Fox scored big with this return to “serious” science fiction, two years after their miniaturation adventure Fantastic Voyage. Adapted by Rod Serling from the acclaimed Pierre Boulle novel, Planet of the Apes is a pretty nifty imagining – what if apes were the civilized ones, descended from primitive humans? Of course, the inversion wouldn’t work without a real human – one of us – to enter the world and buck the social system that dismisses their evolution and harbors discriminatory attitudes towards humans, even if one of them does talk and look like Charlton Heston.
By the time I was a kid, Planet of the Apes had already become a franchise, with several sequels, a TV series for adults ad an animated show for kids, and a great deal of merchandising that included coloring books, lunch kettles and a book-and-record set (I had ‘em all). But really none of the knock-offs, though profitable, could really match the freshness and allegorical potency of the original. Planet, with all its adventure and ape-makeup, is really at its best when it reminds us of the folly of our own prejudge and ignorances of science, history and simple human decency. Lessons perhaps more invaluable now than ever before.
Four American astronauts, the leader of whom is named Taylor (Charton Heston) journey through space on a mission of discovery, but their travel is not simply one of distance but of time – we’re talking thousand of years! When they wake from their hibernation (for them only a couple of months have elapsed), they discover a female crew member had died, and that now they must deal with their crash landing on a strange, unknown planet. Their ship fully submerged in water and lost, they must now make a trek through this strange ew world, one looking suspiciously like earth, with desserts, cliffs, caves and, most importantly, water… meaning life.
But the life they find is not exactly the friendly sort. After finding a group of humans, dressed in skins and apparently unable to talk, they encounter their oppressors: gun-toting, horseback riding anthropomorphic apes. The talking primates waste no time in corralling and imprisoning the humans, even the astronauts. Taylor, evidently the sole survivor of he group, is wounded in the neck, rendering him unable to speak. With vocal abilities gone, he is treated like the rest of the mute humans; only one sensitive ape, a female scientist named Zira, can discern that he is different, and we learn that she is courting a fellow scientist, Cornelius, who is currently studying their possible evolution from these feral humans, largely on the basis of artifacts he had found in the “Forbidden Zone,” an off-limits area for the apes, but the one Taylor crash-landed at.
But Zira and Cornelius are up against the powers that be, in the form of autocratic Dr. Zaius, who blindly follows tradition and religion, doubting Taylor’s apparent intelligence despite his inability to talk. And his insistence on escaping doesn’t help either, but when he is captured and returned, he utters those famous words, “Take your damned paws off me, you filthy ape!” Now the scientists are convinced, but the law isn’t; at Taylor’s hearing he is treated just as inhumanly as before, and now Dr. Zika an Cornelius are being accused of heresy for their defense of him. The five of them escape (including Nova, a beautiful human woman who’d been Taylor’s cage-mate, and Julius, Zika’s young nephew), heading toward the cave housing those artifacts, but Zaius and the others follow them. Taylor, now armed, takes the Dr. hostage to hold the apes off, and tries to cut a deal wit him if they could offer evolutionary proof from the cave. Dolls, false, teeth, pacemakers – none of this proof is sufficient, so Taylor takes off on his own with Nova, into the sunset.
After they leave, however, Zaius explodes the cave, destroying the artifacts, and formally accuses Zika and Cornelius of heresy. Ad Taylor? He finally finds out where he landed when he sees a half-buried Statue of Liberty on the beach. The Planet of the Apes is actually… earth.
With Rod Serling at the writing helm, you’d have to expect a twist ending, right? But what’s surprising is that it’s not really much of a twist at all, if you were paying attention. From the opening, when the Taylor muses on earth’s low likelihood for survival, to the later revelation that there once was a human culture that was just as civilized as the apes, perhaps moreso (I mean, what other planet could it be?), Serling drops some hints along the way, if not giveaways. But the end twist still packs a punch, and hammers home the film’s primary thee just in case we didn’t quite get it before.
As I mentioned with the Fantastic Voyage review, sci-fi was getting pretty heady now, what with 2001, Star Trek and the like. The style of Planet, like Voyage, is pretty hard-boiled – not much levity; a dark, foreboding score, and camerawork full of targeted zooms and suddenly revealing pans (the last being the main element that dates the film). But they were dark times and sci-fi was expected to be cautionary as much as entertaining, and Planet succeeds on that count. I mentioned its continued relevance in this day and age; proof of that is the recent reboot, doing well at the B.O. and evidentially connecting with a frightened populace.
Oh, and BTW, if you’re a Charlton Heston fan, or at least a fan of his physique, this is the movie you want. In addition to being half-clad for most of the film, he’s got a few backside-revealing shots, a first for a Fox movie, at least in this collection. By 1968, standards were relaxed, and the Hayes Code was pretty much abolished (the MPAA would rate its first movie later that year).
And one more thing – boo, hiss to the Fox Collection (even though I love it so far) for using a pan and scan version of this movie. I didn’t even though they were still being made, given that all TV’s now are widescreen. Oh, well; it’s been the only one so far.
Still, a classic. And it absolutely holds up.