[Ed. note: Significant spoilers ahead for some of the Planet of the Apes movies, especially the classic 1968 franchise launch.]
Humanity is obsessed with stories about the end of the world because we know all living things die. We’re fascinated with stories about the apocalypse, because they go beyond the death of individuals, and into more unthinkable territory: the death of society, and maybe the planet itself. But most movies and franchises dealing with the subject tend to set their stories long after the cataclysm, in order to focus more securely on humanity’s endurance and determination to survive. Fewer films portray the apocalypse as it’s happening, and most tend to hurry through the key moments.
But not the Planet of the Apes series, consisting of the original 1968 film and its four sequels, the 2001 Tim Burton remake, and the reboot film trilogy, starting with 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes. The franchise began as a post-apocalyptic parable, but in the course of its time-loop/prequel story, it wound up chronicling the fall of humankind and the rise of their replacement species, the apes. Right from the start, the films are meant as social commentary warning humanity about our self-destructive ways, and they touch on a variety of topics that seem increasingly, ominously relevant during this turbulent year. Given how long the franchise has been in play, the Planet of the Apes movies effectively point out how long our species has been dealing with the same issues. Concerns about social justice, racism, xenophobia, and viral infection seem to recur in a never-ending cycle, but they’re often dismissed or ignored, until we encounter a year like 2020.
Planet of the Apes didn’t necessarily begin life as an apocalyptic story. Pierre Boulle’s source novel leans more on social satire — it’s explicitly set on an alien planet, where its ape inhabitants evolved parallel to humanity. Still, Boulle’s experience as a POW during World War II inspired the novel’s action, with the protagonist enduring capture, enslavement, and a lowly position in ape society. That was a great jumping-off point for screenwriters Michael Wilson and Rod Serling, who adapted the novel for the 1968 feature film. That movie sees a crew of near-future astronauts led by George Taylor (Charlton Heston) crash-landing on what they believe is another planet, one where apes evolved as the dominant species, and now subjugate mute, primitive humans.
The infamous final scene of 1968’s Planet of the Apes reveals that Taylor has in fact traveled into Earth’s future and landed back on his home planet. The first sequel, 1970’s Beneath the Planet of the Apes, carries on from there, seeing Taylor and another astronaut, Brent (James Franciscus), battling an invading army of gorillas and an underground human faction who have been mutated by radiation and worship an active nuclear bomb. Both movies are steeped in anxieties about the Cold War, with the Cuban Missile Crisis still looming large in then-recent memory.
Aside from rampant nuclear destruction, these first entries in the series deal with other forms of humanity’s self-destruction: denial of science (the ape council refuses to acknowledge evolution, among other things), oppression (the ruling ape classes push around the chimpanzees who protest the war), and bizarre belief systems (the mutated humans insist that a nuclear bomb is a divine entity). These dominant social forces from 1970s are just as urgent in 2020. This year alone, we’ve seen protests by people insisting that masks don’t prevent transmission of the COVID-19 virus, just as the ape council in the first film dismisses findings on human biology out of personal prejudice and religious rationales. We’ve also seen the troubling rise of the QAnon cult, a group whose beliefs are perhaps even more absurd than the mutants worshipping a radioactive bomb.
The series’ parallels with current events become even more eerily close starting with the final three sequels from the original cycle. Given the total destruction of Earth at the end of Beneath the Planet of the Apes, screenwriter Paul Dehn ingeniously reverses the first film’s setup, sending chimp scientists Zira (Kim Hunter) and Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) back in time to 1970s Earth in Escape From the Planet of the Apes (1971). That film is a parable about the ways people treat those who are different from them. Cornelius and Zira are interred in a zoo, then treated with fad-like fascination, before the public becomes suspicious and hostile. Their experience isn’t just analogous to that of immigrants entering new, typically Western countries — it’s also similar to the way people of color are frequently seen as invaders, regardless of their citizenship status or place of birth.
Escape also features lengthy discussions on the social and political ramifications of the ape visitors, especially regarding the discovery that an ape war will lead to the destruction of the planet thousands of years in the future. The President’s scientific advisor, Dr. Hasslein (Eric Braeden) even compares ignoring the latent threat to ignoring climate change. Though Zira and Cornelius are assassinated, their child Milo is saved by a sympathetic circus manager, Armando (Ricardo Montalbán), who raises the chimp. In Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972), the adult Milo, now renamed Caesar (also played by McDowall), loses his human father and is forced into indentured servitude, since the apes were made slaves after a plague that wiped out every cat and dog on the planet. (That’s an odd but compelling plot point from Dehn, who first recognizes the apes as animals who are suitable replacements for pets, then shifts them metaphorically into a lower class of people.)
