Monday, August 11, 2014

Something Better Than Man: The Strange Humanism of Planet of the Apes

Beware the beast Man, for he is the Devil's pawn. Alone among God's primates, he kills for sport or lust or greed. Yea, he will murder his brother to possess his brother's land. Let him not breed in great numbers, for he will make a desert of his home and yours. Shun him; drive him back into his jungle lair, for he is the harbinger of death.

These words are from the sacred scrolls of the apes, the intelligent and civilized simians who rule the earth in the distant future prophesied by the 1968 film Planet of the Apes. The passage is striking as a stern condemnation of humanity and its perpetually evil ways. In unmistakably religious tones, it paints "the beast Man" as irredeemably wicked and perverse; the only way to deal with him is, in essence, to avoid him at all costs. 

Of course, in reality, these words were penned by human beings, who are their own harshest critics, and there is no way we can avoid ourselves. As Kant said, "Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made." This is a sobering perspective that would ultimately give the lie to all dreams of human progress, for we can never escape what we are, and what we are includes all of the darkness within. According to the tragic vision of human nature that has traditionally dominated Western thought, that darkness can never be eradicated by social or political action nor by the application of science and technology (at least not without, as has often been argued, taking away something fundamental from our very humanity, such as free will). 

When I was a boy, Planet of the Apes was one of my favorite movies. Back then, of course, I had little to no understanding of the film's themes; I just enjoyed it, as I did many another science fiction movie, as a spectacle of strangeness and wonder (which it very much is). I read the novel it was based on (by the French author Pierre Boulle) just once, when I was in about the second grade, but I still remember it vividly. The book differs from the movie in several significant ways, and, although it is probably, as might be expected, a more sophisticated work than the movie, I believe that the film approaches the theme of the worth of humanity in its own distinctive way, and, at least by Hollywood standards, with a fair degree of subtlety and poignance.

One of the sections of Boulle's book that has especially haunted me is an extended scene involving ape scientists who are performing psychological experiments on the bestial humans of their planet. The apes have figured out how, by way of hypnotic regression, to get the erstwhile dumb, brute human beings to speak—not in their own voices, however, but in the voices of their long-dead forebears—and thereby to elicit a series of narratives, culled from the depths of the humans' unconscious ancestral memory, about the gradual eclipsing of the former human civilization by the apes. This scene is not only wondrously eerie, because of the mechanism of having people who are long dead speak through their living, not to mention mute and unintelligent, descendants (a feat of channeling that is accomplished by scientific means!); it is also haunting because of the stories that are told, and the lost history that is revealed, by the voices of the ancient humans.

Unlike the movie series, which portrayed the apes' conquest and the humans' downfall as happening rather suddenly and dramatically, the parallel process in the novel is revealed to have been much more gradual and mysterious. For whatever reason, the humans are undergoing a process of devolution while the apes are rapidly evolving their capabilities of thought and language. Eventually the apes begin to display increasingly defiant and ominous behavior toward their human masters, who are simultaneously less and less able to function to their full human capacities. Eventually, the apes are the masters, the humans their servants. When shown in this way (a manner which is, to be sure, better suited to a novel than a Hollywood movie), the ascent of the apes and corresponding descent of humanity become much more chilling and somehow more believable. 

Boulle's novel has been described as a sort of space age variation of Gulliver's Travels, and, like Swift's classic novel, uses its fantastical setting and situation to satirize the human race. It can justly be said that, in some sense at least, both novels are misanthropic. The main point of each is not to provide mere escapist fantasy adventure, but to hold the human race up to ridicule and mockery, to deflate our pretensions and vain hopes, to condemn our flaws and failings, and to keep us humble. The movie does not eschew satire, but it often expresses it much more broadly, one might even say in a dumbed down way: for instance, when the three apes visually enact the "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil" motif; the "human see, human do" joke; etc. Of course, so much is to be expected in a major Hollywood motion picture. However, the movie does something else with Boulle's premise, something that might at first glance appear to be a mere concession to popular taste and sentiment, but which is actually quite nuanced, moving, and profound. The film almost seems to reverse the polarity of Boulle's novel and thereby turn Planet of the Apes from a misanthropic satire into a tragic and ultimately deeply humanistic morality play. 


Colonel George Taylor (Charlton Heston) is the protagonist in this drama, the U.S. astronaut who finds himself on a planet where intelligent apes rule and humans are mere beasts. Taylor is himself a misanthrope, but the bizarre situation in which he finds himself ends up turning him into an unlikely defender and advocate of the human race. It is this complex and ambiguous attitude toward humanity (particularly as exemplified by Taylor) that gives the film its distinctive philosophical cast and a large part of its dramatic power. 

At the beginning of the picture, we see Taylor aboard his spaceship, recording his final thoughts before entering hibernation on the far voyage across interstellar space. He says: 

This much is probably true - the men who sent us on this journey are long since dead and gone. You who are reading me now are a different breed - I hope a better one. I leave the 20th century with no regrets. ... Tell me, though. Does man, that marvel of the universe, that glorious paradox who sent me to the stars, still make war against his brother? Keep his neighbor's children starving?

