At the Earth’s Core (1976) and Planet of the Apes (1968) are two fantasy science fiction films adapted from popular novels; the plots can be categorised as classic journeys into strange worlds: places where humans are subjugated by a ruthless non-human race.
The fascination of these worlds comes in part from the fullness of the fantastic vision: At the Earth’s Core has a subterranean, prehistoric jungle, with a civilisation of flying reptiles that live inside a volcanic mountain. The city is protected by a lava waterfall at its entrance. The Mahars telepathically command a subservient and less intelligent race called the Sagoths, who capture humans and bring them into the city for forced labour. In Planet of the Apes, set in the distant future, the apes dominate the mute and passive humans, much like the Mahars dominate humans in their world. The ape society incorporates division of labour, with specialised workers, merchants, fighters, scientists, intellectuals, and priests, and a complex level of interaction and political struggle between them.
The human protagonists enter this world much like Alice through the rabbit hole — the gigantic ‘iron mole’ in At the Earth’s Core borrows through the earth; and the space craft in Planet Of The Apes, which, one assumes, has passed through a worm hole of some kind, has returned back to earth in exactly the right spot, but the wrong time: two thousand years into the future.
These stories are warnings about man’s loss of power to a brutal race, one which sees humans as disposable objects, only suitable for exploitation. There are obvious parallels to fascism and totalitarianism, but they also come across as metaphors for European decline, and what happens after a catastrophic collapse. In Western cultures technological supremacy is ideally associated with social improvement, education, and improved living standards, but in these dystopian worlds technology is a weapon used to ruthlessly dominate another race. People are used for slave labour; the apes also use them for medical experimentation, and as domestic servants.
Humans in both worlds are hunted down, and slaughtered like animals. On the ‘ape planet’ the humans have lost their ability to talk; this, combined with their timid character, as herd-like fruit and vegetable foragers, makes it impossible for them to organise into a coherent fighting group to resist the apes. Meanwhile, in the subterranean world of the Mahars the humans are fragmented into rival tribes that despise one another.
At the Earth’s Core can be interpreted as a yearning for a simpler, pre-industrial world; the desire to explore exotic new places, and the need for adventure. This exciting environment requires a classic male hero, a leader capable of taking on rigorous physical and mental challenges. The classic, ‘all male’, hero encounters a woman who personifies natural beauty and there is an instant attraction between them. He also has a companion, or two, which brings the context of his world along with him. The hero in At the Earth’s Core has an eccentric professor, an older mentor, much like the hero in Back to the Future (1985) has a scientist to guide him. These characters provide advice, background information for the audience, and light comic relief. The astronauts in the ape world begin their journey in a survival situation much like Robinson Crusoe (1719), marooned in a strange land, having to cope with the harsh environment. This allows for a low key approach that eases the audience into asking questions about where they might be; it builds up anticipation and tension.
Initially, this new environment is mysterious, but it soon turns into a dangerous one. The underground world has a strange eerie ambience with prehistoric dinosaurs lurking in the jungle. The ape world looks remarkably like an American landscape (later on, the audience learns it is the ‘American’ landscape). When the hero comes into contact with the Sagoths, or the apes, the rules of the game change from exploration mode (surviving in a harsh landscape with random threats) to a dramatic fight for survival with a known enemy.
These are warnings about the misery of oppression and slavery, but they also celebrate the resourcefulness of the hero who has to ‘start again’ to define his role and place in the world. The hero’s status, the values of his world, mean nothing in this harsh new place. His skill, determination, and ingenuity enables him to reclaim his self-respect: in At the Earth’s Core he successfully leads a democratic revolution, imparting his values and identity on the native people, uniting them against the Mahars; in Planet Of The Apes, against the odds, the hero wins over ape intellectuals, working with them to evade more hostile apes, and going on to discover the truth. Identity is at the heart of the narratives — what it means to be a decent human being, with values, dignity, and a history.