Conquest takes place in the early 1990s, as the human government has become brutal and fascistic. Caesar leads his fellow apes in a series of protests that escalate to riots, and eventually revolution. At the time, the analogy was intended to evoke the 1960s and events like 1965’s Watts Uprising. But the resonance is still keenly felt today, as 2020’s Black Lives Matter movement continues to actively protest the same insidious systemic racism those events were pushing back against. As Caesar explains to the human governor’s aide, a Black man named MacDonald (Hari Rhodes), the apes must rise up against their oppressors: “We cannot be free until we have power. How else can we achieve it?” In this one exchange, the need for protest and revolution is blatantly laid out, echoing sentiments made during 2020’s BLM protests. The scene is even slyly explicit in its relevance to the African-American community — Caesar tells MacDonald that he, “above everyone else, should understand.”
The final movie of the original run, 1973’s Battle for the Planet of the Apes, thins out the political and social commentary, thanks to the series’ growing kid audience. But it still deals with the saga’s major themes: one of Caesar’s major obstacles in attempting to broker peace between apes and humans is a warmongering gorilla named Aldo (Claude Akins), who leads his fellow gorillas in a raid on Caesar’s armory, breaking the ruler’s system of gun control. The politics of gun ownership is an issue again in Tim Burton’s 2001 Planet of the Apes remake. It’s mostly devoid of political content, but it still features a scene where chimp General Thade (Tim Roth) has humanity’s past evil communicated to him via a symbolic device of their past: a handgun. Thade’s father is played by Heston, in a nod to the original films, which also slyly and subtextually comments on Heston’s real-life support of the NRA.
When writers Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver pitched a new Apes film to 20th Century Fox in the early 2010s, they weren’t interested in the future setting of Boulle’s novel, or in the 1968 film. Instead, they concocted “a great way to reboot Planet of the Apes” by placing it in a modern-day setting and giving it a new relevance to current events. Their 2011 movie Rise of the Planet of the Apes began a trilogy of films that chronicle the fall of man in ways that feel particularly relevant to 2020. Building on themes of animal cruelty and recklessness in pursuit of finding a cure to a seemingly unstoppable disease, the movie sees Dr. Will Rodman (James Franco) attempting to develop a drug that will cure Alzheimer’s. When he tests the drug on apes, they become more intelligent as a side effect.
While Will’s adopted chimp Caesar (Andy Serkis) revolts and leads his fellow apes to freedom, the drug becomes more virulent and dangerous to humans. A pandemic begins that wipes out a majority of Earth’s human population. (Which makes Rise the second pandemic-themed blockbuster of 2011, next to Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion). By the next film, 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the surviving humans and thriving apes are struggling for dominance. Writer Mark Bomback and director Matt Reeves present both sides of the conflict as sympathetically as possible, showing how mistrust, fear, and past injustices make lasting peace an impossibility. This pokes at an uncomfortable truth about how human beings may have no chance for true peace with each other, thanks to the long history of unforgivable atrocities done to other ethnicities, countries, and various groups that are still remembered today.
In Reeves and Bomback’s War for the Planet of the Apes, released in 2017 at the beginning of Trump’s presidency, a megalomaniacal human Colonel, McCullough (Woody Harrelson) forces Caesar and the apes he’s captured and enslaved to build a wall to keep invaders out, though he doesn’t bother explaining the reasoning to the apes. (“Why do they need a wall?” Caesar wonders aloud). Where the prior two films showed how similar the apes and humans were, War points out where they diverge, with the humans becoming increasingly divided, hateful, and fanatical (in moments that deliberately recall Beneath’s mutants), while the apes are more united and noble. The viral pandemic returns once again, mutated this time to rob humans of their speech and higher thinking, passing judgement on the species in a way that’s nearly Biblical. It’s a way of turning them into a version of the easily subjugated people in the original film.
Taken as a whole, the Apes films become a story about cycles of behavior perpetuated throughout time, generation after generation, with species after species making the same mistakes about racism, war, and delusional notions of superiority. The series uses its science-fiction trappings to comment on topics that were as timely 50-odd years ago as they are now. For such old films, their issues seem shockingly relevant now. Perhaps if they weren’t dismissed as kids’ fare, or if they weren’t remembered primarily for odd-looking prosthetic makeup (or in the recent trilogy, uncanny valley-evoking motion-capture animation), more people would pay attention to the warnings each movie gives about human history, and how the issues we’re still battling today can lead to self-destruction. Eventually, if we don’t listen to these urgent, obvious messages about human hatred and violence, we’re all destined to become Taylor, screaming in despair in front of that fallen statue on a desolate beach.