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, currently showing in Taiwan, 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 jungle-ful 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 US 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 non-simians too.)
Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Directed by: Rupert Wyatt
Starring: James Franco (Will Rodman), Freida Pinto (Caroline Aranha), Andy Serkis (Caesar), John Lithgow (Charles Rodman), Chelah Horsdal (Irena), Brian Cox (John Landon), Tom Felton (Dodge Landon)
Running Time: 100 Minutes
Taiwan Release: Currently Showing
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 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 Academie Francaise 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.