“Get your stinking paws off me, you damn, dirtyhuman!
In 1968, the original Planet of the Apes (POTA) first appeared in American movie theatres. On the surface, it was a sci-fi tale about a post-apocalyptic Earth where apes have evolved and gained control over a world destroyed by humans. But scratch deeper, and the film is heavily charged with political allegories about the anxieties and social struggles of the time.[i] Based on a 1963 novel by Pierre Boulle entitled Monkey Planet, and co-adapted for the screen by Rod Serling, the creator of The Twilight Zone, POTA was a smash hit with American audiences. In today’s scale, it grossed over $100 million, and generated 4 sequels, a TV series, a Saturday morning cartoon, comic books, vast merchandising, and even a traveling theatre act.
Despite poor production values, faulty plot lines, clumsy dialogue, one-dimensional characters, and thematic heavy-handedness, the film series remains important for establishing the genre of sci-fi sequels and exploring serious issues such as race, violence, prejudice, religion, and the pathologies of power. POTA is premised on a reversal of master-slave relations, such that human beings are oppressed by a superior species of apes. Thus, it is humans, not apes, who are slaves regarded as dirty, smelly, and ignorant, whose intelligence is limited to mimicking behaviors, and who consequently are confined, hunted, and exploited for entertainment value and scientific research.
In the first film, the provocative story line was matched by a stunning ending in which misanthrope astronaut Charlton Heston discovers the ruins of the Statue of Liberty, thereby realizing that the bleak planet he landed on is his own (future) Earth after humans have destroyed themselves through nuclear warfare. Subsequent films go back in time to the early 1990s when, after a virus has wiped out all cats and dogs, apes become domesticated servants and pets. But the apes begin to rebel, and humans fight back (unsuccessfully) for control of the top primate position. Having begun on the dark note of nuclear apocalypse, the series ends on a utopian motif of apes and humans working harmoniously to rebuild a civilization.
The battle between apes and humans provides a rich allegory for the civil rights struggles and Vietnam War that dominated the social agenda of the time, as the nuclear holocaust theme legitimates the worst paranoia of the Cold War period. The spectacle of hairy apes dominating white humans brings to light the codes of conquest whereby whites have subdued people of color since the dawn of colonialism five centuries ago.
Putting white humans in the role of conquered rather than conqueror, object rather than subject, vividly estranges one’s sense of normal and directs our focus to the utter wrongness of violating the integrity and rights of persons, regardless of their race or place. It is to hold up a mirror to the oppressor and proclaim, “This is what you are like. Here is how you treat us. Know what it is to be dehumanized, enslaved, and reduced to the status of a thing.” The empire of the apes symbolizes not only the rebellion of every oppressed group against the Western white oppressor, but also the revenge of nature against the species that reduces it to resources for its economic, scientific, and entertainment institutions. In large part, the POTA films identify with the revolutionary struggles of oppressed communities of any kind as they challenge the rule of oppressors.
Of course, POTA concerns not only how some human beings dominate others, but also how the entire human species colonizes other animal species, including their closest biological relatives, the great apes (chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans, and bonobos). Thus, for the zeitgeist that produced POTA, it is perhaps no coincidence that amidst the heated conflicts of 1968, Jane Goodall published her first major scientific paper about the making and using of tools in chimpanzee societies. Moreover, in 1969, Allen and Beatrix Gardner documented their successful efforts to teach American Sign Language to Washoe, a baby chimpanzee. With these and other major breakthroughs in the field of ethology, the study of animal emotions and intelligence, human culture was making a paradigm shift in its understanding of animal minds. The illumination gleaned from the reversal tactic of the series applies no less to human domination of animals than to the domination of one human group over another.
Deeply embedded in the political unconscious of POTA is the guilt of the human species for its genocidal and ecocidal institutions and mindsets. Throughout the series of POTA films, there are profound moments of human self-loathing, as evinced in the misanthropy of Heston’s character who complains about the violent nature of human beings and joins the space exploration team in the hopes of finding a better species, as well as statements like “The only good human is a dead human.” The reversal of power in the POTA genre suggests that in many ways humans lack intelligence, that they are psychologically unfit to hold the technological knowledge they monopolize, and that they are an evolutionary dead-end.
