The Franchise Files: Planet of the Apes (1968)

planetoftheapesposterIt all started with a 1963 French novel by Pierre Boulle, author of The Bridge over the River Kwai. Unsurprisingly, the book and film versions of Planet of the Apes had very little in common by the time the story had been translated from page to screen five years later. The film script went through a few drafts, including a treatment by Rod Serling of “The Twilight Zone” fame, before gaining approval for production. The green light came thanks in part to a successful screen test of the ape make-up process and in part to the attachment of star Charlton Heston as American astronaut George Taylor. (For more information, see the fascinating 1998 documentary Behind the Planet of the Apes.)

After a centuries-long voyage traveling near the speed of light, Taylor and his crew crash land on a mysterious planet ruled by a race of sentient apes who capture and experiment on the wild, speechless humans that wander and feed nearby. Temporarily deprived of his voice by an unfortunate gunshot wound, Taylor adjusts to life in a cage and struggles to communicate his intelligence to Dr. Zira (Kim Hunter) and her fiance Dr. Cornelius (Roddy McDowall), a pair of scientists whose work threatens the status quo established by ape law and religion.

Kim Hunter as Dr Zira

Despite being over four decades old, Planet of the Apes works beautifully as a piece of engaging science fiction because of two things. First, it doesn’t settle for visual effects that are merely “acceptable” for its time, resulting in a look and feel that still holds up well even by modern standards. Scenes like the crash landing, for instance, are exciting, convincing and artful thanks to some creative camerawork. More importantly, though, for the movie to function it is imperative that the ape characters should be more believable than humorous, and the look that was created succeeds dramatically.

In fact, while this seems like it ought to be mere B-movie camp, it exceeds expectations on every level. There is a great score by Jerry Goldsmith which fits every moment perfectly, from the haunting opening credits onward. The cast has a number of top-notch actors, including multiple Oscar-winners. The cinematography is several cuts above what anyone might expect from this sort of thing, real eye-catching stuff. It establishes the mood and the tone every bit as effectively as the score. (Planet of the Apes was nominated for its costumes and its score, and received an honorary award for the amazing ape makeup.)

Second, the movie tells a good science fiction story in the classic sense of using the genre to prompt a conversation about where we are headed and where we have been as a species. To the totally uninitiated viewer (which I was when I first saw this), the plot is full of surprising new developments as the situation shifts and changes. However, the impact is not lessened at all by having seen it before or knowing what it’s all about, and the startling final image still lands like a punch to the gut (more on that in a moment). The fictional universe created here is seamless and absorbing, and the characters are memorable.

The movie establishes its trajectory immediately. In the opening scene, Taylor is sending out one last broadcast to earth before entering the long sleep with the others. We learn that, although they have only been gone from earth for a few months in relative ship time thanks to their extreme speed, centuries have already passed back home. By the time they arrive at their destination, a few thousand years will have gone by. Already we know that this is basically a one-way trip. As Taylor wraps up his monologue, he begins to wax philosophical and we get a better picture of the sort of person he is: “Does man, that marvel of the universe, that glorious paradox who sent me to the stars, still make war against his brother?”

taylorTaylor’s companions are Dodge and Landon. The former is an explorer at heart, consumed with curiosity and willing to go anywhere and do anything if it means having questions answered. Landon is a bit more complicated. Not entirely happy to be there, his ambition and his pride wouldn’t let him turn down the offer of the mission when his name came up.

Taylor is quite different from the other two, as we soon learn after the crew crashes in the middle of a lake and ejects into the life raft. Dodge and Landon watch forlornly as the ship sinks beneath the surface, but Taylor keeps paddling, his gaze fixed straight ahead to the shore: “Okay, we’re here to stay.”

Taylor, too, has his own reasons for joining the mission. He explains, “I’m a seeker too. But my dreams aren’t like yours. I can’t help thinking that somewhere in the universe there has to be something better than man. Has to be.” He is a cynic, but only because he is also an idealist. Recognizing the corruption of his own world, Taylor has gone looking for a better one. By the time Taylor has become a prisoner of the apes, it is clear that he hasn’t found a better world.

