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Take Your Stinking Paws Off...

Andrew Kearley Visita el Planeta de los Simios

With the brain-dead remake currently doing the business at the box office, I feel itís time to reconsider the original Planet of the Apes series (now out on DVD) - and perhaps discover just where Tim Burton went so wrong.

It started in 1963, with Pierre Boulleís novel La Planète des Singes. A group of French astronauts from the year 2500 travel to the planet Soror, in orbit around Betelgeuse. They discover a world ruled by apes, where humans are mute savages. The surviving astronaut, Ulysse Merou, eventually makes contact with the apes, and as the only intelligent man in the world, becomes a media celebrity. He assists a chimpanzee archaeologist to uncover evidence that the apes have built their civilization on the ruins of one much older - the civilization of man. The apes turn against our hero when he gets a native girl pregnant, and they fear that he may be about to sire a new race of talking men to challenge their civilization. With the aid of his chimp friends, he escapes with his woman and son, and returns to Earth, where due to relativity, 700 years have passed since his departure. Landing in Paris, he discovers the planet has been taken over by apes! Of course, thatís not really what itís about. Boulle uses the monkey planet as a Swift-like metaphor for our own world - reflecting his fear that the consumer society was robbing man of his intelligence and drive - that people would become so indolent, they would be unable to resist the rise of the apes.

The first film actually follows the novel quite closely for at least the first half of its length. The only major differences are the more low-tech society of the apes (for budgetary reasons) and the fact that Taylor does not become a celebrity - he remains feared and hunted throughout the film. The biggest and most obvious change is the ending. Though driven by the same fear as Boulle - that human society will crumble and be supplanted by apes - this is shot through with the paranoia of sixties America. Produced in the decade of the Cuban missile crisis, Kennedyís assassination, and Vietnam, itís not surprising that the film makers were more concerned by nuclear devastation than consumer apathy! The filmís ending was devised by screenwriter Rod Serling. It retains all the impact of Boulleís twist, whilst being more immediate and cinematic. Iíd go so far as to say that the final shot is the most stunning ending in the whole history of cinema. Any old landmark could have signified we were back on Earth, but the choice of the Statue of Liberty is inspired, representing as it does all of Americaís most cherished values, hopes and aspirations.

With the movie a success, a sequel was ordered. Pierre Boulle was the first asked to devise a screenplay. His idea called Planet of the Men would have concerned Taylorís son leading the humans to victory over the apes, who would have reverted back to dumb animals. In the end it was Paul Dehn, British screenwriter of Goldfinger, who wrote this and all the subsequent films in the series. Beneath the Planet of the Apes is a hastily cobbled-together rhapsody on the themes of the first film. There are some good ideas - notably the mutant humans living in the buried remnants of New York, who have developed a religion based around worship of the nuclear bomb - but ultimately Beneath has nothing new to add. Certainly, Charlton Heston didnít want to make it - he eventually appears only at the very beginning and end of the film, and the heroís role is taken by James Franciscus, a cut-price Heston look-alike. The filmís ending is another shocker though: mortally wounded in the battle between apes and mutants, Heston falls on the detonator of a doomsday bomb, and destroys the whole planet - no doubt to preclude the possibility of further sequels.

Heston was out, but the series went on. Escape from the Planet of the Apes overcame the destruction of Earth by sending the apes back in time to the present day. This offers the chance for some gentle comedy, and an interesting inversion of Boulleís original concept, as Cornelius and Zira become media darlings. And just like the novel, itís Ziraís pregnancy that condemns them - inspiring the fear that a new species of talking ape will supplant mankind. The chimps are hunted to the death - the twist ending this time is one we can see coming for miles, but itís still a haunting moment to see the baby chimp safely hidden in a circus and speaking his first word - "Mama" - an eerie echo of the talking doll from the first film.

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes takes up the story twenty years later. Trained to perform menial tasks, apes have become a slave underclass; and America has turned into a fascist police state. This is perhaps the most science fiction film of the series, its near-future dystopia filmed in stark black, white and shades of grey - the only colour coming from the apesí overalls. Into this scenario comes Caesar the talking chimp, who leads his brothers in rebellion against their human masters. Once again, the basic storyline derives from Boulle - flashback sequences in the novel depict how the ape slaves took over from their decadent and listless masters. The filmís revolt is certainly not as bloodless or inevitable - itís a full-blown street battle, inspired by news footage of the 1965 Watts riots. At the end, Caesar has only conquered one city, but the implication is that itís the catalyst that will spark the rise of the apes across the world.

It doesnít happen like that because a nuclear war takes place off screen. In Battle for the Planet of the Apes, Caesar has become the benevolent ruler of a surviving group of apes and humans. He discovers a colony of radiation-scarred humans living under the ruins of New York - and is forced to fight when they emerge intent on wiping out the apes. Paul Dehnís screenplay made clear that these were the ancestors of the bomb-worshipping mutants from Beneath, and that the future was locked into the cycle of destruction weíve already seen in the earlier films. However, the script was rewritten to provide a happier ending. Originally, Caesar would have been killed by militant gorillas, again paving the way for the future. In the finished film, he overcomes his adversaries; ape and human are reconciled to peaceful co-existence. In my view, the rewrite is not a bad move. It adds a note of hope to an otherwise downbeat and apocalyptic series - perhaps the future is not immutable, and man (or ape) can change it by his actions...?

Layers of meaning, political comment, social allegory - they donít make sci-fi films like this any more. Tim Burton certainly doesnít. His "re-imagining" of Planet of the Apes has nothing to do with Boulleís novel, nor the original films. Itís all very well being superbly designed, and having apes that act like real apes - but whatís it actually saying, beyond being an extended advert for a merchandising campaign? There are some basic anti-slavery and anti-racism themes, but theyíre swamped by the overblown action sequences. The humans can speak, so immediately we lose Boulleís warning about the fall of man. Itís not Earth, but thatís fine - it wasnít in the novel. But weíre not even dealing with an indigenous population - we later discover that both apes and humans are descended from the crew of Marky Markís spaceship - which means thereís nothing in this story thatís relevant to our society. Never mind, we can have another huge battle sequence - with a dreadful deus ex machina resolution. Literally! And then the "surprise" ending. Well, itís not a surprise if youíve read the book - but in the context of this film, itís nonsensical and completely meaningless. Iím convinced itís only there because Burton felt the need to compete with the twist ending of the original. (Itís a contest he loses.)

To watch the remake is to see a great cultural icon destroyed by the folly of man. Itís like finding the Statue of Liberty half-buried on a deserted beach. And in such circumstances, I can only paraphrase Charlton Heston: "You maniacs! You blew it up! Damn you! God damn you all to hell!"
 

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