Planet of the Apes: Intelligent Sci-Fi Past and Present

Remember that science fiction film franchise from a few decades ago that captured the imagination of young and old alike, and which opened the door for merchandising that is now the industry standard? While it is tempting to think of the adventures of those “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” as the beginnings of what is now commonplace in Hollywood, before the Harry Potter series, The Matrix series, and even the Star Wars franchise, the success of the The Planet of the Apes in 1968 motivated Twentieth Century Fox to launch a sequel, and later what would become a series of films as part of a franchise that included a wealth of merchandise, a cartoon series, and a live action series on television. The Planet of the Apes created the template for later fantasy, science fiction, and horror films to follow.

I was a huge fan of  The Planet of the Apes growing up in the 1970s, and my appreciation for the apes saga continues to this day. It represented an intelligent and thought provoking form of science fiction that involves rewards for adults not discerned in childhood. I recently celebrated my eighteenth wedding anniversary with my beautiful wife and for the first time in many years this involved a gift exchange. I had my wish list of fantastic items at the ready, and among the gifts given to me by my wife was Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. This is my second favorite film in the series, right behind the original, which I enjoy because it explicitly addresses the issue of racism in ways only touched on more superficially in the other films. This is explored very admirably by Eric Greene in Planet of the Apes as American Myth: Race, Politics, and Popular Culture (Wesleyan University Press, 1998), a book highly recommended for those who want to probe this mythos in more depth.

The film’s exploration of racism reaches its crescendo at its climax. Fans of Conquest are aware that the film includes two very different endings. The one released in theaters, and usually replayed on television, includes a fiery oratory by the leader of the ape revolt against humanity, Caesar, who proclaims his plan for the overthrow of human oppressors through violent revolution that he intends to spread throughout the globe. In response his ape army raise their weapons to bludgeon the abusive Governor Brech of the humans who had long oppressed them. Yet at the merciful urging of a fellow chimpanzee, Caesar tells his fellow apes to put away their weapons. The original ending of the film involves the ape army killing Brech as the natural climax to Caesar’s speech and retribution for oppression. It was feared that this ending was too violent, a fear that already threatened the interpretation of the rest of the film, arguably the most violent of all the Apes series. It is difficult to find the film with the original ending, although the Fox Movie Channel has (surprisingly) been playing this version recently. Although perhaps too violent for the 1970s when considered against the backdrop of its metaphorical exploration of racism, the original ending makes far more sense given the narrative flow as a more natural climax to Caesar’s speech (representing Roddy McDowall’s finest acting in the series). It also seems to lend itself more naturally to the final film in the franchise, Battle for the Planet of the Apes, where the apes have all but conquered humanity with the exception of a smal band of humans.

For those looking for entertaining, imaginative, and thought provoking science fiction that explores significant social issues, The Planet of the Apes series of films reward time and again. In addition to Greene’s analysis, Joe Russo and Larry Landsman with Edward Gross penned Planet of the Apes Revisited: The Behind-the-Scences Story of the Classic Science Fiction Saga (Thomas Dunne Books, 2001), which provides a good history and overview of the films.

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