Monday, January 26, 2015

Monkeys, mutants, and Marxists

The classic twist ending. A post-apocalypse tradition is born.
“Somewhere out there there has to be something better than man.” - Taylor (Charlton Heston)

As if.

For a thoroughly satirical post-apocalypse, look no further than the first two Planet of the Apes pictures.

They're far more than Apes in Spaaaaace.

We're lucky the series got made at all, despite having producer Arthur P. Jacobs leading the charge and Charlton Heston being attached. Studio execs feared the apes would be unconvincing, even laughable, and wouldn't give the green light until makeup tests proved otherwise.

Nor did the script come together easily. Rod Serling spent a year writing thirty drafts before he finally got the script right, and then only with the help of the formerly blacklisted Marxist, Michael Wilson. Wilson is better known for classics like Bridge Over the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia.

Pierre Boule's book La Planéte des Singes, on which the film is based, has little in the way of action or fisticuffs. It also depicts a highly advanced ape society, which the filmmakers did not have enough money to recreate on screen. Due to budget constraints, the films' ape civilization would be much more primitive.

The series opens in the cockpit of a spacecraft, the ultimate antiseptic, finely controlled environment. This is human civilization at its peak. All of the crew are asleep, in cryogenic stasis, save Taylor, the misanthropic captain played by Charlton Heston. He's entering a log, Captain Kirk style, but being considerably more introspective because he's got time to kill and themes to advance:

"Space is boundless. It squashes a man's ego. I feel lonely. That's about it. Tell me though. Does man that marvel of the universe that glorious paradox who sent me to the stars still make war against his brother? Keep his neighbor's children starving?”

That's the set up. High tech ship soaring through the stars, mankind's best aboard, pondering the meaning of life. Mankind is on top and in charge.

All is right with the universe.

Heston and his sleeping beauties.
Then the rug gets yanked out and we enter free fall.

They didn’t have enough money to show the ship crash landing, so they shot it from the ship’s POV, using footage taken by airplane. The camera spins and yaws, then careens down into a lake, pulling the viewer along with it.

It’s a stunning, delirious sequence, born of necessity, but it works fabulously, establishing an eerie, artsy vibe, thanks to the fantastic cinematography, the magnificence of the Arizona desert, and the unnerving score. 

If it weren't for the title, the last thing you'd expect is for the astronauts to run into a bunch of talking gorillas. It starts out posing as fairly Hard SF.

Heston and two bright-eyed, bushy-tailed comrades, Landon and Dodge, escape their sinking spacecraft, but the fourth member of their expedition, a woman who would be the new eve, dies before landing due to a malfunction in her cryotube.

The barren Arizona desert makes for a wonderful alien world. Lifeless from horizon to horizon. The cast is framed against the vast landscape, without a single plant to be seen.

Eventually the stranded astronauts find a weed, which fills the crew with hope, despite Taylor razzing them every step of the way. Soon the wastes give way to lush forest and grassland. They find a pool right out of Doctor Doolittle and jump in, only to have their clothes and equipment mysteriously stolen before they can get out.

They encounter a herd of mute humans, who have been reduced to the level of animal intelligence.

Heston figures they’ll be running the place in short order.

His ambitions are quickly dashed as they hear hunting horns sound.

Because these human beings are being hunted like animals. The pursuers are at first unseen. We catch glimpses of poles thrashing the cornfield, rifles firing, horses charging. Humans are flushed like birds, herded like cattle, shot like dogs.

Finally Heston catches sight of the horsemen and realizes… they're apes!

One of the astronauts is killed, a second captured, and Heston wounded in the throat. 

Smile! Apes proudly pose over fresh trophies. Wait, aren't those... Soylent Green?

As the hunt concludes, trophy photos taken over their corpses. By making apes the oppressors, Serling set into very sharp relief man’s barbarity to man, and comments on racism and colonialism.

Granted, it's pretty obvious what planet this is, as the apes speak perfect English. There was some talk of having the apes speak a kind of gibberish at first, which becomes intelligible (English) as Heston picks up the local language. But this was abandoned as being too complicated for audiences of the time.

