As much of a massive cinephile as I am, there are so many classic films that I have yet to experience (I should probably handle that before I go off to film school.) Even so, we can now scratch one of those off of the list. Planet of the Apes is a film that needs no introduction. It’s been a staple of sci-fi culture since it’s release, viewed as a piece of masterful allegorical satire, revered for it’s groundbreaking visuals and twist ending, and both successfully and unsuccessfully re-conceived for a new generation. I’m planning on taking a look at both of those re conceptions this week in preparation for the upcoming ‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ which looks like it could be the most epic installment of the franchise to date, but for now, here’s the original masterpiece.
Planet of the Apes opens with an astronaut named George Taylor (Charlton Heston) logging his experiences in space with his small crew. Although they have only been out there for a few months, they believe that many years will have passed on Earth where they return. After a stint in cryogenic sleep, the crew finds themselves crash landing on a mysterious world (yes, yes I know, but we’ll leave a little to the imagination of the three remaining people who don’t know) where Apes are the dominant species in society, keeping humans as pets who have been stripped of all their expressive abilities. These aren’t apes as we know them though. They’re highly intelligent, articulate, inquisitive, and curious. Zira (Kim Hunter), one of the Ape doctors takes a fascination to the seemingly more intelligent Taylor much to the distain of their scientific and religious leader Dr Zaius (Maurice Evans) who wants to maintain the status quo.
This is one of those films that is so incredibly built up by absolutely everyone that the result could have easily been underwhelming, but that is not the case in the slightest here. I found Planet of the Apes to not only be a delightful piece of satirical fiction, but also a well acted technical marvel that reaches far beyond it’s time on a production level.
The brilliance of this film lies in the simplicity in which the premise is handled. The apes are not out of control, animalistic creatures in the slightest. In fact, they are probably more restrained then humans ever were. They’ve formed a society that, even while founded on ignorance is actually incredibly functional and normal. All of the characters reflect this, having such shockingly human personalities that it makes their mistreatment of humans all the more tragic and darkly humorous. Dr Zaius in particular is absolutely fascinating and is preformed with a brutally condescending chill by Maurice Evans. His sheer ability to manipulate an entire society into believing in a warped mix of science and religion makes for a threatening and overpowering villain. By contrast, the humans in question are so dulled (either by brain surgery or pure primitive fear) that it fully cements what is being brought across. Really, there are no truly in control human characters besides Heston.
On the topic of Heston, he’s magnetic here. Taylor is by no means a good person, he’s emotionally manipulative, darkly sarcastic, and borderline sociopathic, but even through all of that, Heston attaches us to him. This could be partially because midway through the film, he’s shot in the neck and has to act only through body motions and his facial expressions for a while, letting that side of his character wash over a little bit, but her completely sells the fear he ultimately feels when he realizes the gravity of his situation. Does he over-act a touch? Yes, particularly at the very end and during some other heated emotional moments, but given the heightened state of the entire film, it works.
On a technical level, it’s an absolute blast to watch these apes interact with each other. It’s all brought to life with some good old practical costumes, and while the processes used in the later films are absolutely spectacular in their own right, there’s something so innate about having those apes really there on set, right in front of our human actors. The use of cinematography by Leon Shamroy to effortlessly build up to the apes appearance in the early part of the film is eerily effective, and director Franklin J. Schaffner really shines in the action sequences. These are some of the coolest scuffles I’ve ever seen in a movie of this time period, particularly the first major one where the apes mercilessly attack a human tribe, capturing some, and killing most. It feels massive, and carries a great deal of weight.
My only real hang up here was that most of the other ape characters were not nearly as interesting as Dr Zaius. Zira is your typical bland optimist, her husband Cornelius (Roddy Mcdowall) and in particular her annoying nephew Lucius (Lou Wagner) don’t come off much better. Seriously, Lucius sounds like an actor in a bad 1950’s PSA about sex with his ‘aw shucks’ voice and constantly whining attitude. Also, the apes really only have two designs, and it would have been nice to see one or two more.
Like I said in the into, Planet of the Apes really needs no introduction. It’s one of the sci-fi classics, and it completely lives up to it’s reputation. It’s a constantly interesting, well paced film that has a whole lot to say, and says it rather well. It’s a marvel that a movie like this was even made at all in 1968, setting the groundwork for so many other future blockbusters of all shapes and sizes before the blockbuster was even a genre.
Alright Burton…You’re up next.