A triumph that inspired a whole franchise, Planet of the Apes showed us a vision of an unsettling world in which mankind has been subjugated by intelligent apes. Unable to talk or reason, men occupy a pathetic position in this new world, merely scraping by in their attempts to survive.
Of course, everyone familiar with the story knows that this is no new world at all, but the future of our own world.
“Oh my God. I’m back. I’m home. All the time, it was… We finally really did it. You maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell!”
– George Taylor, Planet of the Apes (1968)
No music accompanies the dramatic reveal of the dilapidated, half-buried Statue of Liberty. There is only silence, punctuated by the apathetic sound of the tide ebbing and flowing. Released at the height of the Cold War, this is one of many stories that exploited the constant anxiety around nuclear Armageddon.
What separates Planet of the Apes from a lot of these stories, in my eyes, is its ‘life goes on’ motif, and not in a pleasant, hopeful way. When humanity unleashes the ultimate destruction and forms its fringe communities, apes rise to take their place, along with their former vices. Their corrupt politicians and religious leaders manipulate truth and peddle lies to further their agendas. They shirk knowledge and science in favour of prejudice and hate. They hunt and enslave humans, and lobotomise the stronger-willed ones.
It’s true that the apes do have their virtues over us. Their justification for keeping the human population down cruelly is one of environmental concern. Perhaps they have learned one thing from our mistakes – or perhaps they simply haven’t developed to the point where they have repeated our mistakes. The oppressive politics of the ape society uncomfortably mirror our own, so while we are bombarded with anti-human propaganda that makes us question how sustainable our current existence is, we also see the problematic parallels that can be drawn between human society and ape society.
” ‘Beware the beast Man, for he is the Devil’s pawn. Alone among God’s primates, he kills for sport or lust or greed. Yea, he will murder his brother to possess his brother’s land. Let him not breed in great numbers, for he will make a desert of his home and yours. Shun him; drive him back into his jungle lair, for he is the harbinger of death.’ ”
– Cornelius, Planet of the Apes (1968)
The mental assault on two fronts makes us question whether we might have already come too far, whether these issues are still preventable, and whether life is a cycle whose mistakes are doomed to be repeated again and again. I can imagine people leaving the cinema in 1968 with their hearts in their mouths and those questions on their tongues. The possibility of blowing it all up is after all, the frightening part of this. Apes taking our place at the top of the world hierarchy is a just punishment for unleashing nuclear war. I don’t think anyone finishes this film and develops a fear of ape intellect and collusion.
The reboot series changed the crux of our fear from nuclear to biological. Nuclear powers are still an ever-present danger, but have perhaps become a mundane fear after so many years, which is a frightening prospect in itself. Genetics and biological diseases are our more immediate and revolutionary fears now, which is why zombie stories are the flavour of the month. Similarly, Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Dawn of the Planet the Apes suggest that it was a disease that wiped out most of humanity. With War for the Planet of the Apes being released next year, we will once again look into that dark mirror and explore the worst of our human traits on both sides of the war.
Let us not forget that famous idiom, after all.
“You know the saying, ‘human see, human do’.”
– Julius, Planet of the Apes (1968)