Heston is injured and separated from his friends, and gets thrown into the upside down world of ape politics. It’s a simplified mirror of our own world, of course, with ape society broken up into three castes: orangutans are authority figures, gorillas are soldiers and workers (presumably farmers as well), and chimpanzees are the middle class and ineffectual intellectuals.

This class based view of society fits with Wilson's Marxist leanings, and actually enriches the picture, adding further depth to the social messages and sharp witted satire.

In fact, the ape actors so took to their race / class based roles that they all ate by group: gorilla with gorilla, chimp with chimp, orangutan with orangutan.

Heston with his chimpanzee patrons. It's like Uplift, except they dissect you.
So it totally, like, isn't. Never mind.

Taylor is paraded around on a leash, threatened with castration and lobotomy, and kept in a cage. The world is now fully inverted: privileged astronaut and American hero Taylor is now a mere animal. From top to bottom in under thirty minutes.

Due to his throat injury, Taylor cannot speak, and his attempts to try are mocked by apes as mere mimicry.

For such a man as Taylor, the fall could not be greater.

Heston's fellow astronaut, post-brain surgery.

The threat of having his balls lopped off compels Taylor to escape. He leads the apes about in a merry chase around their village and gets pelted with rotten fruit and finally snagged in a net. As the gorilla guards move in to apprehend him, Heston utters the classic line, "Take your paws off me, you damn dirty ape!" 

He's quickly rushed to trial. Dr. Zaius, the orangutan Minister of Science and Defender of the Faith (in a nice satirical touch), is hell bent on having Taylor put down, and his chimp patrons censored.

See no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil.
Just a tad on the nose, but it does emphasize the film's satirical intent.

This anti-human attitude just makes Taylor, the devout misanthrope, earnestly wonder why Dr. Zaius fears and hates him so. He should just ask his earlier self.

Taylor views man as weak and pathetic; everything he says about humanity drips with scorn, from his disgust for his fellow astronauts to his sneering contempt for the weakness of a long dead man who once possessed ancient artifacts (a pacemaker, spectacles) that the apes unearth.

Near the end of the film, Cornelius, at the behest of Dr. Zaius, reads from The Sacred Scrolls:

"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."

Whereupon Charlton promptly goes out and discovers his destiny, and the truth: he was home all along. Man is indeed the harbinger of death, and by the megaton.

Taylor is an arrogant, smug narcissist. A self-made God. As Grouchy Marx might say, he is someone who 'would never belong to any club that would have him.'

And humanity, ages ago, delivered on Taylor's low expectations.

He ends the film pounding his fist helplessly into the surf, bowed before the crumbling remains of the Statue of Liberty.

It's an image laden with symbolism, and the scene is a slap in the face, a visual scream, a wake-up call for all humanity, demanding us to do better, to not let the writers, and ourselves, down. To prove we're better than what Taylor (and the writers) believe us to be.
That's one hell of a political statement for a mainstream film. Very, very few filmmakers have the guts or the belly fire to try and pull something like that off.

It’s one of the bleakest films in all of Hollywood history, except for its sequel, Beneath Planet of the Apes. Written by screenwriter Paul Dehn of Goldfinger fame, Beneath indulges in the macabre. At one point it even had a bestiality subplot. Compared to Serling, Dehn is lightning fast at laying down prose: he wrote the script for Escape from Planet of the Apes in a mere three weeks.

New York City, above and below. The buildings were made up of torn photos of New York landmarks.
They did this pic on the cheap.

This film is a mixed bag, as the first half just recycles the first film only with a different cast and lower budget. About half way through, freaky new elements are introduced: mutated humans living under the nuked remnants of New York City, who worship an atomic bomb kept in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Just as the apes are superficially barbaric but underneath like us, the superficially sophisticated mutants turn out to be barbaric. They represent the upper class intelligentsia during The Cold War, mouthing platitudes about peace and non-violence while hiding behind a shield of devastating nuclear weapons capable of annihilating the planet a thousand times over.

Brent, the Charlton Heston lookalike, discovers the truth.
No. That everyone was speaking English was most certainly not enough.
When musicals go bad: the infamous Hello, Dolly
subway station interrogation of Brent by telepathic troglodytes,
 who consider themselves 'the only reality in the universe'.

