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The Planet of the Apes – A Dystopian Film Essay

A utopian society is in essence an ideal world in which harmony and peace are indelible. The essential question to be asked however is – can such a perfect world truly exist? Unfor-tunately, brutality and human injustice has made the so called perfect world God created anything but perfect.

Corruption is rampant a result of the failure to implement humane principles beyond mere tokenism and rhetoric. Compounded with the problem of evil and the malevolent, omnipresent premise of one man’s heaven is another man’s hell makes this ideal worth dreaming yet unattainable.

Most importantly many concur that an ideal or utopian society could never exist, for the ideologies are eventually manipulated and perverted by those in positions of political, economic, and social power. Instead what reins supreme is dystopia– a world and life distinguished by oppression, war, violence, disease, and poverty where infringement on human rights has resulted in widespread pandemonium, suffering, unhappiness, and a vast assortment of other pains leading humanity to the brink of destruction.

Cinema depicts these opposing premises, in particular dystopia, candidly and superbly. The extent of cinema’s popularity, influence, and proliferation has been phenomenal. Artistic expression and development via technological expediency has made it an unequaled facet of the arts in the 20th century.

Via the cinematic experience the entire infrastructure of people’s culture (political, economic, artistic, educational institutions interwoven with personal impressions, ideas, ideals, emotions, and prejudices) and the state of the world at large can be seen and experienced. Dystopias can exist in many forms for they can be governmental/social control based and/or corporate as well as alien/foreign, technological, and post-apocalyptic.

Throughout the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s a multitude of films explored the concept and multi-faceted nature of dystopia and its drastic/tragic consequences. They include Fahrenheit 451, The Last Man on Earth, Fantastic Planet, Soylent Green, The Omega Man, Rollerball, Logan’s Run, Blade Runner, and The Terminator. Among this distinguished cadre is the iconic science fiction classic, The Planet of the Apes – exemplary of post-apocalyptic dystopia brought on by innate human destructive tendencies. A myriad of themes permeate this film among them savagery (human and animal) and totalitarianism.

Based on acclaimed French novelist Pierre Boulle’s novel (Monkey Planet – 1963), Planet of the Apes was released February 8, 1968 (U.S.) by 20th Century Fox. With Franklin J Schaffner (Patton, Boys from Brazil) as director, the film stars Charlton Heston, Roddy McDowall, Kim Hunter, Maurice Evans, James Whitmore, Lou Wagner, James Daly, and Linda Harrison. Prolific screenwriter and television producer, Rod Serling (Twilight Zone) wrote the original script which underwent numerous rewrites. In the end he and screenwriter Michael Wilson (It’s A Wonderful Life, Salt of the Earth) were officially credited.

John Chamber’s landmark, superlative prosthetic make-up as well as the set design and costumes greatly contributed to film’s aura and popularity. To the surprise of Boulle, the cast, fans and critics, Planet of the Apes’ commercial success made it a film franchise which comprised of four sequels, a television show, comic books, animated series, and a variety of merchandising. A remake directed by Tim Burton was done in 2001 and a new release is due in 2011.

To truly understand the film’s thematic message a brief synopsis is essential. The movie chronicles the sojourn of three astronauts – Col. George Taylor (Heston) – the lead character, and his comrades Landon (Robert Gunner), and Dodge (Jeff Landon) who crash-land on a mysterious planet in 3978 A.D. As they journey to find signs of life on what initially appears to be a desolate planet, they encounter – much to their surprise and horror, the planet’s inhabitants – apes who can talk.

They are captured by gorillas brandishing firearms with Dodge being killed immediately and Landon knocked unconscious. When trying to escape, Taylor is shot in the throat. Unconscious and unable to talk due to his injury, Taylor is captured and taken to Ape City where he is saved by two chimpanzee scientists – one of them being Zira (Hunter), a animal psychologist. Taylor soon discovers that he is not the only human incarcerated, there are many including his cellmate, a primitive female named Nova.

As he recuperates he discovers/learns that the ape society is well evolved and divided into a class system similar to humans. The military might (police, hunters, etc.) are represented by the gorillas. Orangutans oversee governmental authority (administrators, politicians, lawyers, etc.) and as exemplified by Zira, the chimpanzees are the scientist and intellectual elite. Ironically humans are the extinct class – hunted, killed, or subjugated for scientific experimentation and slavery/manual labor – in particular those who are unable to talk.

Believing in his intelligence, Zira and her fiancé, Cornelius – an archaeologist played by McDowell – take a keen interest in Taylor as he tries to regain his voice and communicate. Their orangutan boss, Dr. Zaius (Evans), however tries to suppress Taylor’s efforts to communicate and eventually gives orders for him to be castrated. Taylor escapes and flees from Ape City to a museum where he finds stuffed human corpses, among them his co-astronaut Dodge.

Once again the gorilla police find him. With his throat healed he says one of the most memorable lines in the film upon being recaptured by the gorillas “Take your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!” With his ability to speak discovered, a tribunal is held to determine his fate. It is there he recounts his story to his ape captors. Tragically he learns the fate of his other comrade, Landon, who has been lobotomized rendered catatonic. Once again he with Nova escapes Ape City this time with the aid of Zira, Cornelius, and Lucius (Wagner), her rebellious nephew.

They are taken to an adjacent area known as The Forbidden Zone. Taboo and off-limits for centuries, Cornelius – who had discovered the area two years prior – explains that the Zone was once a technologically advanced human society. At some point the role of man and ape became inverted – apes evolved and man devolved – becoming primitive and speechless.

Eventually Dr. Zaius and the gorilla henchmen intercept the escaped party, with Taylor taking Dr. Zaius as a hostage. Like Corneluis, Dr. Zaius has been aware of the zone as well. He elaborates that The Forbidden Zone was once a paradise/utopia that was annihilated by man’s destructive inclinations.

