Wednesday, 6 April 2011

The Watcher special - Hail to the Chimp!

2011 marks a significant milestone in the history of space flight, as the 12th of April will see the fiftieth anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s historic voyage as the first homo sapien in space. But while we celebrate this small step for man, remember that someone else got there first...

Picture the scene, January 31st 1961, the Atlantic Ocean. Emerging from his space capsule to the glare of flashbulbs and riotous applause, the first "American" in space – a chimpanzee named Ham. Although the pictures show a smiling true blue aponaut, eyewitness accounts report that Ham did in fact get, "just a little bit narky". Hardly surprising really, given that the poor fellow had just endured two years of rigorous training, electric shocks to the feet and a diet of dried banana pellets, only to be rewarded by being strapped to the top of a gigantic roman candle and blasted into space.

Inevitably, in 1968, Hollywood released the very first apesploitation picture and opening chapter of one of the greatest and most enduring sci-fi film franchises, Planet of the Apes. Recently, in honour of our soon to be Simian Overlords (and thanks to the miracle of affordable DVD box sets) I have been keeping myself entertained with all five original films of the Apes saga.

The first, starring Charlton Heston follows astronaut Colonel Taylor, stranded on the titular planet after rather cleverly trying to land his ship while still asleep. What follows is a thrilling mix of intelligent sci-fi and western action, as Taylor struggles to make friends and influence apes and ends up fleeing for his life.

Ignoring the warnings of ape know-it-all Dr. Zaius, Taylor heads to the "Forbidden Zone of Mystery" hoping to find evidence that man is basically better than ape, only to get proven wrong in spectacular, M. Night Shyamalan style. Taylor discovers he has in fact been on future Earth all along, discovering the charred remains of the Statue of Liberty (or is that Mega-Maid?) in the final reel.

For a major film franchise, Apes bucked the usual downward trend,and spawned four surprisingly original and enjoyable sequels. Continuing to draw inspiration from Pierre Boule’s source novel, Le Planet des Singes, the following films inventively mixed Sci-fi sub genres and tropes such as nuclear war, time travel and Orwellian dystopia to great effect. Whilst the first film is a stone cold classic, all five films dovetail satisfyingly when viewed together, the variations in style and content providing plenty of entertainment.

As if that wasn’t enough, Fox recently released the first official still from their upcoming ‘Apes’ prequel Rise of the Apes, featuring James Franco, of Spider-Man fame. Also starring is Andy Serkis - who is rapidly becoming Hollywood’s go-to guy for socially awkward and misunderstood apes. One can only imagine how the film makers plan to antagonise them damn dirty apes this time – stranding them in deep space with Mark Wahlberg?

Speaking of which – it's pointed out that Tim Roth turned down the part of Snape in Harry Potter to star in Tim Burton’s woeful 2001 "reimagining" Stop-the-Planet-of-the-Apes, I want to get off!

Guess they finally made a monkey out of him!

Robert Barton-Ancliffe wrote this article in exchange for bananas. True story.

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