The original Planet of the Apes was a thought-provoking piece of science fiction; a satire on human society which challenged our thinking about race, animal rights, religion and science. Its inversion of the roles of humans and animals left you feeling like Gulliver--unable to perceive your fellow humans as anything other than Yahoos.
None of this is true.
The original Planet of the Apes was a mildly interesting piece of 70s camp. It took a fair-to-middling idea (‘a world where humans are treated like animals’) and developed it in an obvious way. We see Taylor hunted like an animal; put in a zoo, threatened with vivisection and gelding, patronized and given a pet name. We see how the very existence of a talking human threatens the existence of Ape society. Taylor becomes the personification of a ‘dangerous idea’; his trial calls to mind medieval witch trials, the trial of Galileo and, ironically, the Scopes monkey trial. The notion that in this world Science is the inflexible orthodoxy that accuses dissidents of Heresy is a nice inversion, which parallels the ‘upside-down’ world of the apes and humans.
The masks still look surprisingly good. The continual substitution of ‘ape’ for ‘man’ in popular proverbs (‘the proper study of ape is ape’) gets wearing after the seventeenth or eighteenth time. The seventies embarrassment factor, with waist high cameras skillfully avoiding the actor’s naughty bits is, after all this time, rather endearing. There’s a twist ending, of which more anon.
It’s all laid on with a trowel; it’s superficial and pretentious, but it’s well scripted and takes itself seriously. It has a dramatic escape, a hunt, and a Mexican stand-off , but it isn’t an ‘adventure’ film. The key scenes are talking heads: the trial, Taylor’s confrontation with Dr Zeus, and the digging up of the human relics.
How they thought this vaguely cerebral piece of bunkum could be ‘re-imagined’ as an action movie is anyone’s guess.
The depressing thing about the new Planet of the Apes is that it wasn’t all that bad.
Compared with Mars Attacks or anything in the Batman franchise it has a plot, with direction, a beginning a middle and an end. The scenes all relate to each other. The action scenes did not dictate the content: when Our Heroes charge through the enemy encampment, it is a perfectly sensible thing for them to do. The visuals are well done: the apes are terrific and the ape city has a deranged Tim Burton logic to it. It also has a twist ending, of which more anon. On paper, it was a fine piece of epic action cinema. High art it isn’t, but if movies aren’t occasionally going to show armored chimpanzee cavalry charging a space ship then I can’t see the point of having them.
It is no surprise that just about everything that was interesting about the original got lost in translation. These humans talk, wear clothes, and have culture. They are not animals, merely an oppressed under-class. The movie might as well be about nasty Romans exploiting Christian slaves, or nasty English people exploiting the Scots. The hero even gets to reprise the Mel Gibson ‘inspiring speech before the battle’ scene from Braveheart.
What is a surprise is that, having taken a vaguely interesting fable, removed its interest and its fabulous qualities in order to turn it into an action movie, Tim Burton then failed to make a successful action movie. Things exploded and buckles were swashed, but at no time did I feel remotely excited or engaged.
It must have taken a great deal of skill to achieve this.
One imagines the scriptwriters looking at the old movie.
‘Something went wrong’ you can hear them saying ‘They don’t get started on the Quest until the last 20 minutes of the story … and it isn’t a proper quest. Charlton Heston doesn’t save the world.. All he gets is a poxy bit of information about where the apes came from.’
‘Well, we can put that right’ says the other ‘We’ll drop the trial, the zoo and the scientists; we’ll cut out all that icky characterization stuff. We’ll make the film about his journey into the Forbidden Zone.
‘And we’ll think up a much more interesting secret for him to find there.’
‘Right! How can he use the Statue of Liberty to fight the bad guys…’
Poor old Joseph Campbell. When he wrote his modest little book, pointing out a few points of similarity in various myths and fairy tales, he didn’t know what he was starting. It was the 60s. Lot’s of people experimented with comparative anthropology back then.
It’s a simple theory. Mythical heroes are often trying to find something; and that they have to go through some kind of adversity to find it; and someone, often someone old and wise helps them along the way. No wonder George Lucas and all the scriptwriters who came after him got so excited. Hero With A Thousand Faces – once you’ve heard the title, you hardly need to read the book. See, see, in one single simple diagram it reveals the Magic Key to Storytelling. And is says that just reading the story can Heal Your Life. Yeah! Writers are the new priests!
Post Star Wars it has been impossible to step inside a cinema without someone setting out from the world of mundane reality into a wilderness where he meets an old man who gives him his father’s sixgun and tells him to set off into the forbidden zone to win the Holy Grail from the corn god and marry his sister.
The four volume Masks of God, aka ‘Hero With a Thousand Pages’ is much better and much less widely read.
