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 »

  1. Good call on the modified M1 Carbine. Check it out at the Internet Movie Firearms Database (the other source of all knowledge): http://www.imfdb.org/wiki/Planet_of_the_Apes_%281968%29

    Comment by Doc Wheat | May 30, 2011 | Reply

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