Or is it? This is one of the fascinating ambiguities of the film. Certainly there is much that is wrong with the ape civilization from Taylor’s perspective. After all, humans are treated like animals. Of course, the role reversal is one of the film’s chief conceits. Humans in this world are viewed in much the same light as apes are where Taylor comes from. Once Taylor finally manages to connect with Zira, however, we get a much different picture of ape society.

apesThere are three species of apes: orangutans, gorillas, and chimpanzees. Orangutans are the elite, political and religious leaders. Gorillas form the military and police force. Chimpanzees are scientists and engineers. It becomes clear very quickly that Zira and Cornelius are severely limited in their scientific pursuits by the apes’ religious doctrine. Zira believes humans are intelligent enough to be domesticated, which most apes find laughable and some consider borderline heretical. Cornelius has formulated a primitive theory of evolution based on some archaeological finds which suggest that apes evolved from humans, a theory which is contradicted by ape scripture.

It is fairly obvious what is going on here: a commentary on the modern tension between science and religion with the assumption that religious dogma holds scientific progress in check. When he’s not hatching escape plans and running around Ape City implementing them, Taylor spends most of his time arguing with Dr. Zaius, the minister of science. Zaius, however, answers Taylor’s seemingly irrefutable arguments with scripture passages and silence. Taylor accuses him of willful ignorance motivated by cowardice, but the truth is a bit more interesting.

apescientistsZaius, thanks to his privileged position in ape society, knows much more about man than he is letting on. He and Taylor share a mutual disdain for humankind based on their knowledge, but during his time among the apes, Taylor has somehow reconnected with his own humanity. As the only human with a voice, he is practically forced to step into the role of lone defender of his species.

Taylor, Zira, and Cornelius manage to force Zaius’s hand when he pursues them into the Forbidden Zone (where Taylor’s ship initially crashed) and catches them at Cornelius’s abandoned archaeological dig, only to have Taylor take him hostage and force his gorilla troops to withdraw. There, in a climactic denouement, Cornelius reveals his discovery of a human society which predates the apes. Despite Zaius’s protests that “There is no contradiction between faith and science, true science!” Taylor definitively verifies Cornelius’s theory.

This triumph proves to be a Pyrrhic victory, however, when Zaius regains the upper-hand and orders the gorillas to dynamite the site. Zira and Cornelius are horrified, but Zaius seems neither particularly troubled nor very happy with the situation. He doesn’t like it, but he is genuinely certain that his actions are necessary for “simian survival.”

As the film draws to a close, Taylor manages to secure freedom, transportation, and supplies for himself and the human girl he has taken a liking to and affectionately nicknamed “Nova.” Zaius is, truth be told, only too happy to be rid of him. The two humans ride off up the beach together as a new Adam and Eve, and Taylor seems to have found his purpose at last: to rebuild the race from scratch.

apesstatuelibertyThen, in the devastating final moments, Taylor rounds a bend and comes face to face with the ruins of the Statue of Liberty. Suddenly, what should have been clear long before (after all, the apes do speak American English) becomes horribly apparent. Taylor has been home all the time, on a future earth laid waste by nuclear warfare.

It is never surprising (although this is one of the most shocking twist endings in movie history) to run up against references to a nuclear apocalypse in a film made during the Cold War. At a time when it actually seemed probable that most of humanity would be killed by nuclear warfare, the threat could never have been far from the popular imagination. What is most interesting about this particular case is the light that it casts on the themes expounded in the rest of the film.

Suddenly, Zaius becomes a much wiser and more sympathetic character, and his religious dogma becomes the lesser of two evils. The greater evil by far is scientific progress, one of several lessons Zaius and the apes have learned via human example. By comparison, ape society begins to look positively idyllic. Taken at face value, Planet of the Apes appears to be a parable about a clash between faith and science, using ape society as a thinly-disguised proxy to debate the question innocuously. However, the final scene rewrites everything that has come before, not only turning Taylor’s world upside-down (quite literally), but subverting the film’s consistent privileging of science over religion.

In focusing on a few of the fascinating thematic elements in play in this film, I have probably short-changed its entertainment value. Planet of the Apes is full of action, comedy, drama . . . in short, all of the ingredients necessary to please the average moviegoer. It was conceived as a stand-alone film, and although its success prompted several sequels, two televisions series, and a remake, it remains by far the best of the movies and the only genuine classic of the franchise. In other words, if you just see one Planet of the Apes movie, make it this one.

~ by Jared on June 16, 2009.

One Response to “The Franchise Files: Planet of the Apes (1968)”

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