To be fair, Burton’s attempt to shoe-horn Planet of the Apes into the Hero with a Thousand Face structure involves a passably clever Von Daniken hack. When our hero blunders through a time warp and crash lands on the Planet of the Apes, he fully expects to be rescued by the crew of his mother-ship. He has a Plot Device that will home in on the location of his rescuer’s spaceship. But the Plot Device leads him straight into the Forbidden Zone where – get this – legends say that the First Ape came from. To no-one’s great surprise, it turns out that his buddy astronauts did indeed set out to rescue him but, Time Warps being what they are, they arrived a billion zillion years before him. The Apes and Humans on this Planet of the Apes are the descendents of the Apes and Humans on the original space ship. So far as he is concerned, he has found the wreak of his spaceship--which, rather cleverly, is all spikey like the head of the Statue of Liberty. But so far as the apes and humans are concerned, he has found the Holy Lost Arc Grail, and is therefore thrust into the role of Long Prophesied Savior of the Human Race.
Forcing movies into this cod Mythical Pattern gives us heroes and villains who are very remote from us. They don’t worry too much about getting into trouble with Aunt May or where their next banana is coming from: they are too busy Saving the World.
Much of what Charlton Heston does in the real movie is the kind of thing which you would do if you found yourselves being exhibited in a zoo by intelligent apes (an admittedly remote contingency). He shouts ‘This is a mad house,’ shows the apes that he can talk, and tries to get off with the scantily clad girl in the cage next door. The Hero of this film sets his jaw squarely towards the Forbidden Zone and starts organizing escape plans and saving the world. He doesn’t behave in a particular way because that’s what a sensible person would do but because that’s what Joseph Campbell says he should. He is an object, an archetype, not a person.
Because he’s not a person, why should we care what happens to him.
The original movie leaves us with dangling plot lines. What will happen to Cornelius and Zira? Where does Taylor go next? (Is he going to find the Other Jungle on the other side of the Forbidden Zone and, along with the otherwise gratuitous Nova, start a new human race?) In the new version all the threads are tied up. Everything is introduced in Act One, expounded in Act Two, and resolved in Act Three. We are see how the Apeworld was created, how the conflict between human and Ape began and how it was resolved. Everything depends on our Hero. Eden, Calvary and Armageddon, all in two hours.
Putting the hero so firmly at the center of the narrative universe trivializes the action: the Ape World is something that will only exist for the duration of the movie. It is only there for the heroes benefit, and for the audience’s. When the hero leaves, it flies forgotten as a dream dies at the opening day. The old film said ‘This is the true story of the human race; this is is the way the world ends. Taylor is the Everyman figure through whose eyes you see it.’. The new one says ‘This is something strange which happened to the descendents of a group of humans and apes on a far away planet as a result of one of those time travel paradoxes which you’ve seen a hundred times before on Star Trek.’
If the world doesn’t feel real or significant, why should we care what happens in it?
Everything that is not related to this plot is ruthlessly edited out. God forbid that we should see Charlton Heston chatting with his fellow astronauts about why he joined the mission—that would Slow The Action Down. With the exception of General Tharg, I cannot remember the name of a single character in the Burton Ape movie. We aren’t allowed to linger on any one character long enough to get to know them. The plot and the action has to keep moving.
At the end of the film, Helena Bonham-Carter, (playing Roddy McDowell) gets to do one of those ‘acting’ scenes where she says emotionally to the Hero that in the future people will regard him as only a fairy tale or a legend… This connects back to an earlier scene where she explains that there is a legend that Apes are descended from someone called Shamus, but that civilized people do not believe this any more. But this scene has no other significance – nothing suggests that skepticism about mythology is in any way important to her character. All we have is a perfunctory foreshadowing scene to set up a corny ending scene, and then on to the next fight!
At another point, a good ape is said to have been the pupil of one of the evil apes (or possibly vice versa). Teacher and pupil end up facing each other on the battlefield: they throw their weapons down and fight like monkeys, hand to hand. One or other of them loses, or possibly both. We are given so little time to get to know the character that we can’t possibly care. Just muttering, “they used to be teacher and apprentice” does not make us feel or experience that this is true; so it becomes nothing more than a pointless plot-fact to remember, or, in my case, forget.
Because we aren’t allowed any character development, everyone becomes a stereotype. General Tharg’s hatred of the humans is conceived as pure racism – they breed too quickly, they will over run the ape city, the must be wiped out. Subtle motivated villainy doesn’t advance the plot. Zeus hated humans because he is a scared of them. Tharg hates humans because he does.
And what, please tell me, was the blonde love-interest doing there? We get an emotional goodbye without there having been any actual love story. Its like one of those political speeches where the speaker says nothing, but says it with all the right emphasis, so that people don’t realize till afterward that they don’t know what it was he said. We’ve seen films like this before: if there hero says a fond farewell to something female, we will respond in the correct pavlovian way, and only say ‘Hey…did I miss something’ twenty minutes after leaving the cinema.
Don’t even mention the Jewish-ape-slave dealer.