It’s all explicitly MAD. As the mutant leader and high priest Mendez says, corrupting scripture, "Glory be to the Bomb and to the Holy Fallout. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be. World without end. Amen."

They upgraded the Holy Hand Grenade.

The mutants view torturing people with 'psychic deterrents' as acceptable because they aren’t inflicting physical harm. It’s the sort of hair splitting that got the United States into waterboarding.

They’re also terrible singers.

For all their talk about being defenseless and peaceful, the mutants torture someone every couple of minutes.

Mutant reveals her inmost self unto her god, and you kind of wish she didn't.

As one of the mutants declares, "Mr. Taylor, Mr. Brent. We are a peaceful people. We don't kill our enemies. We get our enemies to kill each other.”

And then he pulls the old ‘let’s you and him fight to the death’ while I watch, all morally pure and peaceful like. It's perverted and twisted and deeply hypocritical. It's barbarism meets passive-aggressive narcissism.


And the 'true self' they reveal to their A-bomb is grotesque. According to Dehn:

"At first, we were going to have them really mutated with monstrous noses and three eyes, real horror figures, but we didn't think that would have been nice for the children and after a great deal of research, it was the makeup department that came up with the idea that if you had been radiated, all seven layers of your skin would have been destroyed, and all that would be left was this terrible network of veins."

On the other side, gorilla General Ursus delivers gems like ‘The only good human is a dead human!’ to much applause from his troops.

Yeah, totally a show for seven-year-olds.

Touring the underground sites.
And just in case you missed the other political parallels, there’s a scene where chimpanzee pacifists try and stop the ape army as it marches to battle… with placards and a sit in! The only thing missing is John Lennon in ape makeup singing 'All we are saying is give peace a chance'. The filmmakers couldn’t bash home their point any harder if they waded into the audience armed with two-by-fours.
The oafish, militaristic apes and the insufferably smug mutants naturally come into conflict, and the end result (spoilers) is the end of the world.

Or rather, the end of the post-end world.

Bored of it all, Carlton Heston sets off the doomsday weapon in order to rid himself of the franchise, and the earth is reduced to a cinder hanging in space.

A narrator solemnly intones:

"In one of the countless billions of galaxies in the universe, lies a medium-sized star, and one of its satellites, a green and insignificant planet, is now dead."

"Screw you guys, I'm off to make The Hawaiians!"

Hard to top when it comes to bleak endings.

Screenwriter Dehn didn't want to go full nihilist originally (never go The Full Nihilist), preferring a bestiality angle:

"The plot of 'Apes 2' was suggested by the memorable last shot of 'Apes 1': the half-buried Statue of Liberty. This implied that New York itself lay buried beneath what the Apes called 'The Forbidden Zone'. It remained only to people the underground city with Mutants descended from the survivors of a nuclear bomb dropped on New York 2,000 years earlier, and, thus, to motivate a war between expansionist Apes and peaceable but dangerously sophisticated Mutants resulting in the final destruction of Earth… I wanted a more optimistic end to 'Apes 2' than the destruction of Earth by the Doomsday Bomb, but my own end, the birth of a child half-human and half-monkey, proved intractable in terms of make-up, and anyway it was thought that Man-Ape miscegenation might lose us our G certificate!" 

The executives wanted the whole series killed off: 

"I was under strict orders not to produce a sequel. Fox said there would be no further sequels after this, kindly destroy the entire world and wind up the series. So I duly did this and as you remember at the end the world blew up, the screen went white and the earth was dead."

They came to their senses as soon as they saw the box office returns.

Ironically, the franchise’s success with sequels and merchandising led to more sequels and more movie franchises.

Way to go, Charlton! Total backfire.

It's worth noting that all the authority figures in the film are unsympathetic. Heston takes a pox on all your houses stance, Ursus believes the only human is a dead one, Zaius views man as a pestilence, and Mendez, the leader of the mutants, believes his entire people, 'the only reality in the universe', exist solely to guard an A-bomb.

Apes as universal symbols for class struggle: military, elite, and bourgeois.
Humans are The Other.

