he minor backlash against director Tim Burton’s "re-imagining" of the classic science fiction film Planet of the Apes stems largely from the belief that the new film does not live up to the original. But the critics are missing a key point necessary to understand the work. Burton’s version actually takes its base story structure neither from Franklin J. Schaffner’s 1968 film nor Pierre Boulle’s original novel. No, Burton is working from, in a manner, an altogether different Charlton Heston movie: Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 biblical epic, The Ten Commandments.
In addition, Apes uses a cyclic story structure that has the Old Testament tale turning back on itself, causing role reversals between the apes and the humans (stand-ins for the Jews and Egyptians), perhaps to illustrate the repetitious nature of man’s inherently savage, oppressive nature.
The new film begins on the space station Oberon (named for a mythical god-figure), where human masters use chimpanzees and orangutans as disposable tools for dangerous tasks. Astronaut Leo Davidson (Mark Wahlberg) defies his colleagues in the hopes of saving his chimp protégé, Pericles, and so sets into motion the first version of the biblical adaptation.
The strongest clues to the true basis of the film are the names. Both male and female lead characters are named "lion": "Leo," of course, and Helena Bonham Carter’s "Ari," which is the Hebrew word for lion. Lions were symbols of royalty in ancient Israel, representing direct lineage from King David. The fact is further underscored by Leo’s last name, Davidsonson of David.
As revealed later in the movie, the crashed ruins of the Oberon (later to be known as Calima) become a battleground between its surviving human and ape crew. The genetically altered apes, at first put to work by the human researchers, soon turn on their masters when led by the chimp Semosthe name is an anagram of Moses. Semos, we are told, was raised from infancy by humans (as Moses was raised by the Pharaoh’s daughter) who are shocked by their foster child’s sudden turn. The apes’ eventual overthrow of the humans sets the stage for the planet that Leo Davidson arrives ona role-reversal where the apes are the masters and the humans the slaves.
Here the time-lost astronaut becomes a reluctant figurehead of salvation for the enslaved humans, leading his people away from Ape City to the holy land, Calima, where apes believe that all life on the planet originated. Here he hopes to be rescued from his bondage by the Oberon. Leo leads his people by following directions from a "burning bush" (his homing device) and displaying miraculous "sorcery" (his weapon).
Their journey is one of the more direct connections to the Old Testament. Leo leads his people through a desert, and while it takes less than forty years, the point is the same. Further, in a key scene the humans make their escape across a body of water over which their pursuers are unable to follow, in a clever re-enactment of the parting of the Red Sea.
General Thade (Tim Roth), the enraged Rameses figure and a relative of Semosis it only a coincidence that the name is an anagram of death?leads his army to Calima as well. The two sides confront each other only to be interrupted by the return of Pericles. The chimp is mistaken for Semos, thus fulfilling the ironically Christ-like resurrection prophecy of the apes’ religion. From here the story deviates from the biblical models as this meeting of the two Moses figures results in (apparent) tolerance between the two species.
The film’s endingmeant, according to Burton, to be an abstract extension of the previous "Apes" movies’ cyclical natureonce again repeats the Moses symbolism by placing Thade’s visage upon the Lincoln monument (Lincoln, of course, being "The Great Emancipator"). So once again, roles are reversed: One minority is forced into slavery while the majority is left to rule. A recurring theme if ever there was one, in both history and mythology.