Trump, Putin, and Nietzsche on the Planet of the Apes

Planet of the Apes (1968), the space age classic anticipates a dark human future now reflected in Trump and Putin. Still from movie trailer; not copyrighted and in the public domain. Courtesy 20th Century Fox; Wikicommons.

That’s about it. Tell me though: does man — that marvel of the universe, that glorious paradox who sent me to the stars — still make war against his brothers, keep his neighbor’s children starving? — Taylor (Charlton Heston) in Planet of the Apes

Let’s face it. Donald Trump’s election is not an anomaly or aberration, it’s part of a longer and deeper trajectory. We’re descending down to the freaking Planet of the Apes. Unless we own up to it, we’ll never overcome the cultural reversals happening right before our eyes.

In my book, Specter of the Monolith (2017), I argue it’s no wonder we don’t have the sleek space station from 2001 — we have yet to escape from the Planet of the Apes. This is a metaphor for the conflicting trajectories of civilization on Earth. Though our sciences and technologies are accelerating into future, into all directions of the cosmos, most of our cultural narratives are retreating into virulent forms of tribalism, narcissism, endless vengeful paybacks, and the revival of the Cold War and nuclear arms race. It’s easy to imagine atomic drones from the maniacs in the Pentagon and Kremlin. They are already militarizing space like crazy. President Trump now has a “Space Force.”

The paradox of our greatest scientific sachievement: Our sciences and technologies are accelerating our consciousness far into the cosmos, revealing a vast, ancient and wondrous universe of 2 trillion galaxies. Yet, we know we are insignificant and perhaps meaningless. This one of the Hubble Ultra Deep Field images. Courtesy, NASA, image in the public domain.

The reversals are happening precisely because we face the paradox of our greatest scientific achievement — we have discovered an ancient and majestic universe in which we are utterly insignificant and perhaps meaningless. Absent a cosmic narrative to unify our species, as hoped for with the Apollo moonwalk, all that’s left is tribal warfare, ecological destruction, and the belief that some deity is concerned about the destiny, elections, and mating habits of a single species on a tiny planet in a galaxy that is one of 2 trillion galaxies.

Nothing personifies this reversal more than the simian chest-thumping of Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, with their inflated egos and tiny hands near the nuclear launch buttons. It’s been 4 million years since the apes touched the monolith in 2001 and we — the advanced simians — have only evolved to the level of having Trump and Putin as presidents. I laugh at the absurd spectacle of Trump and Putin, the top simians in tribal America and tribal Russia, once the greatest space-faring nations on Earth and now the vying for control on the Planet of the Apes.

To their adoring fans, Trump and Putin are superheroes, pop culture Ubermensches destined to make America and Russia great again. In this glorious return to the future of the past, we might find that the Ubermensches are taking us on a great leap backward, a devolutionary destiny.

Given that 2018 is the 50th anniversary of the original Planet of the Apes and Trump and Putin are the world’s top political leaders, perhaps we should revisit a few key scenes in the film. They are still true today. That’s why Planet of the Apes remains one of the five greatest space films of all-time.

Directed by Franklin Shaffner and coauthored by Michael Wilson and Rod Serling, Planet of the Apes portrays the story of an astronaut propelled centuries into the future only to discover a post-apocalyptic world in which atomic warfare leads to civilizational destruction and human devolution. The astronaut is hurtled into the technological future and discovers that humans have reverted to the barbarian past — the human species went from the space age to the Stone Age.

The three surviving astronauts represent three separate archetypes. There is Dodge (Jeff Burton), the scientist who seeks to discover truth about the physical world. There is Landon (Robert Gunner), the patriot who seeks to be a hero for his nation back on Earth. Finally, there is Taylor, the existentialist who seeks philosophical meaning amid the cosmos. And this is where we are in 2018.

The world’s scientists are making mind blowing discoveries, especially about our tiny and beautiful planet amidst the vastness of the cosmos. In response, patriots of all kinds (theists, nationalists, etc.) are waging tribal warfare all over the planet, batting for domination and mastery of a fraction of a cosmic dot amidst the immensity of emptiness. And there are existentialists (like me and others) on the quest for the cosmic meaning for human existence, a meaning found outside deities, nations, and tribes.

