If we had an infinite amount of apes banging on an infinite amount of typewriters, I think we can all agree, they’d eventually write every single Planet of the Apes movie, and then rise up and enslave us humans as their copy-editors, gaffers, and interns who get them coffee.
Basically there’s no way any of us are ever going to get over the idea of talking apes, like, ever. But why?
In the pop pantheon of all of science fiction, the notion of a world in which humans are second-class citizens to our very-close simian cousins is one of the best sci-fi ideas anyone has had. It’s as arrestingly interesting now as it was when Pierre Boulle first published La Planète des singes, and still as gripping as when Charlton Heston pounded the sand in despair. And it’s because it’s all so simple.
I’m of the opinion that watching any of The Planet of the Apes movies—with the exception of the 2001 Tim Burton remake—will always be good for you. Whether it’s the anti-war messages of the early 60s films, or the questioning of genetic-tampering present in the newer films, each Apes movie has something to say other than “holy shit look at these apes riding horses and holding machine guns!” I mean, these movies are saying that too, but the characteristic I find so wonderful about the Apes concept, in nearly every iteration, is simply that it seems to have a little bit of class. I know. I know. I’m saying movies with people in rubber ape masks, locking up dudes with no-shirts-on are classy, but stay with me.
The original novel, while much different in its details than the classic films, has pretty much the same theme, positing that essential science fiction “what if?” brain-teaser, with an equally compelling plot to match. Although the novel features a more literal separate planet of the apes (the films move that metaphor straight to Earth), this all still works out pretty much the same any way we look at it. And the essential contemplation is this: what makes civilization? And does ours deserve to be the one with the clothes and the cars and the innovation? Why us? In the original novel, the primary protagonist Ulysse Mérou hangs out with the highly advanced ape culture of the planet Sonor, initially as a captive, but he’s later allowed to address the ape’s general assembly. At one point, Ulysse meets up with one of his human buddies, a formerly brilliant Professor named Antelle, now an exhibit in the ape’s zoo. But Ulysse finds his learned friend has transformed into a babbling idiot. Did the nature or nurture of a certain evolutionary system or conditioning allow Ulysse to retain his “humanity” while Professor Antelle lost his? Boulle isn’t saying, really, but he is asking the question in a way it hadn’t been posed in science fiction before. At least not quite like that.
And the films, in their best moments ask this kind of question, too. What makes a civilized person? And is that the same as a human? True, Charlton Heston’s Col. Taylor actually answers the question a little bit too hardcore when he BLOWS UP THE ENTIRE EARTH in Beneath The Planet of the Apes, but even there, there’s something to love about this whole concept. You know a movie series/franchise or whatever is sort of awesome when the second movie destroys the whole Earth, and then there are three more movies after that.
As I’ve written about before, my favorite Apes film is probably Escape from the Planet of the Apes, and that has a lot to do with how quiet and real everything in it seems. Set almost completely in a “present day” (1971) California, this movie probably explores the idea of what it would be like to be a terrestrial “alien” better than almost any similar film. When the beloved apes Zira and Cornelius are on the run to protect their talking ape-baby Milo (later Caesar!) there will literally not be a dry eye in the house. Spielberg might have been able to make us tear-up for the cutesy alien E.T., but he didn’t do it with hardcore leftist politics the way the Apes movies did! These movies were never really safe-bets, and the way they’re written isn’t anything close to cynical.
Why does the Tim Burton one suck then? Well, it misses the point. The thing that’s wonderful about Planet of the Apes—the whole damn dirty wonderful conceit—plays with how close the flip could be between being civilized and being uncivilized. In Burton’s version (and I love Burton, so maybe this wasn’t all his fault) the humans are just slaves of the apes, even though they can talk and act normal. There’s no exploration of how and why the apes really see them any differently, it’s just sort of posited that the apes are assholes and the humans are the good guys, which of course, is silly.
A good Apes movie— a status 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes holds—doesn’t paint things this black and white. And it’s the graying areas between human and ape where these stories get super-interesting. Yes, there are those that would say James Franco’s actions in Rise were that of a mad-scientist and in his creation of Caesar, the entire integrity of the Apes world was compromised. But it’s not true. This new version of Planet of the Apes is just using a different science fiction device than the old films. How did the apes rise to power in the old films? Time-travel. How do they do in the new ones? Genetic engineering plus a massive human-killing virus.
Which means, I for one cannot wait to see the Apes return from their three-year-long nap for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Because, if the formula of a good apes film holds here—as I’m betting it will—the story won’t be about Ape on human violence and whether or not they look cool on horses, but instead, all about how that makes us feel about ourselves. I think if you find yourself rooting for an Ape in any of these movies, I think what you’re really rooting for is your own wonderfully opened mind.
Ryan Britt is a longtime contributor to Tor.com.