Did The Simpsons Predict the Plot of War for the Planet of the Apes?
“All of human history has led to this moment,” says Woody Harrelson’s Colonel in the trailer for War for the Planet of the Apes. You can tell it’s going to be a very serious film because you see him staring at a photo of a child, and using a razor to shave his head. The Colonel’s hard. The Colonel hasn’t got time for monkeying around (sorry).
But hey! He’s not wrong. For years we’ve watched blockbuster after blockbuster. For years we’ve waited patiently and paid our dues — we even humoured Tim Burton back in 2001. The time has come, Andy Serkis is back in his MoCap suit — the War for the Planet of the Apes is nigh. But haven’t we seen this somewhere before?
Yes. No. Sort of.
The root of all knowledge can be traced back to America’s first family. Not the Trumps. Not the Obamas, not even the Kennedys — the residents of 742 Evergreen Terrace, Springfield. The Simpsons grew up in the United States run by George Bush Sr. and Bill Clinton, and their birth hailed a new breed of sitcom for Generation X. Many have tried to capture the zeitgeist of America in the dying light of the twentieth century, but none did it quite as well as The Simpsons during its glory years — those first eight seasons of its mammoth twenty-eight year history. Things weren’t the same before or after that. This is a post-Groening world; we’re just living in it.
It happened back in 1996. It’s not a big joke. It’s one scene spanning two minutes, featuring two musical numbers and one Henny Youngman gag, in the middle of season seven’s episode A Fish Called Selma. Fading actor Troy McClure plays the iconic George Taylor role in a musical called Stop the Planet of the Apes, I Want to Get Off! Phil Hartman sings “Get your paws off me, you dirty ape!” and a chorus replies “He can talk! He can talk!” “I CAN SING!” To the tune of Falco’s Rock Me Amadeus, the apes chant “Dr Zaius, Dr Zaius!” and breakdance. Bart Simpson, watching in the audience, whispers “This play has everything”, and he’s right. In the space of 120 seconds, The Simpsons manages to do more than most studios manage in 120 minutes.
The moment George Taylor realises he’s been on Earth all along stands with “You’ve always been the Caretaker” and “No, I am your father” in cinema’s rich history of subverting expectations, and The Simpsons has always assumed its audience’s pop culture credentials in order to make us laugh. It’s a show that loves not only its own medium but the world that it exists in — not snide, not unkind. Mischievous, a catapult stuffed in its back pocket the whole time.
The world is darker now. War for the Planet of the Apes takes place in the grey misery of a planet ravaged by disease and war, where the folly of mankind has led to the obliteration of both human and simian life. In the 1968 original, glorious technicolour stood at odds with its incredibly bleak plot — and it is bleak. The original 1963 novel was written with the backdrop of the Cold War and Space Race, when technological advancement outstripped human development and our relationship with nature became more fraught.
We know better. Chimps, gorillas, orangutans: all endangered. The Planet of the Apes franchise reboot thrust a mirror into our faces and said “Look what we’ve done. Look what we’re going to do. We should be endangered, never mind the apes.” War for the Planet of the Apes has a lot to live up to, and not just because it follows two surprisingly nuanced and intelligent predecessors. The thing is, we’re not waiting for the plot twist this time. We know how it ends, we know it was Earth all along.
So Troy McClure stands on the stage, and the Statue of Liberty rises behind him. He turns around in horror, and sings “Oh my God, I was wrong! It was Earth all along. You’ve finally made a monkey out of me!” It’s that kind of genius dialogue that made The Simpsons so unique — in those glorious halcyon days, it had a knack for elevating the mundane to greatness, but it made what was already great, legendary. At the end of the trailer for WftPotA, with no hint of irony, Harrelson says “If we lose, it will be…a planet of apes.” That’s the money shot. Matt Bomback and Matt Reeves are in on the joke. They know how ridiculous it sounds, and that there’s no reason the ridiculous can’t also be sublime. That’s what The Simpsons taught us twenty-one years ago.
And if, as Caesar and his monkey mates bare down on him, Woody Harrelson’s Colonel doesn’t sing “I hate every ape I see, from Chimpan-A to Chimpan-Zee!” then really…was it worth the ticket price?