The most sympathetic characters are the chimps Zira and Cornelius. They represent the bourgeois, the decency of the American middle class, sticking up for the little guy while objecting to abuses of power by corrupt higher ups. Even so, Zira works in the zoo, performing Dr. Mengele like experiments on human beings. They are not free of sin, but they are willing to recognize, and work with, The Other.

General Ursus is motivated by more than hatred: drought has brought ape society to the brink of catastrophe. Starvation looms. He intends to conquer The Forbidden Zone in order to expand their food supply, against the objections of Dr. Zaius. It doesn't quite make sense as nothing grows in The Forbidden Zone, but then, no one would accuse Ursus of being brainy, and it does add some nuance to his character.

Zaius is probably the most interesting. He's intelligent and might be willing to negotiate, even cooperate, with humans, save for the secret knowledge he's privy to. Alone among the apes, he knows mankind once ruled the earth, but 'made a desert of it'. The vast wastes of The Forbidden Zone are testament to mankind's destructive capability. As such, Zaius distrusts anything to do with humanity, and believes 'man is capable of nothing but destruction.' 

All things considered, it's an understandable point of view. Should man get a second chance after nuking the planet the first time around?

Dr. Zaius doesn't think so. He rejects Taylor's pleas at the end of Beneath Planet of the Apes, so the petulant Taylor blows the planet to smithereens. Talk about cutting off your nose to spite your face. So there, you bastages: the refusal of a simple kindness by Dr. Zaius, his unwillingness to empathize with The Other, costs everyone their lives, and the planet to boot.

Another strong statement in a series filled with them.

The series raises the hopes of the audience repeatedly, and then, just when you think a happy ending is nigh, they punch you in the face and deliver the dark.

The characters would have made great contestants on Big Brother, they're so well designed to conflict with each other. Super intelligent mutants clash with jock gorillas, empathic chimps chaff under the rule of overbearing elitist orangutans, and put upon Brent gets razzed by the snarky, misanthropic Taylor.

The rest of the original Ape films rant on about human short-sightedness and stupidity until the studio starved their budget into oblivion. The last film looks like half of it was filmed in a local park, and the other half in the studio basement.

Interspecies romance blossoms.
The series is radical cinema posing as sci-fi pulp. If any filmmaker had decided to cover political issues like slavery as bluntly, at that time, they’d never have gotten their project funded. The studios would have toned it down, smoothed the rough edges, turned it into inoffensive pap and had everyone singing Kumbaya by the closing credits. By setting it in a fictional environment populated with people in ape outfits, they were able to skewer anything they wanted. It's post-apocalyptic South Park. Satire with real bite.

One of the perks of well done science fiction.

Generally regarded as the worst film in the entire ape franchise, save for Battle for Planet of the Apes, it's my second favorite of the original run, primarily because of the funky mutants and their stylish, tonal telepathy. Also, doomsday bomb. KABOOM!

I can live with the first half because the second has the tinnitus inflicting mutants and a cranky hero who blows up the planet in the ultimate 'screw-you-guys-I'm-going-home' moment.

That’s the kind of stuff that fries little kids brains.

It's Marxism meets monkeys, and it all ends with nihilism stomping hope in the face, forever.  


The stuff about the dog and cat plague… PFFT! Please. Like we'd really get three hundred pound gorillas as replacement house pets, especially after the visit of three hyper-intelligent apes from a future where humans are hunted for sport.

Seriously, no one could take the hint?

The Chrysalids by John Wyndham is another classic post-apocalyptic look at human intolerance, as human survivors try to wipe out genetically superior successors. Rather bleak Darwinian logic motivates the old paradigm to try and kill off the new, in order to prevent itself from being relegated, in the long term, to extinction. They know that awaits them eventually. It’s a rather zero sum view of the world, but then, over ninety percent of all the species that have ever lived are extinct.

Jack Kirby’s Kamandi, on the other hand, is not particularly political. It’s a fun trip through a wild post-apocalyptic landscape with little in the way of sharp satirical edge, and that’s fine. It’s aimed at a rather young audience, but it's wildly imaginative and filled with non-stop action.

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