Pierre Boule was working on a rubber plantation in Malaysia when the Japanese invaded and carted him off to a POW camp. He escaped, and spent the rest of the war as an intelligence agent for the British and French. Back in Paris in the late Forties, he took to writing, dividing his fiction between baldly journalistic and indeed highly technical novels (he was an engineer by profession) and more whimsical concoctions, such as his tale of the Virgin Mary returning to earth and becoming Prime Minister of France. Both sides of his writing combined in 1963 with The Planet of the Apes. It opens with Jinn and Phyllis piloting their solar-powered space yacht on a cruise around the galaxies. The technical conceit is fully conceived - and so is the neo-Swiftian satire: only at the end (warning: mild plot spoiler) do we discover that the moneyed space tourists are chimpanzees.
Franklin J Schaffner's 1968 film discarded pretty much everything but the basic notion - on the evolutionary ladder, apes are up, man is down - and then plugged it into the moment, tying together all the threads of the era - civil rights, the space age, societal self-doubt, and, most memorably, nuclear angst - into one of the few truly great sci-fi pictures. Then again, when the producers Arthur Jacobs and Mort Abrahams bumped into Sammy Davis Jr, he told them it was the greatest movie ever made about black/white relations in America. They had no idea what he was on about, but Jacobs gave him the eight-foot statue of the apes' founding father, "the Lawgiver", and Sam proudly displayed it in his living room for the rest of his life.
Tim Burton's 2001 remake was supposed to be a "re-imagining" of the franchise but was crippled by a near total failure of re-imagination. Consider the famous Charlton Heston line and its reprise a third of a century later: "Take your stinkin' paws off me, you damn dirty ape!" snarls Heston's astronaut in the original Planet. In Burton's version, the line goes to one of the apes: "Take your stinkin' hands off me, you damn dirty human!" In 1968, the "damn dirty" business was primal, the moment when Heston's character announces to the audience he's mad as hell and he's not gonna take it any more. The simian echo 33 years later is an amusing jest in a film that's too knowing ever really to mean what it's doing. Instead of Heston, the shipwrecked astronaut is Mark Wahlberg, who wanders through the movie with Candide-like passivity. Make all the snooty critic's jokes you want about Chuck's two facial expressions - clenched and unclenched - but he enlarged the role. In that terrific final image, when he drops to the sand before the shattered Statue of Liberty and wails in realization of what's happened and where he is, you appreciate his iconic indispensability. He was, as otherwise unsympathetic reviewers would concede, a long, lean, slim-hipped action hero with beautiful aquiline cheekbones, the American eagle in the gallery of national archetypes. But in Planet of the Apes, running around in his loincloth, he conjured Commander Taylor as Adam - the last man on earth played as the first man on earth. And that ending is a marvel of boldness, crudeness and profound bleakness. If you're looking for lessons in the art of adaptation, Schaffner's film is an excellent example of how to liberate yourself from the source material. It led to four sequels and two TV shows.
Whereas Tim Burton's re-boot was stillborn: the entire franchise reared up and roared, "Take your stinkin' paws off me, you damn arty director!"
A decade later, they tried again. As I wrote:
When I was a kid and watched sci-fi movies set in a futuristic dystopia where individuals are mere chattels of an unseen all-powerful government and enduring human relationships are banned and the progeny of transient sexual encounters are the property of the state, I always found the caper less interesting than the unseen backstory: How did they get there from here? From free western societies to a bunch of glassy-eyed drones wandering around in identikit variety-show catsuits in a land where technology has advanced but liberty has retreated: how'd that happen?
Well, the current Planet of the Apes prequels have also figured out that's the most interesting part of the story.
How do you get from us to Charlton Heston? In Rise of the Planet of the Apes, writer-producers Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver came up with an ingeniously simple scenario that's far more plausible than that 1968 nukes-away finale: Experimental research on an Alzheimer's cure with preliminary testing on animals. The drug makes the monkeys smart, but does nothing for the humans except infect them with a deadly virus. In the wrong hands, the premise could have come out like a thesis, but Rupert Wyatt directed with a very deft touch and many memorable moments: the chimp Caesar's first word - "No!" - is as primal as Heston's great line; the helicopter battle over the Golden Gate Bridge is a terrific set-piece; and the final shot of the escaped apes in the forest looking down over the city is profound and unsettling. Then there's the credits sequence of the infected airline pilot arriving for a long-haul flight that will spread the fatal virus around the world.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) picks up the story ten years later, but, with Wyatt replaced by Matt Reeves, it's a far more pedestrian affair - just the usual dystopolis with what's left of an ever more bestial humanity warring in the ruins. On the other hand, Andy Serkis - the world's leading "motion capture" specialist - turned Caesar into the Alec Guinness Obi Wan Kenobi of his portfolio.