Later, after the astronauts have arrived on the titular planet (but before they have discovered the nature of its civilization), Taylor says to one of his more idealistic companions: "I'm a seeker too. But my dreams aren't like yours. I can't help thinking that somewhere in the universe there has to be something better than man. Has to be." 

This sardonic statement concisely expresses Taylor's misanthropy, a rebuttal to the humanistic notion that man is the pinnacle of creation. It recalls Nietzsche's statement in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, with regard to his concept of the √úbermensch (Overman or Superman), that "Man is something to be surpassed." However, as with Nietzsche, Taylor's apparent antihumanism is conjoined with a strange sort of idealism—the longing for a being that is better than man, that succeeds where humanity fails. While Nietzsche saw this being, the Overman, realized in the future history of human evolution, Taylor seems to believe that such a superior being must already exist somewhere in the universe. His statement implies a belief that the universe would be mysteriously incomplete, not to mention disappointingly lacking, if in fact humanity proved to be the highest and most advanced creature it had produced, considering all that humanity leaves to be desired. 

Shortly after their arrival in this strange new world, the astronauts stumble upon the seemingly Edenic existence of the primitive humans who dwell in the planet's forests. They are unimpressed by their uncivilized human counterparts. Taylor quips, "If this is the best they've got around here, in six months we'll be running this planet." 

Of course, Taylor goes on to discover a civilization on the new planet—one that is certainly different from man, but not necessarily better. To his shock, this civilization consists of apes. Boulle's device of casting apes as intelligent and humans as beasts is in itself a bitterly antihumanist conceit, upending as it does the entire notion that humanity is inherently superior to other animals. In the context of humanity's age-old pride of place in the cosmos, this inversion feels to us both humiliating and perverse. To think! That the "monkeys" would be our masters! That we would be their pets, their zoo animals, and their unwilling scientific research subjects! 

And yet, this outrage to human pride is, incomprehensibly, the actual state of affairs on the planet of the apes. Almost immediately on the heels of this bewildering and disturbing discovery, Taylor is wounded by gunshot and captured by the apes, then brought into captivity. To make matters even worse, due to his injury he cannot speak and therefore cannot prove to his ape captors that he is in fact an intelligent and articulate being. He must endure being treated in the inhumane and undignified way in which we ourselves often treat animals, and is unable even to protest. 

Eventually Taylor recovers his voice (in one of the film's most memorable moments: "Take your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape!"), and comes to be regarded as a freak of nature by the apes. Ironically, his cause is not helped by the fact that the apes, as exemplified by the learned orangutan Dr. Zaius, seem to share Taylor's own misanthropy: "You are right, I have always known about man. From the evidence, I believe his wisdom must walk hand and hand with his idiocy. His emotions must rule his brain. He must be a warlike creature who gives battle to everything around him, even himself." 

What did Taylor expect? That the apes would regard humankind much more favorably than he himself does? It is when he faces antihumanist attitudes from intelligent nonhumans that Taylor's heart begins, almost of necessity, to change. In this "upside down" world, he finds himself the lone voice capable of defending what our humanists once called the Dignity of Man against the withering contempt of the apes who believe themselves infinitely superior to us. The fact that the apes regard humankind as essentially worthless causes Taylor to appreciate and to defend what worth we may possess in spite of it all. 

He accomplishes this, at times, by less than noble means. After making a journey to the wasteland known as the Forbidden Zone, Taylor ties up Dr. Zaius in order to facilitate his own escape. The ape most sympathetic to Taylor, the female chimpanzee Dr. Zira, cries out, "Taylor! Don't treat him that way!" 

Taylor: Why not?

 Zira: It's humiliating!

 Taylor: The way you humiliated me? All of you? You led me around on a leash!

 Cornelius: That was different. We thought you were inferior.

 Taylor: Now you know better.

But the film is far from being a simplistic cheerleader for humanity. Its pessimistic vision does not champion the liberal Enlightenment faith in human progress—a faith which has been seen by some historians as being based to a large degree on assumptions inherited from Christianity. Instead, Planet of the Apes echoes another, much less sanguine heritage of the West's Christian tradition: the concepts of original sin and the Fall of Man. At one point Zaius remarks: "The Forbidden Zone was once a paradise. Your breed made a desert of it, ages ago." 

There is no need here to describe the film's ending, one of the most iconic scenes in movie history, and I would not spoil it for those who have not seen it. Because of its familiarity, it is difficult for most of us to register the full shock of it, but the final visual revelation, its unforgettable image of ultimate ruin and loss, remains powerful and chilling. It is commonplace to make fun of the dramatic final lines shouted by a distraught Charlton Heston, but in the context of the picture, seeing not Heston but a broken Col. Taylor, this utterance is nothing less than deeply tragic. They are words of heartrending despair, spoken by a shattered, uncomprehending, and, in the moment, barely articulate human being: 

You Maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell! 

