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Social Commentary in Science Fiction: Planet of the Apes

Rise of the Planet of the Apes screencap


Last week saw the release of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a loose remake of the 1972 prequel Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. I saw it this past Wednesday and got to thinking about the heavy social commentary that has been a theme of the films (perhaps with the exception of the Mark Wahlberg 2001 effort).

The first film was released way back in 1968 and starred Charlton Heston as the protagonist, an astronaut sent on a deep space mission. When their ship crash lands on a seemingly desolate planet, the survivors (one of their number dies) take time to explore their surroundings. It doesn’t take long for them to realise that they are not alone; that there is an advanced civilisation of apes. What’s more, this planet has humans who are not particularly intelligent, cannot speak and are treated as vermin.

When Taylor is captured by the apes, his apparent intelligence intrigues Animal Psychologist Zira and her Archaeologist fiancé Cornelius. Cornelius had a long time ago found the city of a lost civilisation in the Forbidden Zone and had been laughed at by his academic community for suggesting that humans might have been responsible. At the end we get confirmation that this is Earth, that Cornelius was correct about everything.

I myself have a Master’s Degree in archaeology and as somebody who has spent a lot of time trying to argue with people who flat our reject evidence in favour of wishful thinking, this is very familiar. We are also talking basic human psychology here. When we have entrenched beliefs and those beliefs are challenged by contrary evidence, instead of accepting it and adjusting our beliefs we lash out. On a personal level we might express how offended we are, imply malevolence on the part of the person who challenges us or insist that we are being victimised. On an institutional level, we portray non-conformists as dangerous to our way of life. We use terms like “heretic”, “unbeliever”, “apostate”, “unpatriotic”, “Orwellian”. This is true no matter what the belief: those who claim that the bible is an accurate history book (it isn’t), that evolution is an atheist plot to destroy Christianity and that evidence for supernatural creation is being systematically suppressed, that climate science is a conspiracy to destroy capitalism (spread by those who have turned capitalism into a religion with its own unquestionable truths and heresies), alternative therapists, ancient astronaut theorists all ignore the evidence to cling to personal beliefs and anecdotes while ignoring the evidence.

But back to the film, Zaius takes Taylor to a cave where he shows him the evidence of human civilisation and explains that the truth must never be revealed. Afterward, he orders the cave sealed and sends Taylor on his way to discover the biggest secret of all and the most memorable scenes in science fiction history.

the big reveal

In its first sequel Back to the Planet of the Apes, probably the weakest in the series, we discover a group of humans surviving in the underground ruins of New York. They have created a religion devoted to the worship of a “holy” bomb. We soon discover that it is a nuclear weapon and these humans intend to use it against their simian oppressors. But this is the war to end all wars and far from returning humans to dominance, the planet is sterilised. The theme here is how humans are doomed to never learn from our mistakes.

The third is probably the most theme-heavy. In Escape From the Planet of the Apes, Cornelius, Zira and a companion escaped the destruction and, having taken the module that arrived in the second film, end up in the USA in 1973. They are immediately imprisoned, interrogated and through the course of the film experimented on. The debate over whether the apes ought to be treated as sentient beings with the same rights as humans is reminiscent of slavery-based films such as Amistad. Other themes include animal experimentation, civil rights, feminism (expressed through Zira’s treatment) the prejudice and suspicion of those with political motives considered unsavoury to the government of the day (back then McCarthyism but still relevant today).

This theme of civil rights is the major plot device in the next sequel Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. In a world where apes have become favoured pets, Caesar (Zira and Cornelius’ surviving son) is more intelligent than the docile beasts of burden and most importantly, he can speak. Ill treatment of apes and the death of his kindly owner leads Caesar to train and educate the other apes into rebellion. It is a film for our time still. Had it been made 10 years later, we might have drawn parallels with the miners strikes in Thatcher’s Britain, another ten years later we might associate it with race riots.

The final film Battle for the Planet of the Apes shows a post-apocalyptic world where Caesar must contend with infighting to prevent an escalation of hostilities between humans and apekind. He must also learn about what his parents knew about the future and prevent a civil war between chimpanzees and gorillas. Many want peace but on all three sides there are malevolent forces trying to start a conflict. I see this largely as a metaphor for those who worked tirelessly to prevent nuclear war struggling against the jingoism and militarism of the 1960s, the labelling of peace activists as “communist sympathisers” or generally “unpatriotic”.

This new film, expected to be the first of a new franchise, deals with a genetic treatment for Alzheimer’s that far surpasses the expectation. Caesar (the son of the test subject in this case) is super intelligent and self-aware. After witnessing human cruelty, he passes the treatment onto other apes and leads them in rebellion. Far less social commentary than I thought there might be after seeing the extended trailer, there are still issues to mull over. Largely, this modern version is about cruelty. Cruelty of humans toward animals, particularly those creatures to whom we are most closely related, and secondly to each other. Caesar’s loss of faith in the inherent goodness of humans comes as the result of witnessing a series of events (rather than a single incident). Ultimately he never seems to desire revenge or the bloody overthrow of the human oppressors, but to escape to the giant redwood forest on the other side of San Francisco Bay and live in peace. In the closing credits we see the spread of a disease that will lead to the actual Rise of the Planet of the Apes. I’m quite interested to see how this develops.


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