‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’: Guns and tongues for apes on screen

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Eighth in a series of films dating from 1968, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” upholds the “Planet of the Apes” agenda: entertain by allegory. Animal rights, race and slavery are central to the science fiction franchise launched by Pierre Boulle’s 1963 novel “Planet of the Apes.”

“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” released last Friday, adds ideas about statecraft and inter-species diplomacy. As directed by Matt Reeves (“Cloverfield”), the screenplay by Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver could fit into a syllabus at the United States Military Academy at West Point. If not pass as a classic Western.

Five earlier films – “Planet of the Apes” (1968), “Beneath the Planet of the Apes” (1970), “Escape from the Planet of the Apes” (1971), “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes” (1972) and “Battle for the Planet of the Apes” (1973) – imagine speaking chimpanzees, orangutans and gorillas running the planet. Speechless humans are hunted for sport and branded as slaves. Ape soldiers use some for target practice. Ape scientists do experimental brain surgery on others. Ape theologians decree they lack souls.

Space-time anomalies in the first two films allow human astronauts to travel to the title planet, which turns out to be Earth in the far, far future. In the third film, a chimp couple – he’s an archaeologist and she’s a psychiatrist – travel back to 1973 Los Angeles. They stay at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. The fourth film is set in 1991, and the fifth occurs a decade or two after that.

Tim Burton’s “re-imagining” of the 1968 original came out in 2001. Then came “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” (2011), a prequel set in present-day San Francisco. Raised by a researcher (James Franco) seeking a neurogenetic cure for Alzheimer’s, Caesar (Andy Serkis) is a chess-playing chimp who learns American Sign Language.

Caesar will liberate apes held in labs, shelters and zoos after dosing them with the same experimental drug that accelerated his synapses. With cunning tactics, they overrun heavily armed cops on the Golden Gate Bridge, and find sanctuary among the redwoods and sequoias north of the city.

Set 10 years later, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” opens in those same Muir Woods, named in 1908 after the Californian who wrote: “I have precious little sympathy for the selfish propriety of civilized man, and if a war of races should occur between the wild beasts and Lord Man, I would be tempted to sympathize with the bears” – a twist on Benjamin Disraeli’s 1864 riposte to Charles Darwin: “Is man an ape or an angel? I, my Lord, am on the side of the angels.”

During the end credits of the 2011 film, yellow lines trace international flights spreading a virus arising from pharma trials on San Francisco apes. Red lines in the opening credits of the 2014’s “Dawn” map a pandemic that decimated humanity. A “colony” of “Simian flu” survivors occupies a decaying San Francisco, unaware of Caesar’s nearby enclave.

During a deer hunt like the hunt of humans in the 1968 film, a bear claws Caesar’s son. A spear is enough to kill the bear, but Caesar’s human-hating usurper will steal guns from humans and mount an attack. “They may have gotten their hands on some of our guns, but that does not make them men,” speechifies the colony commander (Gary Oldman).

Tools, intelligence and tactics are linked, though. Reeves intercuts shots of observant and increasingly capable apes amid shots of humans turning pages of a graphic novel, opening a valve at a hydro-electric plant, test-firing semi-automatic weapons and playing a 1968 song by the Band on a CD player. That sequence aligns with an iconic moment in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film “2001: A Space Odyssey,” based on Arthur C. Clarke’s story. An ape tosses his newly discovered bone weapon into the heavens, where it is match-cut with a space station rotating to a Richard Strauss waltz.

Clarke and Kubrick channel Robert Ardrey’s 1961 book “African Genesis” that argued: “Weapons preceded man.” Not only do we have “a genetic cultural affinity for the weapon” our species might be “a biological invention evolved to suit the purposes of the weapon,” speculated Ardrey.

Guns were the germ of humanity, according to the “Planets of the Apes” of 2001. On his deathbed an ape elder shows a secret relic to a general about to wage war on humans. It’s an ancient gun. “This has the power of a thousand spears!” warns Zaius (in an ironic cameo by Charlton Heston). “In a time before time, we were the slaves, and humans were the masters.”

“Slavery was a chronic state of warfare, and all men who were not Negroes were, by law, part of the standing army of oppressors,” wrote historian Herbert Aptheker in “Negro Slave revolts in the United States, 1526-1860.” “The carrying of some type of weapon was a universal characteristic of Southern white men.”