Wandering amid the desert, the three astronauts are also metaphors for passengers on Spaceship Earth, which is hurtling through the cosmic expanses of the starry skies, with humans as the species burdened with the task of making meaning in an indifferent universe. Patriotism and nationalism are meaningless in this universe, only providing encouragement to those warriors unwilling or unable to acknowledge humanity’s actual existential conditions.

As Landon plants a tiny American flag on the planet’s surface, Taylor bursts out laughing at the absurd gesture. (It reminds me of all the tiny flag pins worn by American politicians. Laughable.)

These conditions and challenges are chiefly illustrated in several dialogues between Taylor and Landon. Shortly after washing ashore from the lake where they crash-land, the dialogue begins:

TAYLOR. You’ve gone gray. Apart from that, you look pretty chipper for a man who is 2,031 years old. I read the clocks. They bear our Hesslein’s hypothesis. We’ve been away from Earth for 2,000 years, give or take a decade. Still can’t accept it? Time’s wiped out everything you ever knew. It’s all dust.

LANDON. Prove it. If we can’t get back, it’s still just a theory. [This is where we are with the evolution deniers, global warming deniers, fundamentalists of all stripes, and creationists and young-Earthers. An evolution denier, Mike Pence is the Vice-President of the United States.]

TAYLOR. It’s a fact, Landon. Buy it. You’ll sleep better.

Fearing possible nihilism and meaninglessness, Dodge remains in denial, even though the science and technology have propelled him into space somewhere — planting flags to confront oblivion. Later, as the astronauts walk amid the sprawling desert, Landon thinks they will have a better chance for survival if they know their location on the planet:

LANDON. If we could just get a fix. [A concise expression of a species lost in space, hurtling through the expanding universe.]

TAYLOR. What would that tell you? I’ve told you where you are and when you are.

LANDON. All right, all right.

TAYLOR. You’re 300 light years from your precious planet. Your loved ones are dead and forgotten for twenty centuries. Twenty centuries! . . . There is just one reality left. We are here and it is now. You get a hold of that and hang on to it, or you might as well be dead.

LANDON. I’m prepared to die.

TAYLOR. He’s prepared to die. Doesn’t that make you misty! Chalk up another victory for the human spirit!

Taylor laughs loudly as he says these words, ridiculing the naïve and warrior-like virtues too often enshrined as heroic by humans in their quest for purpose and meaning in life. Dodge thinks he has to die for his country so his existence will have meaning. Taylor calls him out on his blind patriotism and nationalism. Fifty years later, nothing has changed. That’s Trump and Putin. Nationalist patriotism is running amok all over America and Russia, while the Terror War continues and the Cold War returns. How can this be remotely sane?

The dialogue continues as the astronauts hike amid sand dunes:

LANDON. You’re no seeker. You’re negative.

TAYLOR. And I’m not prepared to die.

LANDON. I’d like to know why not. You thought life on Earth was meaningless. You despise people. So what’d you do? You ran out.

TAYLOR. No, no, it’s not like that Landon. I’m a seeker too. But my dreams aren’t like yours. I can’t help thinking somewhere in the universe there has to be something better than man. Has to be. (With Trump leading America, there is little doubt as to the truth of Taylor’s hope.)

For Taylor, “life is meaningless” in the sense of life as a patriot or serving a nationalistic destiny, yet life can have meaning and purpose for the seeker in search of something better in the cosmos. Tragically, Taylor is going to discover that “something better than man” is what man evolved from — apes.

Eventually, Dodge discovers plant life: a solitary weed. The astronauts soon find other weeds and grasslands that lead them to a waterfall cascading into a pond surrounded by numerous trees and plants — a veritable Garden of Eden. However, this garden is also a jungle. Populating this jungle is an old (but new) species of humans, a tribe of hunter-gatherers, now mute and largely ignorant, apparently not having recently bitten into the apple from the Tree of Knowledge. This old species of future humans is ruled by apes, suggesting a cultural and intellectual devolution, sort of like Darwinism in reverse. How can this not be a metaphor for a contemporary species that’s dedicated to waging war while keeping its collective head in the sand with regard to its place in the cosmos and its impact on the ecosystems.

Like Vice-President Mike Pence and his creationist followers, the ruling apes have their own antiscientific and creationist mythologies of origins and destiny in which the scientific future must conform to the superstitious past. Let’s make America great again by denying evolution, climate change, and our place in the cosmos. That’s Trump. It’s the same in Putin’s Russia.

