Sunday, July 13, 2014

Apes with guns

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is headed for a big box office weekend, an estimated $70 million.  Not surprising given its post-apocalyptic theme where apes gain ascendancy over man, reminiscent of the original series.  It also fits with the current obsession with man in a survivalist mode, replacing zombies with apes.

Chimpanzees are not to be messed with and can grow to the size of a human.  Just ask Charla Nash who was mauled by her boss's 200 lb. chimp named Travis and had to undergo a facial transplant.  She is now a major advocate of more strict regulations on exotic pets.

Chimps have long been treated as lovable semi-human beings which you can dress up.  They even starred in television series like Lancelot Link in the early 70s.  After all, they only differ from humans by one chromosome.  Anthropologists estimate that humans branched off from chimpanzees about 6 million years ago, evolving into a new species.  We still share many of the same traits, which is why drug companies have long used chimpanzees as human surrogates.

Needless to say, Jane Goodall didn't serve as a consultant in this film.  Dawn picks up where Rise of the Planet of the Apes left off with the Apes now controlling the Northern California redwoods, and humans trying to find a way to revive a battle-scarred San Francisco.  There is a feeble attempt at forging peace, but man being man just can't recognize ape as his equal, so the inevitable conflict ensues.

It is pretty far away from the original movie franchise. which was based on a book by Pierre Boulle, a French novelist, who apparently meant the novel as a Swiftian satire, with numerous allusions and metaphors, notably in the names he chose to give his major Simian characters, and even his human protagonist, Ulysse Merou,  who like his Greek namesake returns home after a long voyage, only to find it much changed.  Ulysse was renamed George Taylor in the 1968 movie, starring Charleston Heston, to suit American sensibilities I guess.  The movie traded satire for irony, especially in the ending when the protagonist discovered what planet he is on.

There was a certain appeal to man as primitive being and ape as overlord.  Humans had lost their power of speech and so the Simian leaders were bemused to find one that speaks like them.  The film was so popular that it spawned a series of films that circled back to the first.    They could be viewed by the end of the 70s in "Dusk to Dawn" showings at the local drive-in, what few still remained.

Tim Burton tried to revive the series in 2001, but his costume drama fell flat and it took the studio ten years to build up enough courage to try again.  Surprisingly, Rise of the Planet of the Apes was a hit.  At least it had some kind of social message, greatly dramatizing the potential consequences of using great apes in laboratory experiments, which Jane Goodall has long spoken out against.  It seems the drug companies are finally taking heed.  But, somehow we still can't get past exploiting apes in film.  You might call these apesploitation films, even if the apes are largely the result of CGI effects, and no real apes are used in the films.

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