging aspects of their culture as the film seems to be of the way it treats its female and black characters. In that sense, I suppose that modern audiences are the Taylor to the film’s apes, showing up from another time to point out the movie’s blind spots.


Erik Johnson Illustrator said...

I'd often called "Planet of the Apes" "A thinking person's B-Movie", having made similar observations about science and faith as well as Taylor's misanthropy contrasted with his preaching of humanity's awesomeness. Race relations in the apes class structure isn't something I had really thought of in either of the times I had seen it previously, and I think that is that mark of a true classic, when you can return to the material and find new meaning in each outing, and why analysis and sharing ideas such as these posts are all the more important.

Thanks for sharing, and I'm looking forward to further "Apes" postings. Perhaps I'll catch up with a marathon myself.

Mike D. said...

I love everything about this movie. The score , the plot , the drama , the comedy , the make up jobs , Linda...just a great film

Marcelo Vignali said...

Great post! I think Planet of the Apes an incredible film, and no doubt a great science fiction tragedy.

Taylor starts the film while pondering into the vastness of space. He is disillusioned with mankind. In a single sentence, he states why he is on this mission, “This much is probable: the men who sent us on this journey have long since been moldering in forgotten graves; and those. If any, who read this message are a different breed -- hopefully, a better one.

A bitter Taylor holds out the hope for something better than the mankind he left behind on Earth.

Taylor concludes his pondering with this sardonic question, “ I wonder if Man, that marvel of the universe -- that glorious paradox who has sent me to the unknown -- still makes war against his brother, and lets his neighbor's children starve?”

Later on we see Taylor mock Landon, because Landon represents the goodness and optimism of mankind – but all Taylor sees is the hypocrisy of mankind – and ridicules Landon for it.

But, upon meeting the apes and experiencing the cruelty of the ape culture, Taylor’s opinion is turned around. Landon’s lobotomy hurt Taylor because it cut out all that was good in mankind. Later we see Taylor start to cleave to his humanity, and become the unlikely and reluctant champion for mankind against the cruelty of the ape world.

A startling revelation for Taylor is when he himself realizes that he needs people around him, and can’t leave captivity without Nova. He is stunned to discover this about himself.

This embracing of mankind culminates while Taylor pieces together archeological remnants left in the cave. He states to Dr. Zaius, “I don’t say he was a man like an Earthman, but I’d call him a close relative, for he was plagued by most of man’s ills. Yet, fragile as he was, he came before you – and was better than you!”

There it is! Taylor has turned 180 degrees from where he started at the beginning of the movie. With his statement, “and was better than you!” Taylor stands of the certainty of his own righteousness in defense of mankind, and answers the question he pondered at the beginning of the film. YES, mankind was better!

But, the movie doesn’t end there. Dr. Zaius allows Taylor and Nova to escape, and therefore shows some compassion and mercy. Although a zealot, he is not a true villain. He even shows regret in having to blow up and seal the cave. Zaius reluctantly says to Cornelius, “What I do, I do with no pleasure.”

Taylor continues into his odyssey as he rides his horse into the unknown. This scene changes in terms of music, and all close-up shots of the actors are gone. We no longer see things from Taylor’s point of view, but like a voyeuristic bystander. Even the music plays out like a nightmare of loneliness.

Now the movie culminates as it reveals the real truth. Upon seeing the Statue of Liberty, Taylor realizes he has been on Earth all along. This realization for Taylor is devastating; for mankind had indeed destroyed itself!

This revelation at the end of the film answers Taylor’s original question at the beginning of the film, “ (does) man -- still make war against his brother?” and forcibly changes Taylor’s conclusion about embracing mankind. Ironically, at the moment he finally embraces his humanity, is the moment Taylor realizes that the ape society – however cruel – was better than mankind.

Michael May said...

Marcelo, what a great comment. Thanks!

My understanding of the movie has improved after reading that and you make me want to watch it again right away.


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