Old films, before the cannons of bad screen writing took over, worked much like classical drama. They presented the audience with a series of tableaux that showed the characters in certain fixed relationships to one another, and allowed the audiences to look at these tableux long enough for their imagination to do the work. If you have had time to linger on a Clear and Distinct Tableaux of, say, The King on His Throne, then he is established in your mind as ‘the king’: when you see him knee deep in mud you think ‘My god, the king knee deep in mud,’ even if he was only on the throne for ten lines. Because the modern film maker is Not Allowed to Be Boring he will not let us linger on these tableaux.
In the real ape movie, we get, maybe, a three to five minute scene of Taylor and Nova in the cage together, in which nothing very much happens: Taylor says ‘Me Tarzan you Jane’ and reminisces about some old girlfriends back on earth. It’s enough; our mind to fill in the gaps, and by the time Taylor escapes, we know he will take Nova with him. Similarly, we get a long enough build up of the three astronauts doing not very much together that it fixes in our minds that Taylor Had Three Comrades. When he sees one of them stuffed in a museum, we are rather shocked – even though he and Taylor only exchanged about 10 lines.
A character who is a mythical construct, in a world which feels trivial and contrived, surrounded by supporting cast that we don’t have a chance to get to know or see him get to know:. Is Burton really so foolish as to not understand that an action movie doesn’t merely require ‘People in thrilling situations’ but ‘People you care about in thrilling situations, on which are riding consequences which you care about.’
Don’t anyone dare say “It was supposed to be a summer no brainer; you shouldn’t look for intelligence and characterization in action movies.” Because it has no intelligence and characterization, it failed as an action movie.
By the time we get to the final image of the original version of Planet of the Apes, Taylor’s discovery of the wrecked statue of liberty can hardly be said to be a surprise twist.
Most of us realized that ape-world was ‘earth in the far future’ pretty much as soon as Roddy McDowell starts talking about archeological studies that suggest a higher civilization. By the time Heston rides off along the beach with his best girlie by his side we know that the humans had civilization at one time, that they wiped themselves out in some way; and that the apes have good reason to fear them. We don’t need the Statue of Liberty to tell us what really happened.
But the ending sums up the film in a single image. Did the scriptwriters start with their picture of the Last Human Being in the wreckage of New York – the perfect metaphor for ‘civilization has ended’ and then work backwards to the rest of the film? It would be better to see the film without knowing about the ending, but only in the sense that the ending to some extent makes the rest of the film redundant.
It is a highly satisfying ending because throughout the film, the viewer, the main character and the secondary characters have had different amounts of knowledge about what is really going on. The final image equalizes our states of knowledge: Taylor knows what Cornelius and Zira suspect; what Zeus has always known and what the audience has guessed. There may be some untied loose ends but there is nowhere else for the story to go (as the five sequels admirably demonstrated.)
In so far as it is part of quest story, Planet of the Apes says ‘There is a secret, which, once you find it, will explain everything; however, the journey to find that secret will entail you learning nearly everything anyway; the secret, when you find it, will sum up and confirm what you already know.’ In that respect, it is rather like the journalistic quest which leads to the by-then irrelevant but still satisfying image of Charles Foster Kane’s burning sledge.
It is not worth laboring the point that Tim Burton’s ‘ending’ doesn’t work on any of these levels. It is completely irrelevant to the film that we have just seen. So, our hero has gone back to earth and found out that it too, for reasons unknown, has been taken over by the apes. Very annoying for him, of course, but in terms of the film we just saw, so what? It doesn’t sum anything up, or make us reconsider anything, or make us go ‘aha, now I see what was going on.’ Burton filmed five endings; the novelisations omit the final ‘twist’. Presumably, any one of the five endings could have been tagged on just as well: for all I know, there are prints of the movie going the rounds with different endings. It wouldn’t make any difference at all.
Before the film started, I idly listed possible twist ending in my head. Maybe it would turn out that our Hero dreamed the whole thing in the Black Hole, or that it was game being played out by the apes in San Diego Zoo. The best ending would have been the one where it turns out that the Ape world is really just a badly thought out script invented by some cynical money mad grown up.
In about 1975 there are an attempt to re-create Planet of the Apes as a TV show. It was cancelled after a small number of episodes. It pretty much re-wrote the mythos from scratch: these humans were not only talking and clothed, but they lived in reasonable sized villages; it was basically cowboys and Indians with rubber masks. For how ever many episodes it lasted, it was my absolute total favorite TV show. On the back of the TV show they re-released the movies; to my shame, I thought that Battle for the Planet of the Apes was the best thing I had ever seen in my whole life, that week, ever.
So: one of my old childhood haunts was being re-imagined as a blockbuster by a decent enough director. Let’s go back and give it one last look.
That’s the message behind all three versions of the ape legend, isn’t it. You really can’t go home again.