Paul Dehn, the screenwriter for the 1970, 1971 and 1972 films, noted, “It’s a very curious thing that the ‘Apes’ series has always been tremendously popular with Negroes who identify themselves with the apes. They are Black Power just as the apes are Ape Power and they enjoy it greatly.” Nelson George – author of “Blackface: Reflections on African-Americans and the Movies” – recalls: ”As a black child at a ghetto theater in the ’60s, my friends and I immediately understood the racial subtext of the film and took joy in watching the apes dominate their human (aka White) slaves.”

“People have dissected it and added a lot of layers of meaning to it that we, at least I, as head of the studio, never thought of,” admitted Richard Zanuck in a 1998 documentary on the first five “Planet” films. “We didn’t want the audience to go up the aisle thinking anything other than that they’d been entertained. Maybe I was in the dark. Maybe there was some kind of hidden message.”

Caesar (Serkis again) articulates what’s at stake for his kind in “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” with three simple nouns: “Home. Family. Future.” He orders the trespassing humans off his territory with a blunt, unambiguous “Go!”

Humans aim at apes in Muir Woods.

Humans aim at apes in Muir Woods.

As for the other messages vocalized by apes, the film’s supervising sound editor contacted primatologists. Roberta Salmi, from the University of Georgia, contributed “single and double grunts, whinnies, screams, infant whimpers, hoot series and chest beats.” Adriano Lameira from the University of Amsterdam drew upon his database of orangutan recordings. “My research interests surround the topic of language and speech evolution,” he emails.

Michael Wilson from the University of Minnesota lent his recordings of pant-hoots, pant-grunts, pant-barks and screams by the Kanywara chimpanzees in Kibale National Park, Uganda. Wilson once worked with gorillas at the Brookfield Zoo, and participated in the Language Origins Workshop at the University of Chicago. Among his studies is “Chimpanzees, Warfare and the Invention of Peace.”

“I can’t help thinking somewhere in the universe there has to be something better than man,” muses the astronaut played by Charlton Heston in the 1968 “Planet of the Apes.” In a 2012 interview with Time Magazine editors, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi cites that film – “I saw it 30 years ago” – and asks: “Can we do something better for ourselves?”

Films figure in “Planet of the Apes” lore. In Boule’s source novel a human describes the decline of her species as apes ascend: “A cerebral laziness has taken hold of us. No more books; even detective novels have now become too great an intellectual effort. … Even the childish motion picture does not tempt us any more.”

Baboons pack an L.A. movie palace in “Ape and Essence,” Aldous Huxley’s 1948 satiric novel in the form of a rejected screenplay. Apes keep human scientists on leashes, ordering them to implement weapons of mass destruction. In Will Self’s 1997 novel, set in a London where everyone is a chimp, a research assistant goes to Videocity to get the “Planet of the Humans” films.

A chimp named Lucy saw “Planet of the Apes” at an American drive-in. Although she knew American Sign Language, she signed nothing afterward, writes a University of Oklahoma prof in ”Lucy: Growing Up Human: A Chimpanzee Daughter in a Psychotherapist’s Family.”

Long before films, our ancestors saw apes in their sleep. Dream-interpretation books from the 2nd and 9th centuries instructed that kissing an ape or a monkey in a dream means you are “evil, tricky, weak and treacherous” and “being kissed by a monkey means flattery by an enemy.”

Trust and betrayal are key to “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.” Leaders on both sides of the species divide face the same challenges. One school of primatologists even posits “Machiavellian intelligence” as a driving force of evolution. Manipulating others, not wielding weapons, is favored by natural selection and makes primates smarter. “An evolutionary spiral of Machiavellian cleverness” suggests that “intelligence began in social manipulation, deceit and cunning cooperation,” write Richard Byrne and Andrew Whiten.

Inter-species detente is nowhere in sight, however, in the annals of early Roman law. Poena cullei, the traditional punishment for parricide (aka, kin-killing), was straight out of a horror film, not a thought-provoking sci-fi franchise: “Such an offender was shod with wood, capped with a wolf-skin, beaten with red rods, sewed in a sack with a viper, an ape, a dog and a cock, drawn by black oxen to the nearest sea or river, and hurled into the water.”

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