Serkis and Reeves are now back for the third entry in the re-boot, War for the Planet of the Apes. Another five years have passed, the apes are a half-decade brainier, and mankind has been severely reduced in numbers by the Simian Virus. An elite Special Forces unit is hunting for Caesar in the woods. They have team-spirit slogans chalked on the backs of their helmets: "Kill Kong", "Bedtime for Bonzo", and (my favorite) "Ape-pocalypse Now". One has high hopes these jests portend a detailed vision if not on the thoroughly conceived scale of Pierre Boule, then at least matching that of Rise... But if anything the horizons have shrunk even further. Caesar is the undisputed king of the swingers, the jungle VIP, but, granted that he's the good guy and by now we're meant to be root-root-rooting for the non-home team, he nevertheless seems oddly passive and reactive for a great leader.
His nemesis is the unit's ruthless commander, played by Woody Harrelson as just the usual deranged shaven-headed cigar-chomping psycho-colonel. It all seems very painting-by-numbers, and quickly settles down into a prison movie, with lots of tunneling - The Great Ape-scape. The action takes place somewhere up by "the border" - presumably, judging by the snow, the US-Canadian one, although it's unclear whether either polity's writ still runs. Maurice the orangutan is still around, of course, but there is a new semi-depilated and very loquacious chimp who calls himself "Bad Ape" and sports a trademark blue quilted puffer. I found him irritating enough to be verging on Jar-Jar Binks, but my son generously put him more in the Dobby the House Elf category.
The plot device closest to the spirit of Rise is introduced early on, when they find a mute girl (appealingly played by Amiah Miller) and the orangutan adopts her. The virus, now present in every human being on earth, is evolving: It has killed most of humanity, and those left are being stricken in new ways, waking up of a morning and discovering they've lost the power of speech. You might object that this process is already under way and that we now communicate only in a few crude but universally understood phrases - LOL, OMG, ROTFLMAO, etc. But, as the psycho-colonel understands, this affliction will prove the death of man: We are being reduced to animals, silent and stupid, in preparation for our new role as beasts in the field for our ape overlords.
As I said, the most interesting part of any futuristic story is how you get there from here. I would have appreciated an equivalent moment to that virus-spreading map graphic in the first film - perhaps a G7 meeting where the Italian Prime Minister falls mute during the climate-change session, and then at the start of the transgender bathroom discussion the German Chancellor's tongue lolls likewise useless. Alternatively, were these brainy apes to breed at more traditionally simian levels rather than the near-German fertility rate practiced by Caesar and his missus, then maybe they'd be chairing the G7 summit by now. Alas, from Rise to Dawn to War this Planet's horizons have shrunk, and what's left is a very non-primal battle of the primates that's mostly a shoot-'em-up. Even its tragic elements - at the film's opening and close - are dispatched very perfunctorily by Reeves.
But what do I know? The critics loved it - because who doesn't want to cheer the other guys in a clash of civilizations? The New York Times' A O Scott did, however, enter one caveat:
The default setting for primate social organization in these movies, human and otherwise, is patriarchal, and while a few female apes and a young human girl appear on screen, the filmmakers' inability to flesh out the familial and affective dimensions of an otherwise richly rendered reality is frustrating.
Yes. Why can't all these butch chimps and orangutans be more like man-bunned wispy-bearded metrosexuals getting in touch with their Bernie-bro side as they take over the planet?
Mr Scott, though, does have a point about the absence of female apes. Why is that? Does Matt Reeves intend the 85 per cent maleness of his simian horde to be a metaphor for "Syrian" "refugees" in Europe? And is the eleven-year-old girl meant to represent all those young Continental ladies who've been on the receiving end of all that vibrant multicultural outreach? And does the loss of speech symbolize Europe's craven silence in the face of these provocations? Or am I getting way too Sammy Davis for you now?
Ah, well. Come the next re-boot, there's always Pierre Boule's novel...
~If you disagree with Mark's movie columns and you're a member of The Mark Steyn Club, then feel free to go ape in the comments. Club membership isn't for everybody, but it helps keep all our content out there for everybody, in print, audio, video, on everything from civilizational collapse to our Saturday movie dates. So do fling the monkey feces at Steyn in the comments section. For more on The Mark Steyn Club, see here.