Planet of the Apes (1968) / Sci Fi-Adventure
MPAA Rated: G (probably PG-13 today for violence, some nudity, and some language
Running Time: 112 min.
Cast: Charlton Heston, Kim Hunter, Roddy McDowall, Maurice Evans, Linda Harrison, James Whitmore, Robert Gunner, Lou Wagner, Woodrow Parfrey
Director: Franklin J. Schaffner
Screenplay: Michael Wilson, Rod Serling (based on the book by Pierre Boulle)
Review published July 13, 2014
Charlton Heston (The Omega Man, Tombstone) stars as American astronaut George Taylor, who is returning back to Earth from a mission that has aged them six months, though many years have actually passed on the home planet. However, while in cryogenic sleep, he and his crewmen end up crash landing on a planet that they didn't expect -- a desolate orb that eventually reveals a topsy-turvy world in which highly-intelligent apes are in charge and humans are the dumb animals they experiment on. Taylor ends up captured by armed gorillas along with a group of other humans and locked in a cage, and soon proves himself to the apes to be far more advanced than any human they've ever known, causing a schism between them between the scientists who want to study him and the political leaders who want to eradicate him for the threat to the balance of things he presents.
Pierre Boulle's satirical novel provides the basis for this rather serious (though still darkly comic and a more than a tad campy) 1968 film version, directed by Franklin J. Schaffner (Patton, Papillon). Rod Serling (Seven Days in May, Requiem for a Heavyweight) co-scripts along with Michael Wilson (5 Fingers, A Place in the Sun), who adapted Boulle to great success in the classic, Bridge on the River Kwai.
Underneath the surface pleasure of Planet of the Apes is a good deal of commentary on the nature of science vs. the nature of religion, and the role they both play in controlling the prevalent thought among the civilization by those in power. It also displays how faith can be used to not only shield its followers from complete knowledge from those who possess it, but also in how it protects them from the harm that may come in knowing the complete picture. It also explores the brutality of those who are intelligent and how they deal with other species who cannot communicate with them well, as well as the class divides that often occur in society (notice all of the powerful apes are orangutans, for instance.)
As you're watching the film, it doesn't really make sense for the astronauts to encounter an atmosphere and gravity identical to Earth, plus plant and oxygen-breathing animal life identical as well. And, of course, the apes do speak and write in English. It seems exceedingly farfetched, but by the end, it all makes a certain sense -- Rod Serling's influence can certainly be felt in the story given its "Twilight Zone" aspect to its plot.
Though a thoughtful and serious work at its core, the 'camp' tag occurs not only from the obvious costumes and make-up, but also the hammy, ultra-macho Charlton Heston performance. Some of the commentary is very dated, especially the counter-culture riffs and generational-gap jokes like, "Don't trust anyone over 30" and other such expressions common in the 1960s.
The supporting cast is quite good, especially when you consider that the rubber-faced ape makeup (which won a special Academy Award for designer John Chambers, Phantom of the Paradise) forces the actors to have to show expression solely through the eyes, voice and mannerisms. McDowall (Circle of Iron, Fright Night) and Hunter (Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil) in particular give lots of personality to their roles as the scientists who are astonished and elated to find a human who is able to transcend his animal-like state. Maurice Evans (The Jerk) also breathes lots of life into Dr. Zaius, the de facto villain of the film, though he's not so much evil as he sees a much bigger picture than everyone else that he's trying to control.
Just as good as the physicality of the actors is the way the film is shot, which features long, helicopter shots of an alien-looking, arid, mountainous terrain completely devoid of life, at least for the bulk of the beginning of the film. It's also refreshing how long it takes for the plot to actually kick in, as we are absorbed into its unique atmosphere, slowing the pace for the gravity of the situation of the crash survivors to sink in. In concert with Jerry Goldsmith's eerie, space-age score, it certainly makes its northern Arizona locale work seem otherworldly in nature.
Planet of the Apes is groundbreaking, smartly written, socially aware science fiction, and despite the aforementioned dated elements, it stands up very well today due to its delivery of its high-concept thematic material. From its opening credits to its the classic final shot, Planet of the Apes casts its net over you and leaves you rapt in its storyline, then gives you plenty to mull over afterward.
-- Followed by Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970), Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971), Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972), and Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973). The film series was followed by a live-action TV series, "Planet of the Apes", in 1974, and an animated TV series, "Return to the Planet of the Apes", in 1975. Remade in 2001 as Planet of the Apes. A reboot prequel series began in 2011 as Rise of the Planet of the Apes, followed by Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014).
©2014 Vince Leo