It was this week, fifty years ago that we maniacs blew it up and Charlton Heston damned us all to hell. Four sequels, a failed Tim Burton reboot, a TV-show, a cartoon and reboot-trilogy later, the original Planet of the Apes still resonates and fascinates with audiences everywhere. Beyond the prosthetic monkey makeup, the cheesy plot points like mutants worshipping a nuclear bomb or an ape dual-wielding machine guns on horseback then fighting a tank, what is it that keeps making us return to this franchise?
Even Roger Ebert was skeptical. In his original review from 1968, he described Planet of the Apes as “not great, or significant, or profound. Occasionally it is distractingly cute, as when the apes rewrite one cliché after another…” Indeed, the original script was re-written to include many tongue-in-cheek monkey references like “I never met an ape I didn’t like,” or “To apes, all men look alike.” This, together with a trial scene where the jury re-enacts the “See no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil” monkeys can easily give the impression that this is little more than a B-movie. Even the trailer sells a more action-packed film about man vs monkey. But it was not until audiences entered the theater than they could witness the genius of the film’s allegory.
The first thing that the Apes franchise does so well is holding a mirror to the audience. The original Planet of the Apes showed us at our most primitive, and it reminded us that we are still animals capable of destroying each other at any moment. And what better way to show this than by taking one of the biggest stars of the 60s, Charlton Heston, and make him play mute for most of the film? After being shot in the throat, Taylor is rendered speechless and without clothes. He is basically an uncivilized cave-man, treated as an animal by a society that wants to dissect him. Beyond the cheesy lines, Charlton Heston’s over-the-top intensity and overblown dialogue, the film took real problems from our own world and reflected them on a seemingly advanced society of apes.
Scholar Amy C. Chambers wrote, “Planet of the Apes confronts and exposes both anti-authoritarian and politically conservative attitudes to religion and its relationship to advances in science in the United States at the end of the 1960s.” Just 9 months after the film was released, Epperson v. Arkansas invalidated an Arkansas statute from 1925 that prohibited the teaching of human evolution in public schools. The trial I mentioned before with the “Three Wise Monkeys”, is essentially a subversion of a real-life trial in Dayton, Tennessee later dubbed the “Scopes Monkey Trial”, where a substitute high school teacher was accused of teaching evolution in class – and according to the Christian fundamentalists, posed a threat to our civilization. In the film, orangutans deny Taylor’s existence as a human, and instead believe him to be a perverted experiment. They invoke the Sacred Scrolls’ First Article of Faith, which justifies ape rule over the planet on divine grounds, to use “scientific heresy” as a criminal charge against Taylor. They also question the credibility of renown scientists Zira and Cornelius because they propose a theory of evolution that suggested men and ape could descend from the same ancestral line. Absolute fantasy, right?
There’s also the allegory of separation between church and state. The ape society has a cast system that mirrors our own institutionalized racism where the darkest gorillas are deemed menial workers and soldiers, while the lightest-colored orangutans control politics, law, and religion. Taylor’s trial scene shows the dangers of mixing religious belief with lawmaking, and this is best personified in Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans) the Minister of Science, but also somehow the “Chief Defender of the Faith”.
Having humans in ape makeup (or mo-cap suits) has always been used as window-dressing to the allegories presented in Planet of the Apes. The first sequel, Beneath the Planet of the Apes managed to not only give us a society of mutated humans with psychic powers that live underground and worship a nuclear bomb, they also gave us a dark and grim representation of the dangers of a nuclear warfare. This film did things absolutely no franchise would do nowadays. First, they accept Charlton Heston’s demand to be killed off, then the writers and 20th Century Fox studio head Richard Zanuch suggested they end the series by literally killing every character off along with the entire planet Earth. Of course, that didn’t stick. Even before the film was made, producer Arthur P. Jacobs sent the writer of “Beneath”, Paul Dehn, a telegram saying only “Apes exist, Sequel required.” What do you do after killing every character in your franchise? You do a soft-reboot by way of time-travel! Escape from the Planet of the Apes is the most light-hearted of the original films (though after ending a film by blowing up Earth, anything else is hilariously tame) and we find Cornelius and Zira traveling to 1973 Earth where they become instant celebrities. Yet the film still found time to make statements about celebrity culture, fate vs free will, government intrusion and immigration persecution.
