Ape-pocalypse now!

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?


11 Responses to “APE-POCALYPSE NOW! Hollywood Revisits the Ape Planet”

  1. Rhoda and Matt Says:

    Richard –we really enjoyed your comments about evolutionand your tongue-in-cheek comments about “Planet of the Apes.”–Take care–Rhoda and Matt

  2. Rj Cote Says:

    Interesting question, Richard! I believe there is room for a middle path, somehow we like to anthropomorphize the development much like the original story found in science fiction (emphasis on fiction). I think it could be possible that sentient beings are within our reach, here on this planet, only our observations are met with limits set by human senses. We have been fascinated by the ability for species of sea-born mammals to communicate, birds whose ability to mimic human speech, yet somehow miss the social skills of plant life, or even protozoa! In the common scientific view, life has occupied this planet in the form of bacteria for millenia. Would it be so hard to imagine macro-evolutionary jellyfish, or a form of mineral that can respond to geologic stimuli, so many undiscovered abilities on scales that are beyond our ability to measure, they escape notice? Perhaps these discoveries are yet made.

  3. Richard Milner Says:

    Yes, I have always thought there are more strange minerals, crystals, and life forms to be found right here on earth than we have admitted into our view of the world. For some reason, they become trivialized for having been found in our own back yard — even extending to discoveries of life miles under the Antarctic ice, inside ancient buried rocks, or in boiling geothermic pools. If some of these strange, extreme life forms or weird geologic objects had come back to us from a space probe, we’d be ooh-ing and ahh-ing all over them. Also, I believe that we’re only just beginning to plumb the riddles of how Terran non-humans think and behave…

  4. Lindsay Fulcher Says:

    These apes might make a better job of running London right now – or Libya, Syria, Iran, Iraq or Afghanistan for that matter!

  5. Richard Milner Says:

    …and the list goes on and on, both at home and abroad…

  6. Bob Ziering Says:

    Wonderful, Dr. Darwin. You have such a wonderful command of language and equally important
    an exceptional knowledge of your subject and a touch of satire to spice it up a bit. Bravi!!!

  7. Richard Milner Says:

    Thanks. I’ll try to follow this with several weekly blogs you may find interesting and entertaining. Stay tuned…

  8. Richard Milner Says:

    You can contact me directly at rmilner@nyc.rr.com
    Also, please see my website http://www.darwinlive.com

  9. Dean Hannotte Says:

    Lacking further details, I tend to think that Gould and Conway-Morris were indulging in conjecture. However the tension between their hypotheses frames an important research project for the coming century. At the outset it has to be admitted that certain aspects of the human body plan simply make sense for almost any organic life form — especially bilateral symmetry, which in turn faciliates two eyes for 3D vision and two ears for 3D hearing. Other aspects seem more arbitrary. How many arms does one need? (Some primates have four.) How many fingers per arm? Would an especially large being need fingers on his fingers? And where should the brain be?

    We should also entertain the possibility that many life forms on our planet have never been, and may never be, discovered. Nor is it automatically unscientific to entertain variations of the Gaia hypothesis, which seem endless. Personally I think of the internet as an evolutionary leap when Gaia turned from being pond scum into a beautiful jellyfish. For the first time, the planet has a nervous system. Maybe other planets have become conscious too.

    Thanks for a brilliant debut, Richard.

  10. Gabriel Hongisto Says:

    I wish more people would write blogs like this that are actually helpful to read. With all the garbage floating around on the internet, it is refreshing to read a blog like yours instead.

  11. Judy Jennings Says:

    I, too, hate those stupid blogs such as “5 ways to reduce your debt” or “7 ways to liven up your marriage”. It’s nice to read something of interest and substance. I’ll be looking forward to future blogs.