In preparation for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (in theater July 11th), Witney is going to run down all of the Apes films to date, and ponder all of the extreme, wonderful weirdness therein. #1: Planet of the Apes.
WARNING: Planet of the Apes has one of the most notorious twist endings in movie history. I am going to proceed with this review discussing that ending openly. If you are one of the poor souls who does not know the twist ending of Planet of the Apes, and wishes for it to remain a surprise, I wholeheartedly encourage you to watch the movie immediately, and then come back to this review afterwords. You won’t regret it.
Franklin J. Schaffner’s 1968 classic Planet of the Apes (co-written by Rod Serling and based on a 1963 French sci-fi novel by Pierre Boulle) is most certainly a strange animal, and, if looked at in a certain way, an aberration in the canon of science fiction. I adore the film, and I’m very positive on the Apes films in general (even the bad ones), but even I have to admit that there is a delicate line being walked in Planet of the Apes. On the one hand, it is a sci-fi classic, a wonderful allegory about the dangers of nuclear war, a polemic about the politicization of evolution, and a ripping yarn. On the other hand, it is a campy and rather ridiculous film wherein apes stand upright and speak English. The cognitive clash that comes with Planet of the Apes occurs when its obvious campiness butts heads with its earnest thoughtfulness.
And, in an odd way, I think it’s that cognitive clash that gives Planet of the Apes its power. It stands up in the face of philosophical scrutiny, and can be the source of many semi-serious discussions about the fate of humanity. It also is a wonderful giggle-fest full of silly puns, a few dumb jokes, and – even though the makeup is amazing – the truly off-the-wall sight of apes speaking and wearing clothes. I don’t think I’m being disrespectful when I point out the fun ridiculousness of Planet of the Apes. Indeed, I admire it. Anything that can be both serious and satirical is stronger.
The story is well-known to all sci-fi kids, whether or not they’ve seen it; Planet of the Apes has leaked into the collective unconscious and is known at birth through cultural osmosis. A quartet of astronauts on a deep space mission, traveling at nearly the speed of light, have an accident, and travel at near-light speed for far longer than they intend. They crash land on a mysterious planet in the distant, distant future, sans the female in their crew who died. The leader of the crew is Taylor (Charlton Heston at his studliest), and he leads his crew from their ship to the nearest village. They meet other human-like beings on this planet, but they are mute cavemen. The clothed, intelligent beings on this planet are all apes. Taylor’s friends are apprehended, and Taylor is shot in the throat, making him mute.
The apes study humans like animals, and the kind-hearted chimpanzees Dr. Zira (Kim Hunter) and her fiancee Dr. Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) take a shine to Taylor, who they believe to be more intelligent than other humans. The dour intellectual Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans) is an orangutan who doubts Dr. Zira’s claims. Eventually Taylor regains the ability to speak, and the apes have to question all their beliefs about evolution, the nature of humans, and how the world got to be this way.
This film was made in 1968, and employed special effects and makeup in ways that hadn’t been done before. The ape makeup was a watershed moment for filmmaking, and deservedly won a special Oscar that year.
Here’s something that may seem curious to modern sci-fi fans: Planet of the Apes is a sci-fi classic that is not predicated on action. Indeed, when one looks at a lot of older, greater sci-fi (think of The Day the Earth Stood Still, or Forbidden Planet, or even 2001: A Space Odyssey), you’ll find that these are films of ideas, and not films of action. There are perhaps a few quick “chase” moments in Planet of the Apes, but it plays more like a comic investigation of humanity, taking place in small rooms and having profound-ish conversations. These days, our fantasy and sci-fi are much more action driven. Even the newer Apes films are more about conflict than about mystery. Neither is necessarily a batter approach, but I appreciate the intellect that comes with a story like this. This mystery is certainly Rod Serling’s influence.
The big twist ending is, of course, that this planet was Earth all along, and had been nearly destroyed by nuclear war millennia ago. Taylor discovers this by finding the ancient ruins of the Statue of Liberty. This is supposed to be a twist ending, but the image of Heston kneeling next to the statue has become so iconic, the ending is no longer a surprise. The implication, then, is that apes survived the wars, and evolved into more intelligent beings over the course of many thousands of years (although the chronology will be severely altered over the course of the sequels).
Schaffner would go on to make Patton, Papillon, and The Boys from Brazil. This would be the first film to feature a romantic inter-species kiss.
If you haven’t seen this film, you must. It’s entered the canon of sci-fi classics. It may not be as profound as something like 2001: A Space Odyssey, as glitzy as something like Forbidden Planet, or as preachy and maudlin as something like The Day the Earth Stood Still, but it has a charm all its own.
Join me tomorrow for Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970).