A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

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 »

  1. Regarding casting of Heston–He had worked with director Schaffner before in The War Lord.

    Comment by Doc Wheat | May 30, 2011 | Reply

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