Sunday, June 13, 2010

Planet of the Apes (1968)

In an effort to both explore more science fiction and keep the eye from becoming nothing but Star Trek and soft core erotica, I present Planet of the Apes Week. All this week, I am going to post about the movie series, its themes, its spin offs, and its impact on culture. I have to confess that, while I have seen every filmed adaptation and spin off, including the short lived animated series, I have never read Pierre Boulle’s original novel, Monkey Planet. I should probably track it down at some point, assuming there is an English edition readily available. But I have not done so as of yet, so there will not be any commentary on the novel. I have never read his other famous novel, The Bridge on the River Kwai, but I have enjoyed the classic movie’s treatment of the nihilistic horror of war. I will give him props as a fantastic writer.

If I cannot start with the novel, I must start with the original movie. I am aware the film varies widely from the novel. The apes have a modern society in the novel. They drive cars, fly planes, etc. the protagonist, Col. George Taylor, is interested in helping his fellow man enslaved by the apes in the novel, but is a cynical, self-absorbed man only interested in saving himself and Nova in the film. As I said above, I cannot comment with any authority which is better. I can only go with what I know.

The movie was written largely by Rod Serling of The Twilight Zone fame. His hand in the script is evident considering the famous O. Henry twist ending. As is usually the case with Serling’s scripts, it is a stew of social commentary on the issues of nuclear war, science v. religion, human rights, animal rights, and probably a half dozen other topics film critics have “discovered” in it over the years. Deconstructive criticism can be employed to the point at which it defies all logic, so I am careful how far I go in ripping scripts apart. The following is what I got out of the film. Your mileage may vary.

The two main characters which make the film for me are Taylor and Cornelius. I certainly do not wish to take away from the characters of Zira and Dr. Zaius. Both are important, but in supporting ways. They are there for Taylor and Cornelius to play off.

I identify most with Taylor. He is a cynic tired of the social trappings of man. He is a loner who considers himself to not be a part of any group. That is the primary reason he chooses to go on the deep space mission from which he will never return. Not only is the trip as far away from humanity as he can possibly get, there is a certain amount off peace in his voice as he records his suspended animation has lasted seven hundred years, so everyone he ever loathed back home is long since dead. Taylor never changes his attitude. When he first meets the mute human population, his first instinct is to gloat over how easy they will be to rule. Even onnce he is captured and treated like an animal, he feels no sympathy for his fellow humans. His only interest is in Nova. One gathers his interest in her is little more than carnal. Of course, the final scene displays his disdain for humanity in all its ugly glory.

To a much lesser degree, I identify with Cornelius. Some have claimed he is a persecuted skeptic. But it is never really made clear whether he whether he follows the sacred scrolls because he believes in the religion or if he does so out of a desire to keep his job as an academic. He is obviously a truth seeker in the sciences, but it is only a stereotype that those holding religious views are blocking scientific progress.

It is easier to view Cornelius as a faithful scientist when compared with the conniving Dr. Zaius. Zaius is put in the awkward position of serving as head of scientific research and being the chief defender of the faith. The latter will always wind up being more important. Recall the lengths Zaius was willing to go to: lobotomizing Taylor’s fellow astronauts, attempting to geld Taylor, and destroying Cornelius’ findings that man once ruled the Earth while apes were the animals. I have seen that sort of attitude from religious leaders in regards to issues both scientific and social. I have been in Cornelius’ shoes when trying to wade through which course to take.My roommate and I had a big debate over the issue of science v. religion after catching POTA one night in 1999. We were both what you could best classify as existentialist Christians, meaning we both adhered to the tenets of conservative Protestantism (But I am a Calvinist; he was not) yet see no reason to attribute supernatural explanations when a rational one will do. The debate was not much at that point Dr. Zaius, as Minister of Science and Chief Defender of the Faith should have emphasized his duties for the former, not the latter instead of the opposite.

After having attended a Christianity university, I did get a different vibe from haring scene this time around. It probably helped bring tht about that I studied law and participated in debates in which many debaters were in Dr. Zaius’ position. Namely that logic says one thing, but your religion says something else. Which do you choose? With a sinful nature excused by grace, it is not quite the dire matter many Christians make it out to be. I thik most notably there was a question of the role of religious belief in public policy. Where is the line between theocracy (which is bad) and pursuing an agenda fittin your religiously influenced morality (which is acceptable.) I used to think that line was clear, but after hearing people in the 21st century state that abortion should be a captial offense, women ought not to be in law school, and slavery is fine because the Bible never condemns it, one starts to question the value of letting fundamentalist adherents of religion anywhere near a ballot box, much less public office. For one inclined to cynical skepticism anyway, it becomes easy to say there should not be any debate over science versus religion. Keep the latter private and let the chips fall where they may.

The debate has gone on since the beginning of time and always will, going in cycles of one side dominating or the other. I certainly do not expect some obscure blog post to add anything valuable to the discussion. But it is interesting to think about such things, particularly when I have been on both sides at one time or another. I have seen rationalism dominate at the University of South Carolina and fundamentalist dogma dominate at Regent University. I dare say most students at either would never expose themselves to the other and even though I have expressed an obvious contempt (Strong word. Bemusement, maybe?) for the latter, I think there has been some value in being exposed to it. As soon as I figure out what it is, I will let you know.

The subsequent films in the series were not quite so complex in their social commentary. Each generally dwelt only on one big theme that was introduced in POTA, so i am going to save further analysis for the appropriate film. Tomorrow, I will talk about my favorite of the series, Beneath the Planet of the Apes with its cynical view of religion and the value of humanity.

Rating: ***** (out of 5)

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