by Derek Johnson
[Editor's Note: Here you will find the other Watching the Future columns.]
Consider: the year 1968 saw the release of two classic science fiction movies. Interestingly, both concentrated on similar subject matter, though they differed in execution. The theme of both 2001: A Space Odyssey and Planet of the Apes is humanity in transformation, though the outcomes for both are as radically opposite as the works of, say, H.G. Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs. I expressed my love of Kubrick's science fiction masterpiece in an earlier column, so I will not reiterate those statements here, except to say that 2001: A Space Odyssey observed the evolution of humanity as an uplifting, albeit coolly ecstatic, experience, while Planet of the Apes viewed it as Armageddon, with Charlton Heston damning us all to Hell.
As the day progressed, and the second movie rolled, my cognitive dissonance grew. Ape fiend Devin Faraci, who assisted Drafthouse Manager Zack Carlson with introducing each subsequent movie, described 1970s Beneath the Planet of the Apes as "possibly the most batshit insane G-rated movie of all time," an assessment which, after seeing the movie, dissuades disagreement. True, this time out neither Heston's nor any of his costars's wardrobe malfunctions, and it skirts the core theme that spins creationists into conniption fits, but it presents material that likely did much to warp the minds of the "general audience": enough squibs and packets of fake blood to keep Sam Peckinpah occupied; enough brutal fight sequences to make Matt Damon's stunt double for the Bourne movies flinch; a telepathic Doomsday cult that, in worshipping an atomic bomb, had nothing on Jim Jones; and let's not forget the Strangelovian ending, where Heston's Taylor destroys the world by nuclear inferno in order to save it. Though Twentieth Century Fox aimed these movies at general audiences, taken together, they represented perhaps the grimmest response to Kubrick's transcendentalism, existentialist angst in ape makeup.
And it might have ended there. Perhaps it should have ended there. But the studio, still seeing dollar signs, wasn't going to let a little thing like the end of the world prevent them from squeezing what life they could from novelist Pierre Boulle's original concept and John Chambers's ape makeup to complete another three films, each covering stranger territory than the one before. Escape from the Planet of the Apes followed Drs. Cornelius and Zira (Roddy McDowell and Kim Hunter) returning to Earth's near future (1973, the movie was made in 1971) in one of the strangest comedies of manners ever found in cinema, complete with Eric Braeden's portrayal of Dr. Otto Hasslein, who not only understands the time travel methods which brought them to his time but also the dangers they pose to the human race, and Ricardo Montalbán's Señor Armando, who serves as the guardian and mentor of Zira's chimp baby. Conquest of the Planet of the Apes posits a society that uses apes as pets and then servants, ultimately resulting in an ape uprising (complete with riots copied from footage of the Watts Riots of 1965). Finally, in Battle for the Planet of the Apes, Caesar, son of Cornelius and Zira, searches for answers to his own existence by visiting the ruins of Los Angeles, bands of mutants still living beneath the city's slag, and restless gorillas who believe human beings should be exterminated.
Watching all five movies in succession, the grim nature of each becomes evident to modern viewers. True, by the beginning of Escape from the Planet of the Apes, the subtext began to overwhelm the text, throwing the message over its audience like a wet blanket, but even if screenwriter Paul Dehn had managed to cloak the last three narratives in a layer of allegory, taken in total the series cannot be seen as anything but a downer. Anakin Skywalker's submission to the Dark Side of the Force has nothing on the death of human civilization itself.
Even more interestingly, Jack Valente's Motion Picture Association of America granted all but one of the movies a G rating upon their initial release, indicating that they had no objectionable material… something which would cause today's MPAA to vapor lock. (Conquest of the Planet of the Apes was the only picture of the series to rated PG.) Forget that, in today's climate of religious extremism, audiences would have a hard time dealing with Planet of the Apes's allegory. How many parents would express shock and outrage at the sight of naked male buttocks as Heston and his crew dove into a spring? How many would faint in the aisles at the brief flash of his junk as he adjusted his loincloth during Dr. Zaius's questioning? What number would feel the need to protect their children from the film's ultimately downbeat message: that our species' days are numbered? I can just see parents today dragging their children to a therapist because of the traumatic nature of Zira's and Cornelius's deaths, or for the band of gorillas who open fire on a group of human soldiers hiding in a school bus.
And yet, despite their intense nature and, in the case of the sequels, their hamfisted messages, the movies remain interesting artifacts of their period. Today, a G-rated movie almost ensures a lack of adult interest. Worse, often today's fare, even those unfunny comedies that wear their R ratings as a badge of honor, feels neutered, vacuous, yet each of the movies in this particular series lingered in the imagination. Viewers could taste the discontent in each picture. Certainly each of these movies, when I initially watched them on our twelve-inch black-and-white television screen in Houston over a series of five Sunday nights when I was eleven, helped shaped my own view of the world, far more so, I'm guessing, than Rango or Cars, for all of their merits, would have. They might be cleaner on a lot of levels, but they also seem more sterile.
The Apes never really left us. Neither the live action nor animated television series generated the same interest as the initial movie, and Tim Burton's 2001 travesty of a remake remains a prime example of how not to approach the material. And while Rise of the Planet of the Apes, due this summer, offers a pretty stellar trailer, I don't see how James Franco can ever match Charlton Heston. However, as long as the beast shares our DNA, we'll likely look at our primate cousins with wonder, and perhaps a little fear. It sure as hell beats watching Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides again.
Derek Johnson's critical work has appeared on SF Site, SF Signal, and Revolution SF. He lives in Central Texas with the Goddess.
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