Evolution has turned upside down. What draws us to PLANET OF THE APES?

Jakub Piwoński

20 May 2024

planet of the apes

This is probably one of the most famous scenes in the history of cinematic science fiction. And at the same time, one of the most surprising. Charlton Heston, exhausted from his struggles with humanoid apes, finally reaches the forbidden zone only to fall to his knees before what he discovers. He sees the ruins of the Statue of Liberty, a former symbol of human civilization, which after a catastrophe now stands only as a symbol of its fall. This sight brings the protagonist back to earth – both literally and figuratively.

Supposedly, there were several ideas for the ending of the story about an astronaut who landed on an unknown land dominated by intelligent apes. Heston could have died; the ending from the book was also considered (years later, Tim Burton leaned towards it), but ultimately, the dramatic and shocking resolution prevailed, which the main actor himself advocated for. It was a perfect hit.

It might seem that such a decisive conclusion, placed at the end of this cinematic sentence, did not particularly create prospects for a continuation of the story. Especially since the film’s script was based on a standalone book by Pierre Boulle. However, Hollywood saw it differently. The producers recognized in the extraordinary success (both artistic and commercial) of Franklin J. Schaffner’s film the potential for a continuation. They hired screenwriters and makeup specialists to once again give the opportunity to stage this peculiar, poignant ape spectacle.

As a result, a series of films (theatrical and television), series, and in subsequent decades, Planet of the Apes also appeared in books and comics. Pop culture loved apes, although it had already loved them thanks to King Kong. The year 1968, however, was the beginning of a great story. The story of one of the longest-running science fiction film series, which still, after years, can successfully surprise viewers with something new.

A proof of this is the latest film in the series, titled Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes. Let’s add – a surprisingly good film in the series. After the neat closure of Rupert Wyatt and Matt Reeves’ trilogy, which on one hand rebooted the brand, but on the other hand, credibly explored its foundations, delivering one of the most interesting prequel series known to the sci-fi genre, the new director, Wes Ball, had to propose something new and old at the same time. Operating in these areas is emblematic of Planet of the Apes. Kingdom indeed went in this direction, as it is, apart from the 2001 remake, one of the films most narratively connected with the memorable original from 1968, which at the same time managed to build its own identity.

Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes is much more a fairy tale than science fiction. This is felt in the convention – at least I felt like I was watching a new version of The Lion King in the cinema, but I don’t consider that a criticism. The focus was on introducing a new protagonist to the story, guiding him through a rough path, at the end of which ambiguous conclusions awaited him. As the main antagonist, Proximus, pointed out, it is about evolution and the desire to gain as many benefits as possible for one’s species.

Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes is for me a bridge film, sending us back to the beginnings of this story from 1968. Charlton Heston put a period, and it might have seemed that the moment his character discovered that he had not moved to another planet, but had really only traveled in time, staying on the same planet where he was born, this film ceased to be Planet of the Apes and started being simply a post-apocalyptic Earth. Placing this twist in subsequent titles was therefore very symbolic and even more metaphorical, as it referred to the idea underlying this story, to a greater or lesser extent present in every subsequent film in the series.

In my opinion, what constitutes the strength of this story and the reason we keep coming back to it is the suggestive message that as humans, we are so strongly convinced of our uniqueness that we are completely unaware that we are our own greatest threat. The paradox of human development is the constant balancing with technological progress on the edge of an abyss. Although due to natural selection we have risen to the top of the evolutionary hierarchy, nowhere is it said that this dominance is given to us once and for all.

It also resonates with the acceptance of our multiracial diversity and not placing the white man at the center of the universe. Planet of the Apes is commented on as turning the history of colonialism on its head and making the white man a slave. Yes, but the same film makes the black man an ape, which many have rightly noted served more to reinforce harmful stereotypes than to eliminate them. In the end, Planet of the Apes is a bit of a slap in the face to racial prejudices and those elements of human history where we have been wolves to each other.

When we replace apes with artificial intelligence, we will understand that this story is still relevant. Whether on a sociological or technological level, humanity is still learning humility. Planet of the Apes in this regard is like an alarm clock, which in subsequent revivals is meant to stir our reflection on our destructive, arrogant nature. Whether this call for reason, taking the form of a somewhat naive, idealistic dream of the chance for interspecies, interracial coexistence, takes the convention of an innocent fairy tale or a scientific analysis, it cannot be denied that it is still important to us.

But will we be able to rise from our knees before we ultimately fall to them, facing the end?

Jakub Piwoński

Jakub Piwoński

Cultural expert, passionate about popular culture, in particular films, series, computer games and comics. He likes to fly away to unknown, fantastic regions, thanks to his fascination with science fiction. Professionally, however, he looks back more often, thanks to his work as a museum promotion specialist, investigating the mysteries of the beginnings of cinematography. His favorite film is "The Matrix", because it combines two areas close to his heart - religion and martial arts.

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