When Cornelius and Zira get killed, their baby is raised by a human circus-owner, and the producers decided to make a clear allegory for civil wars and race riots with the beginning of the ape uprising in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. In a move that sounds baffling even today, each of the Apes sequels got a lower budget than the previous film, yet Conquest has the most impressive set pieces and action scenes of the original films. This is also the most explicitly political film of the series. Drawing upon the 1965 Watts riots in Los Angeles, Conquest finally makes good on the franchise’s promise of apes supplanting mankind as the dominant species. We follow Caesar in an alternate 1991 where a disease wiped out all cats and dogs, and apes are now both pets and slaves. Eventually, Caesar leads a revolt and takes over a city in the first film in the franchise that makes audiences root against humankind. The film’s ending found Caesar ordering the brutal cold-blooded execution of a sadistic governor and forecasting humanity’s ultimate turn on itself that would allow apes to take over the world. This proved to be controversial, despite audiences having no issues with the entire planet Earth blowing up in the second film, and the ending was changed for the theatrical release (it is now being restored for the Blu-ray). The original series ended with Battle for the Planet of the Apes, which dealt with civil war and the inevitability of war, and who gets to write history.
Seen from a technical standpoint, the original Planet of the Apes was truly remarkable. There’s Jerry Goldsmith’s percussion-based score featuring tribal beats and horns rather than a typical symphonic orchestra gives the film an edgy feeling even before the apes show up. And obviously, there’s John Chamber’s ground-breaking prosthetic makeup techniques, which were so fantastic this was only the second film ever to receive an honorary Academy Award for outstanding make-up achievement, over a decade before the category was created for Best Makeup. While the masks used by background characters were simpler, and the lower budget for the sequels meant worse effects in every film, the main characters wore facial prosthetics that allowed for maximum movement of the actor’s facial features. Roddy McDowall’s excellent performance as both Cornelius and Caesar got audiences to forget, albeit momentarily, that they were watching a human and not an ape. But it wasn’t until 2011 when the line between costumes and the real deal really got blurred.
When it was time to reboot the franchise, the makeup gave way to motion capture and CGI. Andy Serkis became a master in giving life to an unlikely character in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Once again, we get ground-breaking visual effects and awe-inspiring set pieces, but it is thanks to writers Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver that we remember this film. Under the CGI characters and the James Francos, there lies an allegory of animal rights and experimentation, and the question of personhood. Andy Serkis’ performance and the story go hand in hand, as we would not believe the performance without a powerful story and characterization, but we also wouldn’t care about the story if we didn’t care about Caesar. The main key is the very human emotions and dilemmas that Caesar and the apes face, which only got more real by the second film in the trilogy, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Aided by Matt Reeves’ keen eye for detail and Michael Giacchino’s powerful score, we get the most Shakespearean of the Apes films. A tale of complicated characters and political maneuvering, that still delivers an ape dual-wielding machine guns on horseback fighting a tank. The sophomore film in the new trilogy explores the fragility of peace, and how miscommunication and prejudice exist in any side of a conflict.
The trilogy ended with War for the Planet of the Apes, a film that effortlessly combines breath-taking special effects and a poignant narrative about fascism and white nationalism that ties the new trilogy with the original films. Andy Serkis delivers his best performance ever as Caesar, but it wouldn’t mean anything if his character hadn’t been built as flawed and complicated in throughout the trilogy. It all works because we have got to know Caesar as a child that looked at the world in wonder, we saw when he first started to question his place in the world and his personhood as an ape, and as an adult and a leader that has to deal with the damage caused by humans and the prejudices on both sides.
Whether it’s prosthetic makeup or motion-capture, the Planet of the Apes films have managed to make us care about the apes because of the human flaws they possess, and because their society always mirrored our own. At their best, the apes represent what we can do when we get together to do good, and at their worst they are a product of humanity’s self-destruction. These films have always been viciously angry morality plays that stare into the void of existentialism and show the bleakest humanity can get, all while retaining cheesy fun and monkey puns.