APE-POCALYPSE NOW! Hollywood Revisits the Ape Planet
"Caesar" the brainy chimp star of Rise of the Planet of the Apes. © 20th Century Fox
This is a story about how a mob of intelligent, institutionalized, drugged-up apes organize to overthrow their human oppressors and ignite a planetary revolt. But enough about my graduate school days at UC Berkeley during the sixties…
Our home planet, Terra, largest of the four large terrestrial planets in the Solar System, is the original “planet of the apes.” As far as we’ve able to deduce from the fossil record, there was a radiation, or branching out, of apes (hominids) and then man-like creatures (hominins) beginning about 20 million years ago. Then, between 9 and 13 million years ago, there was another radiation that produced about 40 different extinct ape species.
Anthropologists, sci-fi authors, and filmmakers have long been intrigued with the question: What if things had gone slightly differently? Could humans have ever turned out to become the subordinate species while chimps and orangs developed enough brain power to rule the Earth?
A few weeks ago someone posted several authentic-looking Youtube “documentaries” about African chimpanzees that had learned to use weapons and became killer apes.
A Sir David Attenborough sound-alike narrates the mini-movies like classic wildlife specials. We see a forest chimp wielding a huge knife while the voiceover explains: “In the late 1970s, Idi Amin’s forces trained a dozen chimpanzees to fight with machetes to protect his remote bunkers in the jungle… the apes are now teaching each other …and have attacked humans with gruesome and murderous efficiency…” In a companion video African soldiers hand an AK-47 to a chimp, who goes gaga, firing at the terrified soldiers as they scramble for cover.
Some gullible viewers were taken in, but a few read past the main title, “Excerpt from British Wildlife Documentary,” to the giveaway small type: “20th Century Fox Research Library.”Both well-produced fakes, the videos exemplify the carefully crafted “viral” internet campaigns that have become an indispensible part of the Hollywood Dream Machine. The movie they are flogging is, of course, The Rise of the Planet of the Apes, an extremely entertaining popcorn epic—the latest in the popular long-running franchise. Employing the considerable talents of hundreds of computer artists, it is an absolute triumph of CG (computer generated) animation.
Chimp with machine gun in faux documentary posted on Youtube. © 20th Century Fox
Oddly enough, the “Ape Planet” action movies began with a thought-provoking satirical novel by French author Pierre Boule (who had written the classic film Bridge On the River Kwai). His 1963 novella Planet of the Apes was a light, humorous parable, tied only loosely to an action-adventure plot.
Orangs, chimps and gorillas in Boule’s original tale act not so much like different species as takeoffs on our own society. Chimps are bright, flexible and innovative, which often lands them in trouble with the ape establishment. Gorillas are brutal, stupid, and follow orders well; they form a state police or military caste. Among the original film’s most striking images are the legions of armed, leather-clad gorillas on horseback, chasing down fleeing human captives.
Orthodoxy in thought and policy is maintained by overly dignified orang-utans, who serve on all scientific boards and committees. In homage to the late Maurice Evans, who played the pompous Dr. Zaius, the magnificent red ape in the current incarnation is called “Maurice.”
The first film version of Planet was released in 1968, following the groundbreaking field studies by primatologists Jane Goodall and George Schaller. It signaled a change in mass perception. No longer was the Hollywood ape a monster (King Kong), a clown (Cheetah, Bonzo), or a “primitive man” (Greystoke, 2001: A Space Odyssey). The apes in Planet held social positions, but were conscious individuals—mostly conforming and brutal, but sometimes complex, thoughtful, and heroic.
The current summer blockbuster is the most sophisticated yet, touching on species-defining matters of intelligence, cognition, loyalty and betrayal, the relationship between ourselves and our nearest evolutionary kin, and the conundrum of being human.
Reconstruction of Homo rudolfensis, a 3-million-year-old hominin, by paleoartist Viktor Deak, an inspiration for “Caesar’s” face in the new Planet of the Apes film. © Viktor Deak
And no more rubber masks! The CGI star,“Caesar,” owes his emotional depth to actor Andy Serkis, the king of “mo-cap” (motion-capture), who has studied and mastered the movements and facial expressions of African apes, and infuses his pongid avatar with an eerie and disturbing humanity. Eventually, the apes, using sophisticated military strategy, mount an assault on police vehicles in the middle of the Golden Gate Bridge. They charge the armed cops, making sounds that could best be described as a shrieking Justin Bieber amplified on steroids.
So what do apes really want? According to one snarky newspaper review, their objectives are only to live unmolested in the redwood forest of California, and maybe to receive an official apology for the 1976 De Laurentis remake of King Kong.
On an Astrobiological note: The Planet of the Apes movies pose the question of whether apes, our Darwinian cousins, are unique in having the basic biology to evolve human-like intelligence and capabilities. Did our species have to evolve the way it did, or could it have gone in a different direction – on this planet or another?
Most scientists, including the late Stephen Jay Gould, believe that humans are the product of a contingent history that could only have occurred here on Earth, never to be repeated. Others, like the British paleontologist Simon Conway-Morris, have argued for an inevitability or directionality to evolution. If the ape line had gone extinct, according to them, Earth may conceivably have become the home planet of a race of brainy, upright-walking dinosaurs that evolved fine use of their hands and fingers and flat-faced stereoscopic vision.
If we do find life elsewhere, will we find worlds with species much like our own that evolved along the same pathways, or completely unique creatures that look and behave in ways we never imagined?