Apes From the Future, Holding a Mirror to Today
THE evolution of species takes place over millenniums. Pop-culture franchises just don’t have that kind of time. Rupert Wyatt’s “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” opening Aug. 5, is the seventh film about the peculiarly advanced simians invented by Pierre Boulle in his 1963 novel“Planet of the Apes” and the first in 10 years. The last “Apes” picture, directed by Tim Burton, was a remake of Franklin J. Schaffner’s original 1968 adaptation of the Boulle novel; the first film generated four sequels, a couple of TV series (one live action, one animated), a line of comic books and a jungleful of merchandise before the brand began to peter out, ceding its dominance to other, stronger market beasts like “Star Wars” and “Batman.” The apes had a nice run, but nothing lasts forever. Species die out. Empires fall. Profits decline. New heads of studios rise.
Boulle’s idea, though, is so powerful that it may be immune to the vicissitudes of natural — and even artificial — selection. He imagined an upside-down world in which apes, our ancestors, have become more civilized than humans and feel perfectly justified in treating us like dumb animals: hunting us for sport, keeping us in cages, using us as the subjects of extremely unpleasant scientific experiments. In the first “Planet of the Apes” movie, humans really don’t appear to deserve much respect: they can’t reason and don’t use language. When three American astronauts land on the planet, the apes understandably fail to distinguish these new specimens from the unevolved species they’re accustomed to. One of the earthmen, named Taylor (Charlton Heston), tries to persuade his captors that he’s different, but it’s a heavy lift; the existence of an articulate, rational human is an affront to both ape science and ape religion. (The idea of Heston as the most evolved exemplar of the species may take some getting used to for nonsimians too.)
It’s a witty notion, of a kind that characterized old-school science fiction: the fantastic “what if?” premise that allows the writer to examine the conditions of his own time from a different perspective. The novel and the first movie, which had a screenplay by Michael Wilson and Rod Serling, came out at the height of the cold war, when bomb anxiety made the end of the humanity as we know it seem a not entirely fanciful notion. In the film’s famous final sequence, Taylor, having escaped from the apes, sees the head of the Statue of Liberty on the beach and realizes to his horror that he has been on a post-nuclear-holocaust Earth all along. (Thanks to relativity, his space odyssey has landed him a couple of thousand years into the future.) Nuclear worries may not be as high as they were in the 1960s, but the image still resonates. We know that our species hasn’t yet developed to the point where blowing ourselves up is unthinkable.
But most of the interest of the original “Planet of the Apes” and its sequels lies in their skewed, satiric take on human nature. The apes are disconcertingly like us, and it’s fun both to imagine them as better than we are and to watch their civilization developing some very familiar discontents. They have race and class issues and a rather rigid social hierarchy: orangutans rule, gorillas enforce, and chimpanzees do most of the intellectual work — subject to the approval of the orangutans, who sit in judgment like the Académie Française or the Holy Office. The chimp scientists who try to save Taylor are accused of heresy: the orangutans and the gorillas are, to an ape, staunch creationists.
In the four immediate sequels — “Beneath the Planet of the Apes” (1970), “Escape From the Planet of the Apes” (1971), “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes” (1972) and “Battle for the Planet of the Apes” (1973) — the back story of humankind’s demise and the apes’ ascent gets filled in a bit, with tricky timelines. In “Beneath,” whose action takes place not long after that of the original, Earth is destroyed a second time; in “Escape,” two chimp scientists who have managed to get off the planet before the cataclysm land back in Los Angeles in the 1970s, where they are greeted with the same sort of skepticism and fear that Taylor encountered in ape society. (The movie even borrows a few incidents and plot points from Boulle’s novel, transposing them from human to ape.) These chimps, Zira and Cornelius (Kim Hunter and Roddy McDowell), are a married couple and in the course of the movie have a baby. They’re the Adam and Eve of the super-apes, and in the two final installments their son, who calls himself Caesar (McDowell), leads his band of merry primates in battle against the steadily devolving humans.
The sequels are of wildly variable quality. “Beneath” and “Battle” are, in impressively varied ways, quite terrible; “Conquest,” a kind of simian “Battle of Algiers” with overtones of the late-’60s Los Angeles race riots, is fast paced and has a pleasing B-movie shamelessness to it. “Escape,” directed by Don Taylor, is actually pretty good; like the novel and the first film, it’s more about ideas (and jokes) than spectacular primate action.
Taken together the movies constitute a cleverly worked out and (mostly) consistent mythology: an alternative, hairier, book of Genesis. The new “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” although it too features an überchimp named Caesar, consigns that bomb-based mythology to the dustbin of made-up history and instead attributes the origin of the super-species to genetic engineering: different anxieties for different times.
This reinvention of pop scripture is, of course, a risk: “Planet of the Apes” fundamentalists may reject it as heresy. But it’s probably inevitable. Show business, like evolution, is an inexorable and unforgiving process: those who fail to adapt are doomed to extinction. The real danger lies less in rethinking the story than in violating the basic nature of the original series’s kind of science fiction.
The temptation of technology is hard for 21st-century humans to resist, and the special-effects capabilities of film have improved exponentially in the four decades since Heston was beleaguered by a bunch of actors in monkey suits. “Rise” makes use, as “Avatar” and Peter Jackson’s “King Kong” did, of what’s called performance-capture technology, with a human actor modeling gestures and expressions that will be digitized for the screen. This movie’s Caesar is “played” by Andy Serkis, who did similar duty in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy (as Gollum) and “King Kong”; he’s making a remarkable career of interpreting the emotions of the not quite human.
The apes will look, and move, better than they ever have. But it has to be said that the movie science fiction of the original Apes era, with its now laughably primitive effects, in some ways benefited from its technical crudeness: the spectacle rarely got in the way of the ideas, and when the ideas are engaging, as they are in the first “Planet of the Apes” and “Escape,” the simple effects function like sketches, indications of some greater, not fully realized, narrative and intellectual architecture. (When the ideas are no good, you get “Plan Nine From Outer Space.”) Spectacle and thought aren’t mutually exclusive, by any means. But we humans are, at this stage of our evolution, mighty distractable: so many bright, glittery things to see, so little time. In the recent past our movies (including, sadly, Mr. Burton’s 2001 version of “Planet”) have been making an all too convincing argument for the decline of the species.
But a few years — even the four decades that separate the original “Planet of the Apes” from the brand-new “Rise” — are just a tick of the clock in evolutionary terms. The beauty of Boulle’s amusing idea, and of the best science-fiction ideas in general, is that it encourages us to take a longer view than we’re accustomed to; maybe longer than we’re entirely comfortable with. If “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” gives its audience that sort of perspective, it will have been worth the wait. But in that case we’ll want the sequel right away.