By the end of the film, Taylor and his mate, Nova (Linda Hamilton), are freed by the apes. Wearing only caveman-like clothes, Taylor and Nova will try to survive and perhaps breed, becoming the next Adam and Eve. More importantly, Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans), the head scientist and evolution denier, ominously declares that Taylor will discover his “destiny.” Taylor soon learns the fate of humanity on an ocean shoreline, coming across something that is utterly horrifying.

After Taylor and Nova dismount their horse, Taylor falls to his knees in the waves crashing on the shore. Looking up at a scorched Statue of Liberty half-buried in the sand, Taylor stutters and then shouts:

“Oh my God. I’m back. I’m home. All the time. You finally really did it. You maniacs! You blew it up! Damn you! Goddamn you all to hell!”

In this famed final scene of the film, Taylor learns humans had unleashed an atomic apocalypse. It then becomes clear where the astronauts are and when they are. Where they were? On Earth. When they were? In the future that is the past. “Ground Zero” happened, blasting humans back to the Stone Age. And we have Trump and Putin cheerleading an arms race.

In his journey into the vast universe, Taylor is inspired by the belief that there has to be a species superior to humans. This quest echoes Nietzsche’s yearning for the “Ubermensch” to supercede humankind on Earth. In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche explores the death of God, the eternal recurrence (the endless recycling of world events), and the possible rise of the Ubermensch (the “Overman” or “Superman”).

Since humans are the superior species that evolved from apes, Nietzsche theorized that something better might evolve from humans, especially in a modern world where God is dead, having been slayed by Copernicus, Darwin, and industrialization. Nietzsche believed that new being might be the Ubermensch or Superman, a far superior version of the human species:

“What is the ape to man? A laughing-stock, a thing of shame. And just the same shall man be to the Superman: a laughing-stock, a thing of shame.”

Nietzsche suggested the next stage of human evolution could occur if we accepted our place on Earth — in the material world — rather than looking to otherworldly Gods for meaning and purpose. If space exploration represents the next phase of human evolution and destiny, then what might evolve or emerge from humanity on its quest? What might we become, at least philosophically and symbolically? Planet of the Apes offers one scenario, while 2001 and Interstellar offer other possibilities.

Though there has been much debate about what forms the Ubermensch might take, it need not be a master race, dominating conquerors, or mere cartoon superheroes inspired by Nietzsche’s concept (Superman, Batman, etc.). In my view, the highly evolved Ubermensch could simply be a much more intellectually advanced human species that embraces its place on Earth and in the cosmos and develops an advanced philosophy and narrative for the human species. In effect, the human species has produced a technological Ubermensch — the massively evolved techno-civilization far beyond anything conceivable at the time Nietzsche was writing. And we have Trump and Putin at the top of the political ladder of the new Cold War

In the same passage as his quote above, Nietzsche also provided a subtle warning that prefigures the ending of Planet of the Apes: “Once were ye apes, and even yet man is more of an ape than any of the apes.” Shortly before Taylor discovers the annihilation of civilization, Cornelius (the chimpanzee archaeologist) reads aloud from an ancient scroll with a similar warning about humankind: “Beware the beast man. . . . Alone among God’s primates, he kills for sport, for lust, for greed. Yea, he will murder his brother to possess his brother’s land. Let him not breed in great numbers, for he will make a desert of his home and yours. Shun him, drive him back into his jungle lair, for he is the harbinger of death.” This describes the Terror Warriors and Cold Warriors of today.

Alone with Nova to discover his destiny, Taylor is a variation of “the last man” on Earth. Taylor is the terminal human who exists at the moment when either: 1) humanity destroys itself or dies off, leaving the apes with a new reign on Earth; or 2) humanity enters a higher stage, the stage that Nietzsche hoped might herald the Ubermensch.

Since Taylor is the existentialist for whom God is dead, it is not surprising that he is seeking something in the universe “better than man.” So far, that species has yet to appear on Earth or in our part of the cosmos. Given the vastness of the universe, I think that species is out there — or, in the words of Taylor: “has to be.” Trump, Putin, the Terror War, the revived Cold War, the deniers of evolution, and the deniers of ecological and environmental destruction collectively prove that.


This essay draws from ideas and passages in my new book, Specter of the Monolith(2017).

Theorist of big spaces and big ideas. Writer and mixed-media artist. Existentialist w/o the angst. PhD: Univ of Texas at Austin.

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