The Planet of the Apes movie franchise has evolved a long way from its humble 1968 beginning in the Charlton Heston film. At least that is the case if we are talking about the special effects. In terms of substance the two movies are identical in their all-too modern, sterile Science-ruled paradigm (in which religion is at best a primitive delusion that needs to be cured by scientific enlightenment) and in their closing message of existential angst in a world that has cruelly crushed all Man’s hopes and dreams.
Tim Burton’s remake of the film starts out with a scenario to make everyone who has ever looked wistfully at the stars and lamented our present technological inability to get there swell with hope: in 2029, just 27 years from now, man has progressed far enough to have a permanently manned space station (the Oberon), complete with artificial gravity, orbiting Saturn. A rosy beginning, indeed, considering how the film proceeds and ends.
We meet our hero, astronaut Leo Davidson, in the midst of working with Pericles, one of many genetically enhanced apes (technically a chimpanzee, but since the film lumps chimps, gorillas, and orangutans into the category “ape”, so will I), whom the Oberon crew uses to pilot small exploratory pods around the local space. While exploring one of those mysterious and ever-so convenient “electromagnetic storms” that are so ubiquitous to formula sci-fi stories, Pericles’ pod vanishes from the crew’s sensors.
Concerned for his friend Pericles, and perhaps a bit too eager to push back the final frontier, rebellious Leo takes a pod himself and flies into the storm. The result is fairly predictable: the storm has warped both space and time, and Leo finds himself flung an unspecified number of years into the future and onto a planet that is, by reason of its two moons, obviously not Earth.
In no time at all, he falls in with a rag-tag group of barbaric-looking Humans on the run from Ape soldiers. Imagine Leo’s surprise when it is the Apes, and not the Humans, who do the talking. Imagine our sense of awe when the biggest, ugliest, meanest Ape of the bunch, General Attar, barks a precise reversal of Heston’s line in the original film, “Get your hands off me, you damned dirty Human!” From this point on, the opening sequence of Humans making full and uncaring use of what they consider to be mere brutes is reversed in every possible way.
And oh, the reverse stereotypes are clever. One early scene has Leo and the newest batch of Human slaves being herded through an Ape marketplace that features an Ape organ grinder with his performing Human. Later, a dinner conversation between several prominent Ape senators, the evil General Thade, and the “Human Rights” activist Ari features a discussion of various failed ways of dealing with “the Human problem”, including mention of an enormous welfare state that arose when the Ape government attempted to provide for the barbaric Human population within its borders. And in the same scene, General Thade dramatically reaches into Leo Davidson’s mouth and rhetorically asks, “Is there a soul in there?” Still later, Davidson indicates that the apes on his world are kept in cages and used for experiments. Ari asks him why they do not speak up in their own defense. Davidson replies, “Our apes can’t talk”, and Ari opines, “Perhaps they choose not to because of the way you treat them”.
As well as the heavy-handed moralizing, there is the explicit denigration of religion-in-general. In what is perhaps a thinly-veiled assault on Christianity, the Ape society is roughly equivalent technologically and socially to the Christian Middle Ages. The advanced science that Davidson employs in several places throughout the movie is largely considered to be a form of magic by the largely superstitious and ignorant Apes. Indeed, a portion of the Ape society is so credulous that an entire religious mythology has been built up out of the dimly-remembered past with its shadowy, now forgotten technologies. The Truth that it was once non-talking, primitive Apes serving god-like Humans has been replaced by a sort of Liberation Myth wherein a particular Ape, Semos, is thought to have been the Almighty Creator of all the other Apes and their society. Semos’ word is a kind of divine revelation for the Apes, many of whom look for his physical return one day.
The climax of the movie leaves as much to be desired as its body. In typically boring, Modern fashion, ultimate questions about life and society and morality are cogently raised…and then completly ignored with appeals to existentialist angst about the future. Davidson himself, after sparking a complete revolution in Human-Ape relations (in the process turning everyone’s fabric of most fundamental beliefs inside out) returns to his own day and time, only to be confronted by a paradox that is perhaps more bewildering to him (and to us) than that which faced Charlton Heston at the ending of the original Apes film in 1968.
The message, then, is plainly that Humans (and all living things) are adrift in a purposeless, randomly evolving reality, unable to make any sense of anything at all save by the arcane tools of the Religion of Science–and even these cannot explain everything, but in the end, only raise deeper questions that are most likely completely unsolveable by anyone at any time. In classic existentialist fashion, finite beings are asked to ground themselves and their own existence, and then, the moment they try, are cruelly told that they cannot do so, so they better just learn to live with the absurdity and inexplicability of life, to just take each day as it comes and as best as they can to make their own finite, ultimately meaningless “meaning” out of it.
For the self-conscious Christian, then, Burton’s remake of Planet of the Apes is, like many other Modern science-fiction works, little more than a two hour exercise in understanding and critiquing what is so drastically, desperately wrong with Unbelief.
[Originally written in 2001]