In the Fifties, the French writer Romain Gary raised the issue of mankind's survival in The Roots of Heaven. Gary's protagonist is Morel, an ordinary French dentist who goes over to the elephants in French Equatorial Africa. Morel is a misanthrope, but Gary, it turns out, is not. The ending of the novel is a tribute to the human spirit. The Fifties were the time of the beat generation, of cool, of jazz, grass, the Korean War, the rise and fall of McCarthy, the presidency of Eisenhower, the post-war boom, the poetry of Patchen and Ginsberg, the death of Robert Capa, the fall of Dien Bien Phu and Brown v. Board of Education.
Just seven years later, Pierre Boulle's 1963 novel, Planet of the Apes, contemplated the extinction of mankind and the rise of the ape as the torchbearer of civilization throughout the universe. The Sixties were the time of the hippies, the Cold War ascendent, the Kennedy and Johnson presidencies, the Civil Rights movement, acid and acid rock, the Vietnam War, the fall of Lyndon Johnson and the rise of Nixon. Alan Ginsberg lived to see Chicago cops riot against the sons and daughters of America's middle class who had tuned in, turned on, dropped out and come back swinging against the war and the draft. I was just back from Germany where I had put in my two years as a medic at an Army hospital, getting high and shooting up Thorazine to improve my tan, so I passed on Chicago myself, but I did show my younger brother how to curl up into a ball to protect his nuts when the cops started beating him. I sent him off to Chicago with a bright red bandana to cover his nose and mouth when the tear gas began to fly.
Boulle's Planet of the Apes didn't speculate about the causes of the rise of the apes as the dominant species in the far reaches of the galaxy, or about the extinction of man and the rise of the apes on our own planet. Boulle simply presented the success of ape culture and the failure of mankind as a fact. For some unknown reason, man was just not good enough.
When Twentieth Century Fox produced the film version of Boulle's book, they apparently thought they owed the viewer an explanation. The plot of Planet of the Apes (1968) hangs on a malfunctioning starship that plunges back to Earth instead of landing on a planet at the far end of the galaxy, and on a nuclear war that wipes out the human race, letting apes take over the planet while the starship and its astronauts are gone.
In Fox's Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), the human race is wiped out -- probably -- by a virus. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, nobody takes seriously the idea that man will be wiped out in a nuclear holocaust. And we're not worried about rogue computers turning on the human race anymore. The peril now is biological. In Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a virus that makes apes smart enough to talk and to break out of an ape jail in San Francisco is deadly to humans and highly contagious to boot. Good thing for the apes, of course, since, without the intervention of the virus they would have had one good day of beating up on the cops before the bombs started to fall.
The idea that apes can beat up cops is as silly as the notion that hippies can beat up cops. It's just more Hollywood eyewash in the style of the Na'vi beating down the guns and machines of corporate America to liberate Pandora in Fox's Avatar (2009). But there is a strong odor of misanthropy and self-hatred about the idea that resonates with establishement critics like David Denby of The New Yorker.
Here's Denby, waxing poetic over scenes of apes, invading a research facility. "When the apes, like water bursting through a dam, pour through the building's glass walls at different levels," Denby exults, "the image is a pop epiphany of freedom."
Something like ice breaking up and cascading down a raging river as a metaphor for revolution, I suppose.
The high water mark is definitely creeping up the sand.