Film Friday: Planet of the Apes and its Stupid Poster (1968) (spoilers)

Film Friday is a weekly post in which an important film is taken, analyzed and reviewed.  Best to have seen the film in question before reading these posts as there are spoilers.

When really important films with thought-provoking philosophical messages have their endings spoiled with their DVD cover I get quite upset. The example of this that always springs to mind is Planet of the Apes (1968): 

Charlton Heston on his knees on the beach with the Statue of Liberty. Seriously? The big fucking twist at the end of the movie and you go with that for the damn DVD cover? Why not show off the amazing make-up? Or the spaceship at the beginning of the movie?

Besides the fact that it spoils the twist for everyone who hasn’t seen the movie, it also exposes and diminishes the impact to the climax to a story that explores the flaws of mankind and how technology and humanity’s libertarian ideologies are doomed to fail. The Apes with their feudal society have created order and stay within the strict confines of their territory. They have a strict caste system once seen by humanity earlier in its history. This by no means a perfect system, as this essay explores, but one thing it does do is provide us with a micro-society with which we can analyze the power structure of western human society. There are three species of ape that make up the societal structures within the planet of the apes; the gorillas, the orangutans, and the chimpanzees.

The gorillas, as the strongest and least intelligent primates of the film, represent the right-winged strong armed types who follow orders to enforce law and order. They ride horses, use guns to chase down and capture the feral non-speaking humans and are used as the ape’s soldiers and police. Gorillas riding horses provides some excellent imagery and is the first evidence in the film that we see the apes being dominant over humans. The domestication of animals was a huge turning point in the development of the human race, and by showing the audience that the apes have also done this, one of the things that has always separated man from beast, the film is asking what it means to be human: The domination and subsequent servitude of another species?

The gorillas, in short, represent the brutish and ugly side of humanity that advocates a ‘the strongest will survive’ mentality, which could be used to explain why one of the astronauts dies at the beginning of the film after being hit in the head; humanity is too brutal for its own good, and consequently destroys that which may be useful to it, e.g deforestation.  

The orangutans are representative of the Establishment or ruling classes. Doctor Zaius is portrayed as an elderly ape that is wise sage and cunning. At the end of the film, he reveals that he knows the truth of the history of the Earth and humanity, which he has kept secret from the rest of the apes. He represents those that pull the strings in our society and work to pull the wool over our eyes; think of the few billionaire owners of the mainstream media and the agenda that they push forward with the news they have their outlets focus on and the direction of spin. Towards the end of the film, it is revealed that the other astronaut who survived has been lobotomised by Doctor Zaius as his very existence threatened the delicate balance of law and order that ape society enjoyed. The last thing the orangutans wanted was for someone to challenge the perception that humans could talk the same way as apes could, as they could lose control of the gorillas. This sounds awfully familiar to the current order of the world, the press is dominated by neo-liberal propaganda and arguments for a preservation of the status-quo.

The chimpanzees, the primate most similar to humans, represent those willing to adapt to change. When Taylor (Charlton Heston) reveals he can talk unlike the other humans, it is the chimpanzees that keep him a secret and work as vets that attempt to understand and study humans. They represent the side of humanity that is good, inquisitive, questioning, innovative and ultimately shat on by the orangutans and the gorillas, a metaphor for our own society. There is a reason that some fiction dreams of places where the chimpanzees in human society can just get on without having to deal with the gorillas disrupting at the behest of the orangutans. Think of Rapture in Bioshock; in theory, a place where the brightest minds of humanity can withdraw to get on with making society better without being held back by the brutal nature of humanity with its constant wars and petty squabbles. When applied, Rapture breaks down into anarchy and chaos due to the ultimately flawed human condition, ultimately greed and power is Rapture’s undoing, just as the sequel Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970) explored how the planet of the apes meets its end.

In the pursuit of liberty, humanity is buried in the sand with the use of nuclear weapons, represented by the statue of liberty at the end of the film. This is why the DVD cover is frustrating; it is a great climax to a classic film that loses so much of its impact when one already knows that humanity ‘blew it all up.”

In conclusion, Planet of the Apes is a classic exploration into the question of what it means to be human and how the different types of personality within humanity mingle, mix and often jostle together.