Return to the Planet of the Apes

A still from the movie 'Rise of  the Planet of the Apes'.

Robert Fleegler

With its depiction of the tensions and misunderstandings that lead to war, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes continues the series’ nearly five-decades-old commentary on contemporary events. In doing so, the film demonstrates how the Apes saga has evolved from the racial conflicts and Cold War anxieties of the late 1960s and early 1970s to the fears of the early twenty-first century.

The original Planet of the Apes debuted during the most turbulent year of the postwar period, 1968. In the movie, Charlton Heston plays cynical astronaut George Taylor, who arrives on an unknown planet two thousand years after he left Earth on a deep space mission. He discovers a bizarre world where apes rule over humans. The film is replete with allusions to major events of the 1960s and the period’s race relations in particular. After the ruling apes take Taylor prisoner, a gorilla uses a fire hose on him much the way Bull Connor and the Birmingham police used fire hoses against civil rights protesters in the spring of 1963. In another scene, a young chimp fumes about the evils of “money-mad grownups” and how he doesn’t want to take orders from the older generation. “Never trust anyone over thirty,” quips Taylor, a reference to a common phrase of the era of the generation gap.

In the end, Taylor finds out the horrible truth about the Planet of the Apes in one of the most famous endings in American cinema. Discovering the remains of the Statue of Liberty, Taylor realizes he is not on another planet but rather back on Earth. A nuclear war weakened humanity and allowed for the apes to evolve and take control. Such fears of nuclear destruction were rife during the Cold War and the climax reflected the dark mood of 1968, which witnessed the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy as well as the bloodiest year of the Vietnam War.

20th Century Fox released four sequels between 1970 and 1973, none of which were as strong as the original. Each featured scenes drawn from the political debates and social climate of the time. In Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970), apes break up a peace rally in a similar fashion to the way the Chicago police dispersed antiwar protesters at the 1968 Democratic Convention. In Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972), the lead ape sounds much like Malcolm X, speaking of the need for apes to start a “revolution” in which they will take “power” in a rebellion against humanity. As the film scholar Eric Greene observed, the apes’ uprising in the film looks strikingly similar to the urban riots of the late 1960s in Watts, Detroit, and Newark.

By the final film of the original run, Battle of the Planet of the Apes (1973), the series had grown tired and run its course. Director Tim Burton attempted the first reboot of the series in 2001 with a new Planet of the Apes, but while the film performed well at the box office it did not resonate with fans and no sequel followed. Rise of the Planet of the Apes unexpectedly revived the franchise in 2011 using modern CGI technology to depict the apes, rather than using the masks and makeup of yore. In this incarnation of the series, the apes’ intelligence is traced to an experimental treatment for Alzheimer’s disease tested on primates by a young scientist, Will Rodman. Played by James Franco, Rodman also raises a young ape, Caesar, as his son. Eventually a core group of intelligent apes emerges, but so does a virus that begins to destroy humanity at the end of the movie.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes picks up ten years later with Caesar leading a cohort of apes living close to a group of human survivors in northern California. While influenced by the original films, Dawn reveals key differences between the anxieties of the two time periods. In the old series, fears of nuclear war and radiation pervade the movies. The danger of nuclear annihilation has receded since the fall of the Soviet Union a generation ago, replaced by post-9/11 concerns such as pandemics. TNT’s summer television series The Last Ship featured a similar plot line and both eerily foreshadowed this fall’s Ebola outbreak.

While the original films commented on racial issues during the civil rights era of the 1960s and early 70s, I did not view Dawn as an allegory about black and white. Throughout the film, moderate humans and moderate apes struggle to avoid a conflict yet are repeatedly undermined by mistrust fueled by extremists on both sides. With yet another battle between Israel and Hamas ongoing at the time of the film’s release, I saw it as reminiscent of that longstanding battle. As a result, the humans and apes seem much more like an allegory for Israelis and Palestinians than for whites and blacks.

At the end of the film, it appears that full-scale war between apes and humanity is inevitable. Given the strong box office showing of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, we will almost certainly have the chance to see the final outcome in the next installment.

Robert Fleegler is an instructional assistant professor at the University of Mississippi.  He is the author of  Ellis Island Nation: Immigration Policy and American Identity in the 20th Century (2013).