I recently picked up the 5 movie set of all the classic Planet of the Apes movies. I had seen the first one before, probably like ten years or so ago, and I’m a big fan of the two recent prequel(?) films. I know the four movies after the original don’t have the best of reputations, but I also knew that they had their adherents and maybe I would join their number. Also, it was only 20 dollars, so at 4 bucks a movie I wasn’t taking that big a risk. I foresee reviews of all 5 movies, plus some of the extra features and some additional thoughts on certain aspects of the movies that don’t fit in with the reviews. Please do join in if you have the means or inclination!
Planet of the Apes (1968)
Let’s start off with a consideration of just how weird a choice Charlton Heston is for the hero role here. We are introduced to him (after some semi-trippy effects during the credits) recording a final monologue before he freezes himself for the final leg of a journey back to earth. The idea goes that he and his crew will have only aged a few years while hundreds – if not thousands – have passed on Earth. This throws Taylor (Heston) into an existential funk, and he gets philosophical on us:
“You who are reading me now are a different breed – I hope a better one. I leave the 20th century with no regrets. But one more thing – if anybody’s listening, that is. Nothing scientific. It’s purely personal. But seen from out here everything seems different. Time bends. Space is boundless. It squashes a man’s ego. I feel lonely. That’s about it. Tell me, though. Does man, that marvel of the universe, that glorious paradox who sent me to the stars, still make war against his brother? Keep his neighbor’s children starving?”
The writing there is about as on the nose as is possible, but what do you expect from Rod Serling, he of The Twilight Zone? I actually really liked this speech, even if there was a kind of weird disconnect seeing and hearing Charlton Heston, bastion of the NRA, lamenting the ideas of war and violence. If Taylor is supposed to be a stand in for the peaceniks of the 60s and 70s, why does he clutch his gun with such zeal later in the film? Are we supposed to be critical of his later actions? Or maybe he’s supposed to be the final warring human. Every other human that exists in the movie is basically a cow, too dumb to be violent. In that way his questions at the beginning of the movie have been answered. No, man no longer makes war against his brother, nor does he keep his neighbor starving. They’re too stupid to be jealous or evil. The apes, on the other hand…
Yes, the great conceit of these movies is that on this mysterious planet (we’ll get to that later), the other primates have risen to the top of the food chain and have developed some suspiciously human culture and language while humans have basically become glorified livestock. It’s a clever way of getting us to look at our own society in a different way. If we can identify the way backward religions sometimes take over policy or science debates in this ape-based culture, maybe we can begin to see just how weird our own system is. And that the apes are pretty much where we are now scientifically, culturally, and intellectually allows for that metaphor to develop easily and organically. It just feels a little off. If this is really a place that has apes in charge instead of humans, wouldn’t there be more than nominal changes in their ways of life? They seem to be a monogamous culture, but don’t apes in the wild have a much wider definition of what is acceptable when it comes to interpersonal relationships? How lucky is it that these apes speak the same language that Taylor does? We’ve seen English evolve over the last 700 or so years, how is it that these apes, who have, according to the movie, evolved on this planet as the dominant species, speak the exact same kind of English as Taylor? There are a hundred of this little niggling ideas that pop up throughout the movie. This is the risk that allegories run. If they aren’t perfect the seams show up and the audience can get pulled out of the film.
Luckily, none of these little annoyances harm the film too much. Planet of the Apes isn’t trying to be 2001, although the effects are sometimes kinda similar. No, Planet of the Apes has a much pulpier road to hoe, and it does so very entertainingly. While Charlton Heston might have been the wrong choice idealistically, he’s perfect when he’s saying the lines that have become iconic. You get a chill of recognition when you hear him yell, “Take your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape!” but you also get a chill because his pain and terror are so real. Or, maybe real isn’t quite the right word to use here. Not much on the Planet of the Apes is real, excepting maybe the landscapes and horses, but it does have a really fun heightened quality to it. It’s as unsubtle as a movie can be in all respects. The allegory is right there, staring you in the face, and the hero is Charlton Heston! He’s never been the quietest of actors. His nearly biblical line readings here almost all work, though, because it fits in with everything else. His co-stars also shine. Maurice Evans plays Dr. Zaius, the zealous head scientist who also happens to be the leader of the ape religion. There’s a heck of a lot of talk about heresy when the two young chimps played by Kim Hunter and Roddy McDowall claim that their captive human, Taylor, can talk. It seems an easy claim to prove, but the movie manages to wrestle 20 minutes or so of drama from the whole scenario. There’s a big courtroom scene and I’m not entirely sure what gets accomplished there, other than that those two chimps (Cornelius and Zira) become outcasts and, later, organize a jailbreak for Taylor and his dumb human friend, Nova. She’s played by Linda Harrison in what must be the most thankless role in sci-fi until Megan Fox graced three Transformers movies with her wooden presence. Harrison is the predecessor to Fox in more ways than one, since as far as I can tell she’s only here to look pretty and give Heston somebody to talk at.
Ok, now comes the time in the review when I talk about the ending. If you have somehow missed what happens in the last minute of screentime here, I am both amazed at your diligence in avoiding spoilers and shocked at your cultural ignorance. Either way, leave now if you don’t want to know what happens at the end of a movie from 45 years ago which contains one of the most iconic images in cinema. Go watch the movie, geez.
Now that all those weirdos are gone, let’s look at the ending. Firstly, it’s totally awesome. The slow reveal of the spikes on the top of the Statue of Liberty’s head is genius because at first they are only noticeable for being crafted rather than a natural occurrence. And slowly we see more and more of the structure and we begin to piece it together. I can’t imagine seeing this without knowing the twist, and I can’t fathom how critics kept it to themselves in their reviews. It must have been wild, and it’s no wonder that the movie was a bit of a phenomenon when it came out. To top it off, Heston adds beautifully to the scene with another perfect line, “You maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell!” His sadness and anger is real. Over the top, but imbued with a genuine sense of the tragedy he (correctly) imagines befell his planet. This twist explains some of the issues I brought up earlier, like explaining why apes would be speaking English (although not why it hasn’t evolved at all) and also explains why there’s no real history to the ape civilization, or at least none that we have been given in the course of the film. In order to hide the twist the writers had to hide much of the world building that might have normally happened. I hope the four follow-ups take some time to develop this version of the future, because it’s a fascinating one. And the ending is just the best thing. It makes sense, it wraps up the drama and leaves the door open to further explorations of the world, and it’s just so much fun. That’s the lasting impression I had of the movie. There’s a lot going on allegorically speaking and the majority of it is actually effective, but the sense of fun that it has thanks to Heston’s overacting and the creativity involved in crafting the world and populating it with interesting people leaves an even bigger impression. It’s a great start to this marathon and a great film.