Planet of the Apes: Racism, Evolution, and Destiny

Posted: April 2, 2013 by John C. Kwasny, Ph.D. in Action, Drama, Sci-Fi
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Recently, one of my satellite channels actually aired all five of the original Planet of the Apes movies in one day.  What a dream come true to introduce these cinematic classics to my kids.  After all, I spent nearly half my growing-up years engrossed by these stories (until Star Wars stole my heart).  The first five POTA movies were released from 1968 through 1973, followed by a fourteen episode TV series in 1974.  And of course, there was the Mark Wahlberg remake in 2001, as well as the new “reboot” of the series in 2011.  The focus of this post will be the first five movies, even if the apes just looked like people in ape costumes.

In the Planet of the Apes (1968), Charlton Heston (yes, Charlton Heston) and two other astronauts travel 2000 years into the future, crash landing in 3978.  They encounter a civilization where apes, chimps, and all sorts of monkeys are literate and rule the planet, while humans are pre-literate and their slaves.  In the end, Heston comes to find out that this is the future Earth, not some other planet (it took nearly three movies for my younger children to understand that the “planet of the apes” is actually our planet!)

Beneath the Planet of the Apes  (1970) continues the saga with another astronaut going forward through time to rescue the original time travelers.  He finds a world where apes are trying to extinguish ALL humans, and a small group of mutant humans who are surviving in an underground city.

Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971) is an ironic reversal of fortune, as three talking apes flee from their own destructive future to 20th century America.  Cornelius and Zira (the surviving ape couple) are embraced by humans at first, then hunted down and killed in order to possibly prevent a future where apes rule humans.

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972) moves forward just a bit, as the son of Cornelius and Zira (appropriately named Caesar) comes out of hiding to lead an ape rebellion against the humans.  He is successful in his conquest, and the apes rule again.

Finally, in the Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973), ten years after conquering the Earth, ape leader Caesar wants the ruling apes and enslaved humans to live in peace. But warring factions of apes led by a militant gorilla general as well as various human groups threaten the stability.

Do you see all the great worldview conversations here?  If you are a science fiction fan, these movies (even with poor special effects) are a must-see.  Here are a few thoughts to help guide your viewing.

1. As with all DYSTOPIC movies, the POTA films imagine that the future of humanity will be very grim.  The apes only came to power because humans abused them (like they abuse everything–the environment, native Americans, etc.).  Actually, the sequence of events is as follows: Dogs and cats are wiped out by a weird virus.  Monkeys became the next choice of pets.  Monkeys were much better pets, evolving into household servants and even companions.  Humans enslave monkeys.  Monkeys rebel…well, you get the rest of the story.  The bottom line is that humans (and then the apes later on) are so evil they just can’t help destroying society, animals, each other, and the planet.  There is no real hope of true redemption in these movies–it all ends rather badly.

2. RACISM is the major underlying theme here.  These movies are really a re-imagining of American racism from our founding, through slavery, the Civil War, etc.  While some monkeys and humans want to live in peace, most operate from a fearful racist mindset.  Apes want to enslave and kill humans, and when given an opportunity, humans want to do the same thing.  Each “race” denies that the other is more than simply “animal” in nature, which is quite interesting.  The desired extermination that happens throughout the series is also reminiscent of Hitler’s racist attitude and actions toward the Jews.

3.  Yes, you can’t have a movie about humans and apes without the theme of EVOLUTION.  Monkeys go from wild animals, to pets; and, evolve from illiterate to literate over dozens of generations.  Humans actually end up de-evolving, becoming more like animals over hundreds of years.  Obviously, you can have all sorts of discussion on this point!

4. Like most futuristic movies, especially ones including time-travel, we have the essential question of DESTINY.  In each film, there is some sort of scientist, philosopher, or even “theologian” (human and ape) who debate the ability to and/or the wisdom of changing the future.  Is our destiny foreordained, or can it be change?  If we become better people now, will we avoid terrible futures?

There is much more that could be discussed, so watch (or re-watch) the movies and make some good worldview comments.  Along with the lessons on racism, evolution, and destiny, watch for messages on religion, worship, and the Bible.  You probably won’t be surprised that Christianity, and religion in general, make humanity’s problems worse, not better!


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