To protect the sanctity of the ape civilization it had to be quarantined. Dr. Zaius decides to place Taylor and Nova in exile – to further learn about the zone on their own. He eerily warns Taylor, however, that what he may discover he may not like. As they Taylor and Nova leave, Zira poses the question “”What will he find out there, Doctor?” Dr Zaius replies in another memorable line – “his destiny.” The film concludes with Taylor and Nova riding on horseback along a shoreline.

Taylor suddenly stops and dismounts. In disbelief and shock he stares at an object not discernible to the audience. As he approaches the object, he descends into a raging outburst, screaming “We finally really did it. You maniacs! You blew it up! Damn you. God damn you all to hell!” The camera zooms out to reveal the object of his rage – the charred remains of a half-submerged Statue of Liberty. The horrific reality uncovered – the planet he thought was mysterious was in fact Earth and The Forbidden Zone – a former paradise – New York City.

The paradigm for ‘successful’ societies is measured by the projection of political, military, economic, and technological prowess. It is often believed; however, as professed by many faiths of the world that this multi-faceted prowess will in fact aid in bringing about the end of civilization as we know it – the prophesied Apocalypse.

As previously mentioned, Planet of the Apes exemplifies a post-apocalyptic civilization – a world in the aftermath of a disaster usually fueled by man made causes (war, plague, nuclear holocaust, etc.) The charred remnants of the Statue of Liberty and Taylor’s final lines indicate cataclysmic demise due to nuclear holocaust. World War II and the demise of Hiroshima and Nagasaki catapulted the idea of global annihilation via nuclear weapons into public consciousness. Within a post apocalyptic civilization, dystopian behaviors such as totalitarianism/authoritarianism and savagery are rampant.

At the root of totalitarianism and authoritarianism is the aforementioned premise of one man’s heaven is another man’s hell which usually involves superiority of group via the subjugation and eventual control of another group.

Inherent in apocalyptic ideology is a hidden revelation in the midst of humanity permeated by a multitude of falsehoods and misconceptions with superiority/ totalitarianism/authoritarianism ranking supreme. Planet of the Apes satirizes the superior/ totalitarian /master race or civilization concept whether man or animal/ape exercised.

Intelligence entails the ability to learn and adapt to one’s environment. Most importantly, it involves reasoning ability and abstract thought, the capacity to evaluate and judge, comprehend relationships, and the skill of original and productive thought. This being the case, how does superiority render one intelligent? If the end result is mass destruction, then Planet answers this question with a resounding no.

No matter who leads the evolutionary ladder, if centric biases or prejudices, arrogance, and false self assurance are in the midst then complete desolation is assured. Although the ending is shocking and horrific, Taylor’s innate desire to be free up until that point is indicative of the opposing force of this dystopian characteristic – freedom.

In the film man is relegated to the state that he has catapulted every living creature on the face of the planet earth – complete to near extinction. Man is subjected to scientific experimentation and enslavement/incarceration like the animals. In Planet, the humans are primitive, the less superior and speechless – the savages. Speech and the ability to reason is what distinguish man from animal.

They are the cornerstone to man’s intelligence. Just because man can speak and reason does not necessarily make him intelligent and/or reasonable. The myriad of problems plaguing the earth were invented by those considered intelligent and reasonable. In paraphrasing the biblical scripture (Jeremiah 4: 22), man “is wise to do evil” and has no true knowledge on how to do that which is good and right.

All of the blatant acts (enslavement, brutal militaristic force, degrading scientific experimentation, mass destruction via nuclear catastrophe, etc.) which a person with a soul and sense of morality would view as immoral were committed by a so called intelligent speaking group/race. When Taylor finds his destiny in the end, the horror of this realization /revelation comes to the forefront in terms of discovering the true nature of a savage.

A tour de force science fiction film with cutting edge and thought provoking social commentary, Planet of the Apes successfully intertwined all the key elements – action, adventure, allegory, and futuristic settings.

Through allegory it addresses the many of the evils (savagery, totalitarianism, racism, class divisions, and the dangers of close-mindedness) that plague the planet and its inhabitants. It exposes a fundamental fact, the world is porous to the ideas and ideals of those that inhabit it be it dystopian or utopian. How does one truly measure or define progress? Primitive, uncivilized, brutal, fierce, vicious are the attributes of so called savage.

With this concept in mind, one must ask is that which we see around us and experience, the fruit of a truly intelligent mind or a reprobate or savage mind. The ramifications and repercussions are evident as indicated by rampant war and violence, deception (double speak), fraud, crime, torture, abuse, etc. If there is not a paradigm shift in thought process and a universal desire for a utopian society, then all of mankind will experience Taylor’s horrific revelation and there in lies the message of Planet of the Apes.

Works Cited

“Dystopia”. . . 2nd ed. 1989.

The Planet of the Apes, 1968.

Scofield, C.I. Reverend, Editor. The Scofield Study Bible. Oxford University Press: New York, 1917.

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"The Planet of the Apes – A Dystopian Film." IvyPanda, 17 Jan. 2019, ivypanda.com/essays/the-planet-of-the-apes-a-dystopian-film/.

1. IvyPanda. "The Planet of the Apes – A Dystopian Film." January 17, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/the-planet-of-the-apes-a-dystopian-film/.


IvyPanda. "The Planet of the Apes – A Dystopian Film." January 17, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/the-planet-of-the-apes-a-dystopian-film/.


IvyPanda. 2019. "The Planet of the Apes – A Dystopian Film." January 17, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/the-planet-of-the-apes-a-dystopian-film/.


IvyPanda. (2019) 'The Planet of the Apes – A Dystopian Film'. 17 January.

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