A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 453 – Planet of the Apes (1968)

Planet of the Apes – May 27th, 2011

Why yes, I am only just now seeing this for the first time. Strange, I know, but it’s one of those movies I’ve seen parodies of and references to for so long it always managed to escape me that I hadn’t seen it. There are so many other sci-fi movies out there that looked more interesting than a shirtless Charlton Heston running around screaming at apes. And besides, I knew the ending. Tonight when we put it in we realized that the cover for the movie and the menu background for the disc totally spoil it. Which is just one of those things, I guess. When a movie is as much a part of the cultural lexicon as this is, it’s hard not to spoil it. It’s like Rosebud or Darth Vader. So I never really felt much need to stop on this while I flipped channels or grab a copy from work. Still, we had an opportunity to buy it cheap and it was a sci-fi classic shaped hole in our collection. So here I am.

And I’ve got to say, it is an impressive piece of film. The ape make-up on the vast majority of the cast alone is amazing in its scope and realization. Not that I expected anything less. After all, this isn’t considered a schlocky classic like Plan 9 From Outer Space. It had a big budget and well-known actors. What I am impressed by is how well it stands the test of time. Sure, it has problems, but visually it still looks very good. Part of that is that there aren’t really any special effects. The ape costumes and make-up do all the work here. So there’s not as much to date the movie as there would be if we had lots of lasers and effects shots. The thing that dated it the most for me was seeing the main character smoking at the control panel of the space ship he starts out on. This was filmed only a few months after the tragic fire that killed astronauts Gus Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee, caused by a spark in a pure oxygen environment during a launch rehearsal for the Apollo 1. Smoking on board a space ship? Now that’s fantastical. It’s the sort of thing that genre parodies like Amazon Women on the Moon poke at. But once that space ship crashes, well. Its timelessness is rooted in its plot.

The whole story is set on what appears to be a strange and somewhat primitive world. It’s sparsely inhabited, with vast stretches of desert before any hospitable land is found. And the inhabitants are both apes and men, with the apes in the dominant role. The humans are non-verbal and uncivilized. They seem to be pre-When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth, even. The apes, on the other hand, are cultured, with their own laws and religion and scientific community. They use horses and horse-drawn carriages for transportation and know nothing of achieving flight, but they also carry somewhat modern rifles (apparently they’re circa WWII), so the state of their civilization isn’t precisely analogous to any specific time period of our own. Suffice it to say that they’re a good deal ahead of the humans and believe humans to be dirty animals, untameable and only intelligent enough to learn simple tricks. And then along comes Taylor, leader of the space expedition that crashed on the planet. He’s an intelligent human from an advanced human civilization. And that changes everything once the scientists who’ve captured him realize that he’s different.

Of course, to keep the tension up, his crew is rapidly dispatched. One dies on the ship and the other two are dealt with once they’re captured by the apes. So Taylor’s on his own, trying to convince the apes that he’s a thinking and reasoning being and not a lab animal. The drama here comes from the very clear references to our own culture and conflicts. The apes have some very firm religious beliefs that state that apes were set above all other animals and given souls and reason. These beliefs are all set forth in a series of sacred scrolls that are believed to be the entire history of the world. So a human who can talk and reason? That’s heresy. And to be honest? It was painful to watch the religious authorities (who are also the scientific authorities) run a trial denouncing proof of intelligent humans as blasphemy. I’d like to believe that this was meant to be an allegory for such people as Copernicus and Galileo, but let’s face it: There are people right now who still deny that the theory of evolution has any basis (and its inclusion in text books is challenged all the time) and that the Earth is only a few thousand years old. It was unpleasant to watch the trial scenes, and I think it was supposed to be, but maybe not to the extent I felt it was.

