Do the New ‘Planet of the Apes’ Movies Take Themselves Too Seriously?
An odd and embarrassing thing happened to me while watching 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the film that immediately preceded War for the Planet of the Apes, which is currently playing in theaters.
During the film’s opening scenes, a hyper-intelligent chimpanzee, threatened by a normally-intelligent bear, dramatically leaps through the air with a spear, and lands on the bear’s back, effectively wounding it. Despite the scene’s darkened photography and intense music, I couldn’t help but break into a chuckle. The scene continued to reveal chimps on horseback, speaking English to one another. This also made me giggle. By the time the talking chimps returned to their talking chimp village, I was outright tittering. The critic sitting next to me, utterly annoyed by my giggles, had to sharply shush me.
I looked around, and saw that no one else was laughing. All those around me were trying to lower themselves deeply into the drama of the talking chimpanzees. And, eventually, I found that was easy to do. Matt Reeves’ adept direction, paired with some of the best special effects I have ever seen in a feature film, eventually won me over as well. Although I did eventually burst into hearty belly laughs when a chimpanzee leaped onto the back of a horse and began firing two machine guns into the air, howling like a banshee. And of course I got a few nasty looks again.
Although perhaps a few years late, I hereby apologize to those sitting near me during that screening. My tittering was perhaps rude, and I didn’t mean to interrupt your experience. But I have an excuse: talking chimps spearing bears, riding horses, and firing guns are, we must all admit, inherently absurd images. These images, with and without their context, stand as a dark satirical mirror of human behavior, and are meant to be, under normal circumstances, laughed at. What if our closest evolutionary brethren talked and behaved just like us? This is satire on the level of Anatole France.
This experience has illuminated something about the three recent Planet of the Apes movies that puts them in sharp contrast with the original Apes continuity (1968–1973). These new films are not satire, while the originals were.
The original Planet of the Apes is dark and intense, yes, and deals with the extinction of mankind as we know it, but director Franklin J. Schaffner and screenwriters Michael Wilson and Rod Serling were wise enough to strike a near-surrealist tone. The sight of apes on horseback in the 1968 was the stuff of nightmares. It was dizzying and off-putting. Our brains weren’t equipped for that sight. The film’s hero, Taylor, found himself lost in a bizarre mirror world wherein he was the only human who could talk, and the world was run by talking apes. And, in true Serling fashion, the audience began to ask philosophical questions from within this scenario. How different are we from beasts, and what happens when the beasts become men? It lets us more closely examine the origin of our species, our morality, and every single one of our institutions.
But, in addition to the headier philosophy, Planet of the Apes was greatly leavened with a good deal of humor. Apes would occasionally mutter silly lines like “Human see, human do.” In one notable scene, three orangutans, wanting to block out Taylor’s ranting, respectively covered their ears, eyes, and mouth, mirroring the three wise monkeys of the famed Japanese maxim.
And while the original Apes sequels did get increasingly somber (Conquest for the Planet of the Apes especially), that air of satire never left the series. In the second film, a race of subterranean mutants worship a bomb, satirizing nuclear proliferation. The third, wherein apes found themselves on modern-day Earth, was a sharp satire of celebrity culture. The fourth was a satire of slavery. And the fifth was about the origin of law.
The new films, starting with 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, might have had thematic undertones of oppression, and some have suggested that an intelligent ape hiding among humans may serve as a metaphor for anything from sexuality to gender to immigration (and some even wilder theories), but something vital is missing from the new Apes films that causes them to pale when sat against the originals. They are far too mechanical. Too technical. They are focused on plot. They are concerned with the “how” of this universe. How did the apes become intelligent? How did they come to overwhelm humans? How does the universe work?
Strictly speaking, one doesn’t need to know how the apes came to dominate the planet in the 1968 film. Enough time has passed that humans died out and apes evolved in their place, period. The details don’t matter. We have the images, the nightmare, to contend with first and foremost. The striking, absurd weirdness of the world is what’s important. Not the explanation.
Indeed, all the attempts to explain how the apes came to rise to power kind of undercuts the satire of the original. Asking how the apes arose is distracting you from the fact that apes have already risen. Your world is already lost. The real question of the 1968 film was what you do with that loss. And, given that film’s ending, how horrible it can be when you dare to hope.
War for the Planet of the Apes is a film that, still, takes place long before the events of the original Planet of the Apes. Which means we’re still a long, long way away from the realm of satire. This new series is preoccupied with mechanics to the point of spending three films on it. This is not to say that it’s not likely to be good, or that Rise and Dawn were bad films by any stretch; they are all impressively mounted dramas that manage to turn human actors into convincing CGI apes, and hence allow an audience to empathize with talking chimps.
But in not allowing ourselves to snicker, to acknowledge to absurdity, and to recognize the inherent satire of the scenario, the new Apes films can no longer be read on a certain level. It’s okay to giggle. It might help us understand more deeply.
Top Image: 20th Century Fox
Witney Seibold is a longtime contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and the co-host of The B-Movies Podcast and the TV podcast Canceled Too Soon. He also contributes to Legion of Leia, Nerdist, and Blumhouse. You can follow him on “The Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.