two films: apes past, present, and future

In 1968 two science-fiction movies were released that were destined to become classics: Planet of the Apes and 2001: A Space Odyssey. I remember being affected by both of them when I saw them in the movie theater at age 9. On the weekend Kimmie and I watched them as part of Paul’s History of Cinema Festival. I enjoyed them both more than I remembered and more than I expected.

Although the movies are very different, they share a key theme, namely, the question of human nature: what is it? For any time a story features important nonhuman characters, like the apes in Planet and the computer Hal in 2001, it is posing this question by getting us to look at how those characters resemble people and how they do not.

(Spoiler alert: I will be talking about story details including the endings of these movies, so read on only if you’ve seen them or otherwise don’t mind spoilers.)

Planet of the Apes, written by Michael Wilson and Rod Serling, and directed by Franklin J. Schaffner, was adapted from a novel, La Planete de singes, by Pierre Boulle. (Boulle, by the way, was also the author of the novel The Bridge on the River Kwai, which David Lean made into an excellent movie in 1957.) The novel was translated into English as Monkey Planet, which I read sometime, I think, in my teens. I don’t remember too much about it, only that the hero-narrator flies to a distant planet that he calls Soror (“sister”) because of its strange resemblance to Earth—except for the fact that it is dominated by apes. The movie version of course ended with the famous revelation that the “planet of the apes” was in fact Earth, thousands of years after a human-induced nuclear holocaust had caused human and ape to undergo ecological role reversal. This I thought was a brilliant idea, not only making the story all the more relevant to a contemporary Cold War audience, but also adding a lovely layer of irony to the title—for who are the “apes” whose planet this is, or was?

Despite its vigorous action scenes, I found Planet of the Apes to be a rather cerebral movie. Through the long first act, which has the three marooned astronauts trekking through lifeless desert, their sarcastic skipper, Taylor (Charlton Heston), spends his time mocking and taunting his crew for their idealism and sorrow over the death of their female crewmate. (I was interested to note that the space mission in Planet of the Apes used the same “hibernaculum” idea that 2001 used for keeping the crew in suspended animation during their long flight.) Later on the main scenes occur as dialogue-intensive exchanges of ideas in places like the apes’ laboratory, a courtroom scene in which Taylor is the defendant, and at an archaeological dig at the seaside during the story’s climax. The writers clearly wanted to focus on the idea content of the story.

And what does the story say? The astronauts first find a single plant, and then soon discover a lush forest, complete with wild, semi-clothed, mute human inhabitants. When the astronauts peeled off their suits to dive into a refreshing pool here, I was struck by the Eden imagery.

But suddenly the humans are running scared from an unknown predator: horse-mounted apes with rifles and nets. Taylor is shot in the throat and separated from his companions, one of whom, it later turns out, is killed and embalmed as part of a museum exhibit, the other lobotomized. Taylor, while recuperating in a zoo cage, becomes a special object of study for two young dissident ape scientists (Kim Hunter and Roddy McDowall). When he recovers his voice he demonstrates that he can not only talk but also reason, and thus seemingly disproves the prevailing ape dogma that humans are incapable of civilization. To the dogmatic rulers (the ginger-haired orangutans), things would be more convenient if Taylor and his friends simply disappeared, but the young scientists help him escape (with his new girlfriend, Nova, played by former Miss Maryland Linda Harrison).

The apes here embody many human failings, from their callousness and cruelty toward the helpless humans to their complacency, dogmatism, and dishonesty. So are these somehow necessary characteristics for the occupant of the top of the food chain on planet Earth? Or did we just set the apes a bad example? The apes are ridiculous with their pomposity and swagger (especially since their technology is rather on the low side—kind of like Gary Larson’s depictions of how dogs print); but then again, who are we to laugh?

The most humane characters are the young scientists (Taylor is never really more than an indignant prisoner). They seem to suggest that it is age and status, more than, say, species, that lead toward the systematic practice of injustice and its pompous rationalization.

In 2001 we have a much more serious effort. Indeed, this time while watching it I formed the definite opinion that it is a work of genius.

Which is not to say that it’s necessarily particularly enjoyable or even totally successful on its own terms. What I mean is that it is a work of uncompromising individual vision, fashioned according to the maker’s own criteria of value, and not offered primarily in order to please an audience, even though I have no doubt that Stanley Kubrick wished it to do so and the movie has apparently grossed $57 million. The movie was apparently inspired by Arthur C. Clarke’s short story “The Sentinel”; the screenplay credit is simply “Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke” with no mention of the story.

In just a few scenes over its 2.5-hour length, the movie shows the entire unfolding of human destiny from pre-human to human to superhuman. It is this feature in my opinion that makes the movie epic, rather than the sheer vastness of its scale in time and space.

On this, my 5th (I think) viewing of the film, I felt I understood it better. This movie has apes of its own, in their own Eden—this time the arid waste of East Africa. Two groups of apes are contending for a muddy waterhole. One group is pushed off by the other, and to that pushed-off group appears, one dawn during a new moon, a smooth charcoal-colored slab standing upright before them. The apes are awestruck, and one ape reaches out first to touch the monolith. Soon after, this ape, while playing with a tapir skeleton, forms the idea of using a bone as a club. Voila: the birth of technology, and, by extension, of humanity.

Now armed, the apes push their rivals off the waterhole, and our inventor clubs his opposite leader to death in the process. The implication is that he has now, like Cain, also invented murder. When he throws the bone aloft in triumph, it morphs into an orbiting satellite, and the movie leaps across 4 million years to the Space Age.

This club inventor is the world’s first genius. According to Arnold J. Toynbee in his A Study of History, civilizations grow through only one cause: the activities of geniuses, and then only if they are able to persuade their less talented fellows to follow along. Otherwise, every society, and every person in it, merely repeats gestures and methods already invented. This function of the genius is, according to Toynbee (and to others, like astrologer Liz Greene), the fundamental meaning of the Greek myth of Prometheus. But in 2001 the real Prometheus appears to be the alien monolith, which (or who) inspires the ape to its first act of creativity. The story seems to be saying that the human race and its civilization were not created on Earth from scratch, but were passed on by another civilization from elsewhere like the Olympic flame, ultimate source unknown.

The bulk of the movie concerns the Jupiter mission, in which the shipboard computer Hal, himself in turn a human invention, stops taking orders from his human bosses and starts murdering them instead, becoming a techno-Cain.

The mission skipper David Bowman (Keir Dullea) is able to neutralize Hal and goes on to become the lone human to experience the final epiphany of the monolith, which appears to bring about his own rebirth as a kind of superman.

The movie is a tremendous tour de force, and has its longueurs and problems. (Kimmie at the end said she doesn’t need to see it again.) But this time while watching I did not see it as merely an interesting and demanding science-fiction movie, but as a work of genius, and such works are always necessarily in a class by themselves.

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