Some of the anti-discrimination allegories remain in Tim Burton’s summer 2001 “reimagining” of the original film, although in muted form as he focuses on style over substance and action over ideology. The reversal strategy is most powerful when the apes capture a child and put it in the cage of a young female ape who keeps the human as a pet. For the snarling, human-hating General Thade, “Extremism in the defense of apes is no vice.” But the critical foil to (ape) speciesism, and the liberal voice of the movie, is the female ape, Ari, a human rights activist who is greeted with as much contempt on her planet as animal rights activists are on Earth. Whereas the astronaut played by Charlton Heston crashes on his own Earth, Mark Wahlberg’s character lands on a foreign planet, but eventually returns to Earth for the surprise ending of the movie (and setting up yet another round of sequels). The time travel theme sustained throughout the series raises interesting issues about evolution and sustainability, prompting reflection on whether “progress” is in fact regress through the building of increasingly gluttonous economies and sophisticated weapons of destruction.
Sierra club founder John Muir once said, “In a war between humans and bears, I’d take the side of the bears.” Burton’s film, and the entire POTA series, offers a superb test of one’s species identity: Whom do you root for when the humans are battling the apes? The night I saw the film, the audience was loudly championing the humans against the apes, a fact that makes one wonder if the messages abouy the evils of slavery, racism, intolerance, and violence is buried in an action spectacle that ultimately codes the humans as the underdog for whom we should root.
Humans as underdog? The Great Ape Project group has complained that POTA ludicrously presents the apes in positions of power over humans, and masks the obvious fact that it is humans who are the real oppressors. Far from poised on the verge of taking over, apes are at the precipice of extinction. While the Great Ape Project totally misses the stinging critique of human violence and imperialism throughout the POTA series, it is true that Burton’s film does nothing to increase our understanding of the great apes and their plight and it likely aggravates human alienation from their kin.
We share almost 99 percent of our DNA with chimpanzees, who are closer to us biologically than they are to orangutans. We emerged from a single ancestor some 5-8 million years ago, and we are both of the scientific order of primates, which are formed of 12 families and comprises over 200 species. Great apes are at least as intelligent as a 2-3 year old human, and they live in complex cultures governed by rules rather than mere instincts. With the aid of sign language, their rich minds, needs, emotions, and personalities are open for us to behold, most famously in the case of Koko the gorilla, as well as other chimps apes, and bonobos, such as Washoe, Koko, and Kanzi.[ii]
Yet we live in a time when human beings are annihilating their next of kin, destroying their habitat for timber and other resources, waging wars in their territories, capturing them for medical research and entertainment industries, and killing some 6,000 chimpanzees a year for bush meat which has become a highly prized status symbol in many African cities. According to primatologist Roger Fouts, there were 2 million chimpanzees living in Africa at the turn of the 20th century, and likely an equal number of gorillas in Africa and orangutans in Asia. Now, however, there are only 80,000 to 120,000 chimpanzees left in Africa, and they could easily be wiped out within a couple of decades.
After successive intellectual revolutions and paradigm shifts over the last few centuries, Homo sapiens has been knocked off its pedestal repeatedly, and now flails about in the winds of uncertainty and the tempests of irrevocable change, whipped up all the more powerfully by scientific breakthroughs and technological revolutions.
We cannot overlook an amazing paradox. It is an odd but revealing phenomenon that a species which so arrogantly prides itself in its alleged unique skills in reason and communication has not yet attained an accurate understanding of itself. This advanced “intelligence” of humans, moreover, is in the advanced stages of exterminating our closest biological relatives, along with millions of other animal and plant species, thereby ensuring that Homo sapiens will die as it was born ― in ignorance of its own nature and the other animal species vital for an accurate self-understanding.
Ultimately, the message of POTA’s concerns the evils of prejudice and discrimination of any kind. POTA’s powerful turning of the tables shows humans what it is like to be lowered to the status of a thing, to be enslaved by a species that considers itself superior, and who uses religion and mythology to justify this hierarchy. In this parable of power, victims become victimizers, as age-old patterns of hierarchy reassemble in new forms. POTA brings mixed messages about primates, but the nature of the crisis and the task ahead is clear: we must move immediately to preserve and expand the habitat of the great apes, and rethink the meaning of personhood in light of the recent unveiling of the great apes’ remarkable minds, as well as the countless other species we now know to be be sentient, to have interests, and to be subject’s a life.
[i] As an example of the self-consciousness of the time, scriptwriter Paul Dehn claims that the fiery ape uprising in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972) was modeled on newsreel footage of the 1965 Watts riots in L.A.