'Planet of the Apes' Ending is the Antidote to Aggressively Hopeful Blockbusters

Planet of the Apes ends famously. And since it’s now been 50 years since the April 1968 wide release of the original Planet of the Apes, it’s a spoiler that can be discussed openly. But more impressive, from a modern moviegoer’s perspective, than the specifics of how Planet of the Apes ends—with astronaut Colonel Taylor (Charlton Heston) slamming his fists into the sand, shrieking, “You maniacs! You blew it up! Damn you! Goddamn you all to hell!”—is its hopelessness, a quality since scrubbed from our pop art.

Movies are full of hope. Against insurmountable odds, cinematic heroes triumph because they have hope. In Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the Resistance lives on, even after almost total defeat, thanks to the hope Luke Skywalker unleashes with his final sacrifice, spawning young rebels across the galaxy (In Rogue One, the last word spoken is “Hope”). Perseverance, built of hope, keeps Mark Watney alive on Mars in The Martian. Hope pushes back death and invigorates whole armies. We know in advance: hope will topple Thanos.

Even at our most cynical, hope is a constant. Looking back at the top twenty movies in each of the past ten years, it’s hard to find any hopelessness at all. Logan looks ahead to a new generation of young mutants even after his clone murdered Professor X. Our most superficially hopeless genre, the post-apocalyptic thriller, is itself a collection of optimistic fantasies. Real irradiated wastelands don’t have cool cars and spikey fashions, but do have plenty of sloughed-off skin. What passes for grim, from Mad Max: Fury Road to Batman v Superman, tends instead to seek out a world free of moral complication, where the virtues of violence are clear and the enemies obvious. Final defeat, a reckoning with all our failures, is never allowed to arrive.

But at the end of Planet of the Apes, there can be no misinterpretation.

After leaving Earth in 1972 to test “Dr. Hasslein’s theory” of time dilation, Colonel Taylor and his men crashland on what they believe to be a distant planet, 2006 years after their launch date. On this planet, centuries after everyone he knows has died, the misanthropic Taylor hopes to find “something better than man.”

planet-of-the-apes-spaceship-time-travel Colonel Taylor watches space and time fly by from aboard their spaceship, Icarus. 20th Century Fox

What he finds instead horrifies him: the planet is ruled by apes. Taylor’s presence, speaking in a world where humans don’t have the power of speech, upends the dogmatism of ape society, prompting a climactic visit to the Forbidden Zone. There, alongside ape archaeologist Cornelius and Zira, a psychologist and veterinarian, Taylor examines evidence of a pre-ape society; a society that looks suspiciously like ours. At the end, after Taylor has negotiated, at gunpoint, his freedom from the ape zealot Dr. Zaius (Dr. Zaius! Dr. Zaius!), he sets out on his own, into unexplored territory. He finds the half-sunk wreckage of the Statue of Liberty. It was Earth all along.

Taylor’s final breakdown is directed at you. We have done what he never quite believed—what none of us quite believe—we will do. We destroyed ourselves. Before “You maniacs! You blew it up! Damn you! Goddamn you all to hell!” Taylor’s last calm words are disbelieving. “We finally really did it,” he says.

planet-of-the-apes-1968-ending-you-blew-it-up "Goddamn you all to hell!" 20th Century Fox

Global warming has replaced death by nuclear war as our predominant apocalyptic focus (though there’s no good reason to ignore nukes), but there’s a new and disturbing quietus hanging over our most mainstream artistic responses. In 1959, President Eisenhower and his cabinet, worried that it could bolster the “Ban the Bomb” movement, discussed ways to undermine the release of On the Beach, a film adaptation of the novel about our extinction by nuclear fallout.

Today, that job is performed by the film industry itself, whose blockbuster business model depends upon mainstream releases being sufficiently unalarming, apolitical and escapist to attract mass audiences. Movies with bleak endings, imputing dark qualities to humanity as a whole, once regularly ranked among the top 10 earners for their year, including Easy Rider, Seven, Night of the Living Dead, and yes, Planet of the Apes.

Unlike in the late 60s and 70s, widely regarded as a high-water mark for American cinema, movies as a mainstream art form have ceased to reflect American society, just as society has grown more hopeless. Suicide rates have soared. As income inequality rises, huge segments of the population feel (and are) alienated from government and the economy. Despair is killing us. But hopelessness on the movie screen has been pushed back, either to the indie and arthouse scenes, or to nowhere at all.

Maybe hope is a useful sentiment. After New York Magazine published an article describing the incontrovertible deadliness of oncoming climate change—including horrific possibilities like dead oceans, cognitive decline from increased carbon dioxide and entire continents made nearly uninhabitable by temperatures too high for the human body to counteract—waves of responses decried its irresponsibility, claiming alarmism will lead to defeatism, as people become convinced there’s no altering course.

Yet pop culture’s suffocating cloud of hope seems as dangerous. Our most popular stories are almost universally about overcoming immense odds with last-minute miracles. It’s a narrative format that saves radical intervention for the moment of absolute crisis—useless to a world without such clarifying moments.

But it’s not the expectation that movies will resolve the towering danger of our current predicament that makes our overabundance of cinematic hope so irritating. Instead, it’s the sensation that our most-shared art is uninterested in our actual conditions. Movies no longer reflect us, but condescendingly coo hope, hope, hope to an American society collectively growing more depressed, alienated and anxious. The sound of the word “hope” becomes cloying and its repetition grows more strained in our ears. By comparison, a little dose of hopelessness would be refreshing. Planet of the Apes remains remarkable today, on its 50th anniversary, for a number of reasons, but the rarity of its despair, the clarity of its final, stark realization, is something too few movies are willing to offer us anymore.

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