BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Astronauts land on a planet where humans are primitive and talking apes are the dominant species.
PROS: Thought-provoking science fiction; engrossing story; excellent make-up effects.
CONS: Some of the filmmaking methods seem dated.
BOTTOM LINE: Planet of the Apes still holds up as an excellent science fiction film.
By now, every science fiction fan should have seen Planet of the Apes, the 1968 classic directed by Franklin J. Schaffner and starring Charlton Heston and Roddy McDowell. It’s one of my earliest science fiction memories and the recent release of the Blu-ray disc offered me another chance to see it – this time with a more critical and more experienced eye.
The film is based on Pierre Boulle’s 1963 novel (see my review of the book), and follows the story of space travelers who arrive on a planet where humans are mute primitives and the dominant ruling species are talking apes. Charlton Heston plays the cynical George Taylor, one of the astronauts who quickly finds himself literally speechless when he is shot in the neck. The apes hunt the primitive humans for sport and for experimental purposes and Taylor tries to make two benevolent chimpanzee scientists — Dr. Zira (Kim Hunter) and her mate Cornelius (Roddy McDowell) — understand that he is intelligent and not one of the natives. This does not sit well with Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans), the orangutan aristocrat and statesman who knows more about the true nature of men than he lets on. Will Taylor ever make them understand? If so, how will he convince them to see him as an equal?
One of the strengths of science fiction is the flexibility to be entertaining and thought-provoking. Planet of the Apes definitely offers both, a debt largely owed to the original screenwriter, Twilight Zone‘s Rod Serling, who knew that science fiction was more than Martians and ray guns. Moviegoers who are looking for nothing more than an adventure film will certainly be adequately pleased, though some earlier setup scenes may move too slowly for them. People who are looking for a little more substance and depth will also find lots to chew on and probably enjoy the film even more. That’s because this film does what good science fiction should do: it holds a mirror up and asks us to look at ourselves. By switching the roles of apes and humans, it raises some great questions about evolution, creationism, equality, racism, and religion. These issues are still timely today and in that regard Planet of the Apes holds up marvelously well.
The only areas that show their age have less to do with the storytelling and more to do with the filmmaking of decades past. There were a several distracting quick-zooms and tilts, for example. Also, a brief museum scene displayed stuffed humans on display that had actors who couldn’t quite stand completely still, something that would be accomplished easily today with a frozen image layered over another. So yes, special effects were minimal, but not noticeably so because the real attention-getter was the fantastic job they did with the make-up. Actors were able to show numerable expressions through the prosthetic devices they wore – an important ability because it meant the difference between watching serious social commentary or watching a cheesy ape B-movie. Thankfully, it succeeds wonderfully. For a film that’s forty years old, Planet of the Apes still holds up as an excellent science fiction film.
The 40th anniversary Blu-ray disc offers several hours of extras, including a fascinating Ken Burns documentary that explores all five Apes films and the two television series they spawned. Here are some of the fun facts I learned:
- Rod Serling’s original script was more true to the advanced ape society in Boulle’s book; it had helicopters and planes chasing down humans. Budget cuts forced the studio to bring in another writer (Michael Wilson) and make the ape society more primitive.
- The original script called for Nova to be pregnant.
- Early test screenings featured Edward G. Robinson as Dr. Zaius and James Brolin as Cornelius.
- On set, the ape actors ate lunch in front of mirrors so as not to mess up the masks they wore.
- Each sequel, though coming on the heels of a wildly successful predecessor, received smaller and smaller budgets from the studio – something that was obvious in one of the later films in which a handful of extras wore cheap masks instead of the ground-breaking make-up.
- The script for Beneath the Planet of the Apes was written by Pierre Boulle.
- Roddy McDowall appeared in only four of the films. He was unable to appear in Beneath the Planet of the Apes because of prior acting commitments.
- One other person appeared in four apes films: Natalie Trundy, who happened to be the wife of the films’ producer.
- Mark Lenard (Spock’s father, Sarek, in Star Trek) Played Urko, the protagonist gorilla in the Planet of the Apes television series.
Also, for fun (because this is how I get my kicks), here are some differences between Pierre Boulle’s novel and the film:
- There were three characters in the book. The main character (Ulysse Mérou) was a reporter, the others were a professor and a doctor. Their mission was exploratory. At the start of the film, there were four astronauts whose mission is hinted at being one of colonization.
- Ulysse Mérou was able to speak throughout the book. The communication problems arose out of the apes speaking a different language than his French. In the film, Taylor is shot in the neck to achieve the same effect for the benefit of an English-speaking audience. This was a great idea for translation from written to visual media, I thought.
- As mentioned above, the ape society in the book was advanced; they had achieved spaceflight. In the film, the most technological items were rifles and a camera. Again, this was a change made to keep production cost low.
- In the book, all apes (chimpanzees, orangutans and gorillas) were seen as equals. In the film, the orangutans are the ruling class.
- The ending of the book and film are quite different, and no, I won’t spoil either of them.