There is a bit of a saving grace to the movie, however, which is that the character so vehemently opposed to Taylor’s existence, Dr. Zaius, has more motivations than he initially claims. It’s hinted that he knows more than he’s letting on. Zaius is both a scientific and religious leader and everything he does he claims to do in the name of science. But once you know more of what’s going on you see that he’s figured a lot of it out himself and is trying to protect his civilization from what he perceives as an ancient threat. And given the ending and what’s implied about the humans who came before? He’s probably right to be so cautious. Which is damn depressing, if you ask me. But this is a dystopian look at things, so that’s not shocking. The thing is, while pretty much everyone now knows the basic story and the “twist” ending, at the time the movie came out it was likely a huge revelation that Zaius was right and while not a good character, perhaps not as evil as he appeared to be.

I do like that the movie turns in different directions that way. I like that by the end we’re presented with our hero as the alien and humanity as a scourge. Just ask Al Gore, I’m sure he’d whip up a slide show for you to support that. But I like it because it does what some of the best sci-fi does: It makes you look at things with a different perspective. It views the world from a different angle. And that it can still do that and not come across as horribly dated more than forty years after it was made is an impressive feat. Of course, the impact of it is lessened by everyone knowing the twist already. If you already know what’s going on when you start the movie it takes a little more work not to watch the movie with it in mind. But it’s worth it.

I did find a few other aspects of the movie quite interesting and I was curious about tham and a little disappointed that they weren’t explored in more depth. The personality of Taylor, for one. He gets some time to explain himself when he and his crew are walking through the desert after the crash. He’s pretty damn misanthropic, which makes sense for the mission they were on which would have meant the crew would never see their friends or families or homes ever again. But it also ends up setting him up as an interesting figure to be mourning the end of human civilization. Unfortunately, that aspect doesn’t get much time since it’s only revealed in its full form at the end.

The other thing I liked and didn’t get enough of was the ape civilization. We’ve got gorillas, orangutans and chimpanzees all living together, but in what appears to be a caste system. The gorillas are all in security type roles. The orangutans are the authority figures. And the chimpanzees are the inquisitive ones, but somewhat looked down upon by the others. I’d have loved to see more of the civilization itself, but that’s not the point of the movie, so it’s more background worldbuilding.

Overall I wouldn’t say I necessarily enjoyed this movie, but I appreciated it. It’s very well made and well acted. I have to give enormous respect to everyone who acted in the ape make-up, which I’m sure was difficult as it covered their entire faces. And the movie itself was done in such a way that it can be watched today and appreciated. Obviously it’s been referred to all over the place, from The Simpsons to Spaceballs. It spawned a number of sequels and tie-ins and that’s because it’s got an interesting and potentially vast world that’s ripe for exploration. It’s a success through and through, so I don’t need to have been grinning through the whole thing or want to watch it in regular rotation to acknowledge that and agree with it.

May 27, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | 1 Comment

Planet of the Apes (1968)

May 27, 2011

Planet of the Apes (1968)

I like, as I watch this movie, to try and imagine a time when it was fresh, new and revolutionary. This movie spawned a franchise that involved a new Planet of the Apes movie every year from 1970 to 1975, a television series, multiple television movies, even a modern re-imagining. It has been the subject of references and spoofs in the Simpsons, in movies like Spaceballs, in MST3K – it is infamous and ubiquitous. I, myself, watched all the original movies on television in the early eighties. Channel 38 showed them all over the course of a single weekend and I was absolutely captivated by the somewhat strange mythology of the series. This was the seminal movie that started it all though, a movie so fascinating, radical and so compelling that it created an empire.

What people might not realize if they haven’t actually seen the movie and have only seen all the parody is that it is actually a very well done sci-fi film. It has a cool premise, a big budget, famously well done make-up, a powerful and well respected leading man, and of course some rather heavy social commentary. The strong messages of the film, and its often lampooned twist ending, should not be surprising considering that is was adapted for the screen by none other than Rod Serling, the creator of the Twilight Zone. As with much sci-fi from the sixties and seventies this is a movie that makes no attempt to hide its agenda.

