Monday, June 13, 2011
Planet of the Apes (1968)
With Rise of the Planet of the Apes coming out in August, I figured it’s finally time to dive in and do the massive Planet of the Apes marathon I’ve been itching for these last few years. Not just the five films, but the live-action series and the cartoon as well.
It’s difficult to say something new about the original film. As awesomely cheesy as its concept is, it still holds up as a serious masterpiece of science fiction. Or social science fiction anyway, if you want to be specific. Yes, Charlton Heston overacts the hell out of this movie, but it’s got a really smart script that raises a lot of questions without feeding the audience all the answers.
Take Heston’s misanthropic Taylor for instance. He’s a man of contradictions. He signed up for a dangerous, life-changing space mission simply to get away from other people, but when forced into the role of the last member of his race (as he defines it anyway), he becomes proudly defensive of his humanity. He also casts lots of justifiable judgment on our willingness to cheat and wage war on each other, but none on the decision by his mission’s planners to send a lone female astronaut to act as “Eve” on a long journey with three male team-members.
He’s not the only contradiction. It’s challenging to watch the film through 21st-century eyes and keep track of which social issues the film actively comments on and which ones it’s blinded to. Gender equality obviously isn’t something it’s thinking about, for instance. But it has plenty to say about race, represented by the apes’ caste system with the orangutans’ superiority over the chimpanzees and warrior-class gorillas. Even in this conversation though, the film is inconsistent. In Taylor’s world, races are equal enough that having a black scientist on the crew isn’t remarkable. He’s just a member of the team. On the other hand, he’s the next astronaut to die after the woman, leaving only the two white guys left to face the apes.
One of the film’s biggest themes is the conflict between Faith and Science, but it’s here that I appreciate the (clearly intentional) ambiguity in the way the film approaches it. I almost wrote “perceived conflict,” because as one of the characters points out in the film, there doesn’t have to be a disagreement between the two values. Both seek Truth and it’s not necessary to discard Faith when Science comes up with a surprising revelation. The two aren’t mutually exclusive propositions, because they seek the Truth about two entirely different things. Or should.
But there is of course a conflict between them when advocates of either don’t understand the questions that their preferred system is equipped to answer. Faith isn’t about learning the origins of things any more than Science is equipped to determine humanity’s purpose. Because of this, they approach their quests for Truth in entirely different ways. Faith operates from a position of presupposed knowledge: “I accept this to be true, so all new information must agree with it or be rejected.” Science – good Science anyway – continually questions itself and its assumptions. If new information conflicts with old, the old is called into question.
Planet of the Apes illustrates this difference clearly. The orangutans and chimpanzees have each chosen a preference and are trying to reconcile it with the other option. The orangutans are their culture’s defenders of Faith, but in the name of Science. The chimpanzees represent pure Science, but one that hasn’t completely disregarded Faith. Each group manipulates its second choice as needed to protect the integrity of its first choice.
In discussing this, Planet of the Apes chooses a side (Drs. Zira and Cornelius, the chimpanzees are right), but it’s impressive how sympathetically the movie allows the losing side to be. After a mockery of a trial in which Faith has to literally shout down Science in order to win its argument, the movie offers further conversations between Taylor, the symbol of doubt for everything the apes believe and Dr. Zaius, Faith’s most steadfast defender in ape culture. And while the film never suggests that the audience should agree with Zaius, it presents him sympathetically. He’s wrong and makes bad choices, but he knows that he’s wrong and he knows that they’re bad choices. He struggles with it and the internal battle turns him into more than a one-dimensional villain.
It’s also because of this that Planet of the Apes avoids speaking in absolutes. It finds value in both Faith and Science. The only thing that has no value is ignorance, especially willful ignorance. That’s what Zaius truly represents.
That’s also the message behind the film’s other social issues like racism and violence and taking advantage of your neighbor. The apes believe they’ve rejected human thinking and culture (though they don’t think of it in those terms) in order to create a perfect society, but they’ve actually inherited a lot of their ideas from humanity. It takes a human’s showing up to make them realize this, but they choose to ignore him and remain ignorant. Zaius certainly chooses that. Zira and Cornelius’ decision isn’t as clear, but Zira’s nephew Lucius has seen the truth and wants to do something about it.
There’s an interesting correlation between this theme about ignorance and the movie itself. The apes are as unaware of the damaging aspects of their culture as the film seems to be of the way it treats its female and black characters. In that sense, I suppose that modern audiences are the Taylor to the film’s apes, showing up from another time to point out the movie’s blind spots.