The film's tragedy lies in the fact that the human race, by its actions, has justified the apes'—and Taylor's—misanthropy. They have betrayed Taylor's would-be defense of humanity and proven themselves worthy of the apes' condemnation and derision. And yet, as with all true tragedy, humankind is shown to be noble even in its weakness and its downfall—even in its moral failings. It is tragic precisely because something very great has been lost; it grieves us to know that we failed so completely, so terribly, because we know we could have done better. In our tragic fall, we see not only our failure but our nobility and our promise. 


When I watched Planet of the Apes as a child, as I said, I simply enjoyed the imaginative wonder of it. Even after many repeat viewings, it remains just as strange a film to me today. It is strange, however, not only in the same fantastical ways I appreciated as a boy, but also now in new ways that are related to its theme. From my distant but still remarkably clear memory of the novel, I would say that the book seems to leave us simply with the bleakly pessimistic impression that the human race is not all that important in the grand scheme of things—that we may (and ultimately will) be easily and carelessly superseded by other species. It is a message befitting the book's bitterly satiric misanthropy. 

In the film, however, I sense a more complex, more tantalizing vision. Taylor may be a misanthrope, but he is, in his own words, a seeker. He seeks something better than man. He hardly finds it on the planet of the apes, for the apes' society exhibits many of the same follies and foibles as our own—it is, in fact, a mirror of our own. The shifting, silently mesmerizing cosmic lights seen at the beginning of the picture and the sleekly futuristic spaceship in which the astronauts traverse the stars suggest the wonder and mystery of the cosmos and the hopefulness and courage of human exploration, expectations which are profoundly disappointed by the desolate and forbidding landscape of the world upon which the astronauts arrive and by Taylor's harrowing and dehumanizing escapades among the hostile ape society. This is a bold exploratory reach for the stars that proves entirely futile and demoralizing. It is an expedition of adventurous discovery that ends in total waste and utter defeat. Zaius's response to Taylor's desire to venture further into the Forbidden Zone may very well apply to the astronauts' original mission to explore the unknown universe: 

Taylor: There's got to be an answer.

 Zaius: Don't look for it, Taylor. You may not like what you find. 

It is a statement that seems to underscore the inherent risk involved in any type of exploration or discovery, any quest for knowledge. If we seek truth, we just may find it—whether we like it or not. We may discover that the world is not as welcoming to us as we had thought, that the universe is indifferent to our highest human aspirations and ideals. We may discover deeply unhappy truths about ourselves. 

At the end, Taylor's quest—his search for "something better than man"—remains unfulfilled. Stranded on the planet of the apes, he has no hope of ever finding what he seeks, his mission a dismal failure, leaving him alone in the universe, in possession only of the most bleak and bitter of truths. Perhaps he has found wisdom. But at such cost. 

And yet, I remain haunted by Taylor's words, by his almost spiritual quest (indeed, as he has no evidence of any such superior creature existing in the universe, it can only be a matter of faith that such a being might in fact exist; and it may also be considered spiritual in the sense that it is an aspiration or desire of his soul). He may not have found the object of his vision, but we are left with the tantalizing possibility raised by the vision itself—what if, somewhere out there, there really is something better than us? What if the universe really has produced a creature more noble and pure—everything that we aspire to be, but never seem able to become? To me, there is a profound sense of longing and emptiness at the heart of the picture. The desolation of the landscape stands as symbol of that unfulfilled cosmic yearning, while the shimmering silence of the stars beckons mysteriously toward the unknown object of that longing. 


It is interesting that Planet of the Apes was released the same year as 2001: A Space Odyssey. The latter picture, of course, through its music, makes overt reference to Nietzsche's Overman myth as told by the prophet Zarathustra, and it, too, is a film that expresses sublime cosmic yearnings. 2001 is a more optimistic film than Planet of the Apes, but both films are informed by the idea that "man is something to be surpassed". This is, at first glance, a seemingly antihuman sentiment that nevertheless often finds expression in a desire for transcendence and transfiguration. It is not so much the notion that humanity is worthless as it is the idea that we were meant to be, or at least are capable of becoming, something more—something better than man. Ultimately, then, it is perhaps closer to being a profoundly humanistic conviction, a faith in what the philosophers have called our last end—our final potential and possibility, the true fulfillment of our being that we have not actually witnessed in empirical reality. Humanity has always felt this longing, as seen throughout the vast history of its religions, and it is a desire that has not vanished in our modern secular age. All dreams of progress are based upon it. 

For the time being, though, we are left with ourselves as we are. Both religious and secular faith in the perfection of humanity must wait for the future to see their fulfillment. Until that day comes, if it may and however it may, we must continue to live with our crooked timber, and we must never give up the ongoing, inevitably imperfect attempt to treat each other with—as we so poignantly call it—humanity. 

Yes, Col. Taylor. I'm afraid this is the best we've got. 

1 comment:

  1. How can a man know that something is better, or higher, than he is? Seems to be nothing more than a concept. Do animals recognize man as something higher than them? I doubt it. To recognize means literally to re-cognize. You must first cognize before you can re-cognize. Do animals cognize man AS man? Or just something other? How much cognition of any kind are animals capable of? Man cognizes. At least he says that he does. But that is self-referencing, which is meaningless. It's just like man calling himself homo sapiens. That too is self referencing. How does he know he is wise? Because he says so? Does anybody else say so?