[Note: If anyone has any suggestions of other book/movie titles that would be good for Read It, Watch It and Watch It Agains, please let me know in the comments. I’m always interested in broadening my horizons.]
Planet of the Apes was written in 1963 by French author Pierre Boulle, who also wrote Bridge Over the River Kwai (an awesome movie, btw). I read the translation, of course, since I am of the English-as-an-only-language skill set. The prose is fairly dated, awkward to the modern eye, although I don’t know whether that’s because of the time in which it was written, or having lost something coming from French to English, or perhaps a combination of both. At any rate, the book is framed as a story within a story: two individuals in a spacecraft come upon a handwritten manuscript which contains the actual PotA story; in an additional twist at the very end of the book, the reader learns that the two individuals who have read this found manuscript are themselves apes who think the story they have just read is preposterous – no such thing as a literate human.
The manuscript’s narrative reads tells of three human astronauts who voyage to the Betelgeuse system and find a hospitable planet. When they shuttle to the surface, they find primitive humans – including the gorgeous but dumb-as-rocks Nova with whom the hero, Ulysse, becomes quite enamored – and intelligent apes. One of the astronauts is killed as the apes round up the humans; Ulysse, his compatriot and Nova are taken prisoner. Ulysse soon learned that these apes are incredibly advanced: they have cars, televisions, airplanes, and the beginnings of a space program. They have a spoken and written language – not English – and Ulysse sets himself to learning it while in his cage. The apes also have a strict class system: gorillas are the leaders, hunters and military; orangutans are bureaucrats and unenlightened educators; chimpanzees are the forward-thinkers, scientists and visionaries.
Ulysse quickly makes his sentience known and two chimpanzee scientists, Zira and her fiancé Cornelius, become his champions. Ulysse speaks in front of a large scientific congress and is accepted by the apes as an advanced being; he is allowed to assist Zira with her human behavioral training and Cornelius with his archeological research. They discover 10,000 year old ruins that have evidence of being as advanced a civilization as the current ape one and, more shocking, having been populated by humans. The ape leaders are not thrilled with this discovery; although they believe it to be true, they don’t really want it to become common knowledge. So, when Nova becomes pregnant with Ulysse’s child, Zira and Cornelius are concerned that the offspring might be an evolutionary step for humans and pack the three off to Ulysse’s spacecraft, which has continued to orbit the planet. Ulysse and his little family journey back to Earth – due to traveling at the speed of light, 800 years have passed on Earth during Ulysse’s two-year adventure – where they find our planet now completely populated and controlled by … apes.
The original Planet of the Apes movie came out in 1968, just a few years after the book was published, and starred Charlton Heston (chewing up all the scenery he could find). In this version, four human astronauts (three men and one woman who dies in her sleep before they ever reach the planet) are attempting to return to Earth after what is supposed to be a +/- 700 Earth-year voyage. Something goes wrong during their hypersleep, however, and they crash-land on a planet in the year 3978, thinking they are 320 light years from Earth.
The astronauts – Taylor (Heston), Dodge and Landon – soon discover a herd of speechless, primitive people (including the gorgeous but dumb-as-rocks Nova with whom Taylor becomes quite enamored) being rounded up by English-speaking, gun-toting gorillas on horseback. Dodge is killed in the stampede; the other two are captured: Taylor is shot in the throat (which is how the movie keeps him from being able to communicate with the apes right away) and Landon is lobotomized (which also effectively keeps him from speaking with the apes).
As in the book, Zira and Cornelius learn that Taylor is an advanced human and become his supporters. But this time his speech in front of the tribunal (all fuddy-duddy orangutans) goes badly: the apes will not accept the idea of intelligent humans despite the chimpanzees’ attempts to explain Taylor as a missing link between humans and apes. After exploring Cornelius’s ruins – again, seemingly once populated by sentient humans – Taylor and Nova are released back into the wild by Dr. Zaius who knows exactly what they’ll find: that this planet is actually Earth and that humans destroyed themselves long ago. The final shot of the film, Taylor falling to his knees before the shattered remains of the Statue of Liberty while Nova looks on, confused and uncomprehending, is powerful – and was suggested for the movie by the Twilight Zone’s Rod Serling (a move that Boulle, the author of the original story, said he liked better than his own ending).
The second Planet of the Apes was released in 2001. It was directed by Tim Burton and I honestly feel as though it is one of Burton’s weakest films, despite the obvious ginormous budget and impressive cast: Mark Wahlberg, Helena Bonham Carter, Tim Roth, Paul Giamatti, Michael Clarke Duncan, Kris Kristofferson.
Here, in the year 2029, humans are on a space station collecting scientific data with apes they have trained to fly small spacecraft.
The apes also speak English and the movie focuses on the ape relationships for quite some time, ignoring the humans for most of the first 45 minutes of the movie. In this version, the ape class structure is not so strict: any ape seems to be able to perform any role, although the gorillas do all seem to be brutes. Orangutans can be senators as well as smarmy slave-traders (an obsequious Paul Giamatti); chimps are both activists (Helena Bonham Carter as “Ari,” a replacement for Zira) and bloodthirsty soldiers (Tim Roth as the ruthless “General Thade”). While this ape society has fancy clothes, art and politics, they don’t have guns or any sort of technology or science.
When Ari helps Leo and some other humans escape, General Thade gets the senate to declare martial law on the humans. He has been told by his dying father (played by Charlton Heston!) that ages ago, the human and ape status was reversed and he is not about to let that happen again. Meanwhile, Leo has found the wreck of his space station out in the Forbidden Zone (as opposed to the ancient ruined city in the book and first movie). The wreck has been there for “thousands of years” and he realizes that the research apes on board the station were the predecessors of the current evolved apes.
The humans gather together and Leo leads them in battle against the apes. Just as Thade is about to twist Leo’s head off his shoulders (pissed off chimpanzees are strong!), another space shuttle lands. It’s the lost research chimpanzee. All the apes fall to their knees, thinking he’s their god made flesh, so Leo hands him off to Ari and gets the hell out of there in the shuttle. He flies back through time/the wormhole and makes it back to Earth. Which is not the Earth he left behind at all: like in the original book, the apes are in charge.
The ape makeup was wonderful and the actors did a fantastic job of mimicking ape mannerisms but other than ramping up the special effects, this last remake added nothing new to the previous materials. Big ol’ battles do not a better movie make, necessarily. I liked that Burton’s ending was faithful to the book, apparently done to set up a possible sequel – but was a confusing surprise to moviegoers not familiar with the source material - and I’m guessing that it may have been done in part because there is just no way to top the iconic final scene of the 1968 movie.