They're not just talking apes -- they're metaphors. Of science run amok, an underclass shrugging off its chains, and how humans treat beings that are lower on the evolutionary scale.
When the first "Planet of the Apes" movie was released in 1968, the shock of seeing apes on horseback, and that justly famous Statue of Liberty ending, helped make the film a box-office hit and an instant classic. More than 40 years later, "Planet of the Apes" has been the subject of numerous parodies, and some of the dialogue -- "Get your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape!" -- has become embedded in the public consciousness.
Yet the original series, which consisted of five films and ran from 1968 to 1973, also had bigger things in mind. "The films held up a mirror to humanity, and it was a very unflattering mirror," says Farmingdale's Rich Handley, author of "From Aldo to Zira: Lexicon of the Planet of the Apes." "Also, the apes were a mirror of us, and that wasn't flattering -- they had an extreme class structure, religious dogmatism and military paranoia."
Same as it ever was. The latest "Apes" film, "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," opening Aug. 5, doesn't shy away from Big Issues. The movie stars James Franco as a scientist looking for a cure for Alzheimer's who finds that his simian test subjects are displaying aggressive behavior. When the experiment is shut down, he takes a baby chimp under his wing and continues experimenting on the animal, only to discover it has developed human intelligence. When the chimp, named Caesar, is sent to a prisonlike primate sanctuary, he soon organizes the other simians into a revolutionary force.
"The narrative of the movie is 'Spartacus,' " says Tom Rothman, head of Fox Filmed Entertainment, the movie's distributor. "It's about the rise of an underclass, and you identify with them, and the ape is the hero."
"It's a timeless mythology," adds director Rupert Wyatt. "It's the idea of a revolution within our midst, from another species, not an alien invasion." And, he says, it's also "the idea that with science there is that danger of us falling short of our intentions, and individual hubris creating events and side effects that can be our undoing."
This kind of subtext has been part of the "Apes" story since its beginning, the 1963 Pierre Boulle novel "Planet of the Apes," on which the first film was based. That book, a satire on humanity and its place in the universe, was crafted by legendary screenwriter Rod Serling into a superior pop entertainment that, Wyatt says, "was ambitious thematically, to comment on the civil rights movement, and the fear of nuclear Armageddon. It was about the zeitgeist of that period."
From that point on, all the films dealt with such issues as religious extremism ("Beneath the Planet of the Apes"), human treatment of animals ("Escape From the Planet of the Apes"), civil rights ("Conquest of the Planet of the Apes") and, Handley says, "what happens in the aftermath of a revolution, how can a peaceful society arise out of a revolution 'Battle for the Planet of the Apes']?"
"Rise of the Planet of the Apes," which its creators refer to as an "origins story," takes some of these familiar themes -- especially scientific overreaching -- and sets them in contemporary San Francisco, with a tale told from the point of view of the intelligent chimp Caesar. Using motion-capture technology familiar to audiences from movies like "Avatar" -- it's essentially a technique that takes live actors' movements and animates them -- the filmmakers are hoping to create a real, believable character out of a simian.
"Our protagonist is Caesar," Wyatt says, "and he's a CGI-
created character, but you can completely invest in him. You look into his eyes and see the soul."
"This is the first live-action film that has an absolutely photo-real animal as its star, and the center of the point of view of the film," Rothman says. "Motion capture had only been used before in a fantasy setting, and this is the first time outdoors, real, in San Francisco."
There's also an interesting bit of irony centering around the film's release. "Project Nim," a documentary about a real-life 1970s experiment to teach a chimp to sign, opened several weeks ago to largely rave reviews and, Rothman says, "You look at 'Project Nim,' it's the same story as 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes.' "
And that's because, ultimately, all the "Apes" movies are based on an unchanging set of ideas. "What's really at the core is man's arrogance," Hundley says. "That hasn't changed, unfortunately. We still don't have an idea what we're doing, whether it's messing around with nuclear weapons or, in the new movie, genetic engineering. Our nature hasn't changed, and we are just as vulnerable to be taken over by something -- whether it's terrorism, or apes."
Which films in the series did we go ape for?
BY LEWIS BEALE, Special to Newsday
Rating the six "Planet of the Apes" films, from worst to best.
6. PLANET OF THE APES (2001) -- Director Tim Burton's remake has lavish production values, but not much else. Star Mark Wahlberg is no Charlton Heston, and the film is plodding, often overblown and unlikable.
5. (tie) CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (1972) and BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES (1973) -- The "Apes" franchise was running out of steam at the box office when these two low-budget episodes were made. Interesting enough on a B-movie level, and certainly worthwhile since they bring the whole story full circle, but neither one is a particularly good film. For "Apes" completists only.
3. BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES (1970) -- In the second "Apes" film, James Franciscus searches for missing astronaut Heston and stumbles upon an underground group of mutants who survived a long-ago nuclear blast. Solid entry in the series, with Franciscus an attractive lead.
2. ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES (1971) -- Best of the sequels finds apes Cornelius and Zira (Roddy McDowall and Kim Hunter) making their way to present-day Los Angeles. Some great social satire, with a clever script that sets up the final two episodes in the series.
1. PLANET OF THE APES (1968) -- The one, the only. Classic in every respect, from set and costume design to its story line and philosophical subtext. Heston is terrific as lost astronaut Taylor, with a fine cast that features Hunter, McDowall, Maurice Evans as Minister of Science Dr. Zaius and Linda Harrison as lovely mute human Nova. Plus, let's not forget those immortal, much-quoted lines: "Take your paws off me, you damned dirty ape!" and "You maniacs! You blew it up!"