The movie follows Colonel George Taylor and his ill-defined mission of space exploration. Traveling nearly at the speed of light he and his little crew are flying to a planet somewhere in the constellation of Orion. They make the journey in suspended animation and at relativistic speeds so that although back on the Earth they’ve left so far behind more than two thousand years have passed it is only a year or so for them. Unfortunately their spacecraft crash lands at the end of their journey leaving Taylor and the other two survivors of the crash in a desolate alien wasteland.

The first half hour or so of the movie shows the three of them, Taylor, Landon and Dodge trudging across the barren landscape. I’d say that this is the weakest part of the movie because although it gives a lot of time to establish Taylor’s nihilistic and skeptical character as he buts heads with Landon it also highlights the absurdity of their mission. Had it not gone awry what exactly were they supposed to be doing? Taylor takes almost annoying delight in pointing out that everything they knew when they set out in 1972 (which was the future when this movie was made) is now ancient history and dust. As such it seems they’re a very poorly equipped crew even just on a psychological level. Dodge is cool – he’s a scientist and more interested with exploration than anything else. Landon, however, is described by Taylor as mostly a glory hound – which doesn’t make much sense as there’s little glory to be had if nobody even remembers you. Then there’s Taylor himself, who seems to have been running away from Earth and from humanity as much as anything else. An interesting character to be sure but I wouldn’t send him on a mission to Mars, much less put him in command of an interstellar mission of exploration.

Glossing over all that though we soon get to the meat of the movie when the trio encounter a race that seem very much like primitive humans, and shortly thereafter are captured by intelligent apes whose agrarian culture is the dominant power on this planet. Rendered mute by a grazing bullet wound to the throat and separated from his crew mates Taylor must somehow find a way to communicate with his captors. He gains the confidence of a chimpanzee named Zira and her fiance Cornelius, an anthropologist with some interesting theories about the origins of simian culture. Eventually his very existence as an intelligent and talking human endangers both of them because he contradicts the ancient scrolls handed down from the Lawgiver – legendary creator of all simian culture fifteen hundred years ago. Dr. Zaius, the orangutan Minister of Science and defender of the faith, seems determined from the start to foil Zira and Cornelius at every turn in their attempts to explore knowledge of the time before the Lawbringer, and is deeply afraid of Taylor and what he represents.

There’s a lot of interesting social commentary here. Amanda was very much put off by the theme of demagogues putting faith before scientific inquiry I know (and I’m sure her review will explore those themes.) Of course there’s the infamous ending with its anti-war message which perhaps resonated more in the days of the cold war but is still great today. Me, I found myself captivated on this particular viewing by the slightly more subtle messages on race relations. I wonder how radical it was in 1968 that the science officer on Taylor’s expedition, Dodge, was black. It is not an issue for the characters in the movie, which is perhaps even more interesting given the time period. (Though of course sci-fi has often been a bastion of equality for both races and sexes since speculative exploration is part of the nature of the genre.) The apes themselves also raise questions of race and segregation though. There are three different species of ape featured in the movie, the chimps, the gorillas and the orangutans. The orangutans are clearly in command roles, the gorillas are muscle, and the chimps seem the most inquisitive and intelligent of the three. There are all kinds of hints about tensions between the races – such as the mention Zira makes to accords giving chimpanzees more clout in the scientific community lately. I’m fascinated by the entire concept of multiple sentient species cohabiting. The notion of specialization and segregation is something I’d have liked to have seen explored in greater detail.

It must have been a great coup to get Charlton Heston to star in this film. I mean this guy played Ben Hur, he played Moses, he played a Mexican in an Orson Welles movie. He’s a big time actor and his very presence on the screen gives a certain legitimacy and weight to this movie, which could otherwise have been fairly cheesy and campy. Indeed there’s a serious tone to this whole film that doesn’t seem to be present in much sci-fi any more. The sci-fi of today, with some rare and special exceptions like the excellent Moon which we reviewed last year, is largely a popular adventure film format – they don’t make movies like this one any more. With time even the Planet of the Apes movies became increasingly cheesy and silly, which is why when I watch this one I try so hard to see it for itself. Back before this movie became little more than a punchline.

May 27, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | 1 Comment