Thursday, 12 January 2012

Review: Planet of the Apes

Planet of the Apes (AKA La Planète des Singesby Pierre Boulle (1963)

In the year 2500, journalist Ulysse Mérou joins a three-man expedition on the first flight to another star system.  Mérou and his companions Professor Antelle and physicist Arthur Levain travel to a star system 350 light years from Earth, but by travelling at relativistic speeds, they've aged only about a year despite their centuries long voyage.  Taking a shuttle down to the surface of an Earth-like planet, they are attacked by the mute, primitive humanoid inhabitants, who rip their clothes to shreds and destroy their landing craft.  If being marooned wasn't bad enough, the explorers are set upon by the true masters of the; intelligent apes, who kill Levain in a hunt and capture Mérou, sending him to an animal behaviour laboratory run by a Chimpanzee named Zira.

Yes, it's the plot of the 1968 adaptation by 20th Century Fox that, at least in its basic premise, follows Boulle's novel fairly closely.   However, where the film version's script by Rod Serling and Michael Wilson was a science fiction adventure laced with stinging social commentary, Boulle's Planet is a Swifitan satire that uses science fiction as a convenient plot device.  In the film, the ape society is a relatively primitive one with hints of having bits of a more sophisticated culture handed down to it, but in the novel the apes live in a modern, technological world that is an obvious fun house mirror version of 1963 France.  Also, the conflict is entirely different and Mérou, though in danger from the blinkered Dr Zaius isn't in immediate danger as is able to explore the planet like a latter day Gulliver in a land of the degenerate humans standing in for the yahoos and the apes for the Houyhnhnms.  What is interesting about this upside down society is something that is only hinted at in the film; the ape society is merely a distorted imitation of the earlier human one it displaced.  The apes are merely "aping" their former masters and Boulle is saying that there are very few creative people and the rest of human society are simply imitators.  In Dr Zaius he's also taking a dig at the French academy system, though I would have thought that by the '60s this was already flogging a dead orang-outang.

Not as intensely dramatic as the film, it stands up very well on its own merits.  I give it three bananas.

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