Monday July 12, 2004

Do!

1972's Conquest of the Planet of the Apes is the fourth movie in the series. It's sort of fun if you're a fan of dystopian 70's science fiction films—it's got ugly concrete architecture, thinly veiled Nazi analogues, futuristic clothing styles involving turtlenecks, and a double helping of Message—but I can't really recommend it. However, there's an linguistics angle to the way the apes are trained in the movie that I thought was interesting.

[Warning: spoilers ahead for all the movies, including the original 1968 Planet of the Apes, which you really ought to see unspoiled.]

Extra-condensed plot summary of the first three movies: 20th century astronauts travel to a future Earth where apes have become civilized, while humans have devolved to a primitive state. At the end of the second movie, the Earth blows up. Despite this inconvenient detail, there's a third movie, in which two friendly apes make their way back to the 20th century, where they have a baby and get killed. Ricardo Montalban (Khan!) saves the baby chimp Caesar, hides him, and raises him to adulthood. [Whew!]

Eight years before the start of the fourth movie, set in far future 1991, a plague killed off all cats and dogs. Humans' unquenchable desire for pets led them to start keeping apes, who had been spared by the plague, in their homes. Yes, seriously. As people began to realize how bright and easily trainable apes were, they began to use them as servants. Now, every city street is filled with apes wearing color-coded jumpsuits, running errands, and being brutally supressed by a new ape-control Gestapo.

The ape servants are given spoken commands in English, but their vocabulary seems to be very small—I remember "No!", "Go!", "Go home!", "Come!", and the most important command, "Do!". This last is the general purpose ape command, apparently based on the well-known scientific principle "Monkey see, monkey do". An ape is made to watch a human or another ape performing a task, and is then told to imitate the action. This means that an ape can learn a number of different tasks, and then the single command "Do!", given the right context and visual prompting, can be used to trigger the correct task. It's kind of like object oriented programming: the apes have one method that can be passed a lot of context information, and based on that context they Do What I Mean.

Context sensitive monkeys! (Not to be confused with scratch monkeys.) What could be more plausible? Lacking a human-like language faculty, the movie's apes rely entirely on pragmatics and simple sign language for communication. This isn't completely wrong-headed—at least the filmmakers didn't try to convince us that we could teach apes to speak, if only we'd try harder—but the speed at which apes have gone from, well, apes to nearly human slaves isn't credible. I kept waiting for a gorilla to get annoyed with one of the ape-control guys hitting him with a club and snap him like a twig. The film goes to some trouble to convince us by showing the extensive training the apes receive, including being zapped with electricity while hearing the word "No!" to sensitize them to it, and being thrown bananas while a flame thrower is fired at them to get them accustomed to fire. Who would have guessed that a chimpanzee could be taught to wash his hands or mix a scotch and soda simply by showing it to him once?

I'm sympathetic with the plight of the film's producers. Because the Apes movies involve a time-loop, they know where they have to go, and they have to figure out a way to get there. There's one remaining super-ape at the end of the third movie, and somehow, within his lifetime, this has to lead to apes ruling the world. However, the gulf between Conquest and the previous movie is simply too large. Somehow, in the eight years since the dogs and cats died, the world has turned into a brutal slave-owning society while apes have evolved about 80% of the way to the Planet of the Apes level, presenting Caesar with an army, ready to revolt.

I haven't seen the next (and final) movie in series, Battle for the Planet of the Apes, and I'm not sure I'll bother. I did do you all the favor of seeing the recent Tim Burton remake (no link) so you don't have to—you're welcome. I'd heard that the ending was a completely nonsensical disaster, but I wanted to see it for myself. Well, I jumped on the grenade, and I can assure you that the ending is in fact terrible, stupid, and broken. The fact that Marky-Mark was the star should have warned me away, I suppose, but he's tricky—occasionally he's in a really good movie like Boogie Nights or Three Kings. Burton's Apes was nowhere near as good as those. Avoid.

[Now playing: "Shock the Monkey" by Peter Gabriel]

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Comments

I like the original five movies for the "B" sci-fi films that they were and must have seen them dozens of times. I also enjoyed Tim Burtons planet of the apes despite it's short comings. I'm a very huge Tim Burton fan and I felt that his comic-book approach to film making suits planet of the apes weell. Unfortuneately there were some scripting & acting problems in the movie.

Posted by: Blinger at Jul 12, 2004 5:34:57 AM