Film * Franklin J. Schaffner * You Maniacs! You Blew It Up! * 1968
This is one of those films, then, that I thought I knew about but totally didn’t. It turns out, like a good many things that seep into the cultural over-consciousness, that there is depth and quality to the kind of fiction that sticks with us through the years. I had never seen this movie, which is eleven years older than I am, but I could quote it. I knew the broad strokes of the plot. That there’s this space expedition to a distant planet where there are indeed humans, however they are but fodder for the horrible ape overlords. All of this should be familiar. Like me, you probably know kinda how it ends, that particular plot twist is nearly as well known as that of Luke Skywalker’s heritage. I knew about a large plot point – that Tyler is the only human these apes have ever heard speak – but the fact that I was kind of waiting for Tyler to break into song belies how I knew about that (cut to Troy McClure: “I can siiiiing!”) Essentially, I knew all about what I was watching before I started watching it.
What I didn’t know about, what I didn’t expect, was the depth the film has. I’ll get to particulars after the break, but there is a distinct subversive undercurrent that is woven throughout the film. Part of the surprise has to do, of course, with the expectations that come along with the hyper-conservatism of late-stage Charlton Heston. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it wasn’t for an enormous-toothed Heston being a nihilistic peacenik running around talking about equal rights and scientific method. Yet there he is, travelling into space with a lady and a black dude (who, while he dies early and horribly, gets a brief character reveal where it is made known that he would do anything to learn something that wasn’t known… pretty good for 1968) like it ain’t no thing. The rest of the movie spreads out from there, and is basically a study in willful ignorance.
Let me tell you a thing: there are few things more frustrating than willful ignorance. By the end of this movie you’re on the edge of yelling at the TV, and it would be difficult to defend to your roommates/neighbors/district attorney (depending on how loud you yell) why you’re screaming “WOULD YOU STUPID MONKIES OPEN YOUR DAMN EYES! I HATE YOU!” Once you do that suddenly you’re crazy and possibly racist. However, if you manage to keep your cool, even if it is only through the help of the filmmakers themselves by tossing out silly imagery at moments of high tension, it’s possible to see how well we as viewers have been manipulated. Even if one manages to watch this thing without knowing beforehand the film takes place on a distant, future Earth, they aren’t subtle about foreshadowing it. That’s barely the point (or rather, is one of the concurrent points). We’re presented with a surrogate of our own society (Heston) who is thrust into an alien society (where everyone totally speaks English, don’t worry about it) where suddenly man is animal and animal is man. Okay. However our surrogate is a subversive one. Tyler doesn’t necessarily represent the views of most of his fellow humans, and this strife is displayed with his fellow travelers before they’re hunted for sport. Now, we all know that one guy can’t speak for an entire species, but what’s fun is that Tyler is given a rebellious disposition that would clash with conservatives of his own time and then is pushed into direct conflict with essentially the same kind of people. Apes. Whatever. These conservative personalities like things how they are, and fear change. Not only do they fear change, they actively seek out agents of progressive thought and stamp them out. This is behavior that is obviously seen in all ages of human history, which of course makes it all the more goddamn frustrating. And of course, Tyler loses his shit. Not only because willful ignorance is annoying on its face, but because of the stakes involved (specifically, Tyler’s mind and *ahem* gentlemen’s area), is outright horrifying. You know, “It’s a madhouse! A maaaadhouse!” and all that. There is a payoff, however, and it’s a bit twistier than I previously imagined.
Planet of the Apes ends on an iconic shot. Charlton Heston on his knees in the shadow of a ruined Statue of Liberty, forlorn on an empty, shattered coastline, bemoaning the self-inflicted fate of his species. Finally, Tyler figures out what the audience either already knew or heavily suspected, and it seems to break him. While the journey that brought him forward in time was supposed to take him someplace where he could “find something better than man,” he ended up spending most of his time defending his species in the face of what he considers an inferior society. On the surface, he’s right. We’ve got a democracy (kind of), and freedom of speech (sort of), and scientific method that some people pay attention to. It’s pretty okay for quite a few people! Look at these stupid apes and compare their brutish, ignorant society to ours. Obviously we’re great. Then, of course, Tyler learns the harsh truth and has to reconcile all the other stuff humanity brings to the table. War, death, destruction, genocide, all the –isms. Finally nuclear annihilation, which of course wiped the slate pretty much clean and made room for these here damn dirty apes. Pointing out the duality of humanity isn’t exactly a new idea, of course, but what I do enjoy is that the film highlights a particular trait of ours that is more destructive than the rest. Willful ignorance, right? Our inability to look at ourselves and our policies and the way we treat each other, to look at the overwhelming evidence of the entirety of human existence, and to utterly and completely ignore all of it because it doesn’t jive with what we want right now. Confirmation bias writ large across the history of the species. The best part is that no character in the film gets it at all. Tyler might, but he can’t handle the implications and has a freak out (as well he should, it’s not like he can go back in time. He’s stuck with his cute idiot companion in what amounts to a hostile alien world). Dr. Zaius still thinks he’s doing the right thing, completely missing the point, blissfully unaware that he is directly responsible for a similar simian future. Everyone else is like fucking whatever, let’s get back to our human hunts. Insofar as apocalyptic fiction is concerned, Planet of the Apes is pretty dire. Turns out that even those that learn from history totally ignore it and we’re doomed anyway. Or in other words: “Yes you’ve finally made a monkey out of me… I love you Dr. Zaius.”