Planet of the Apes (1968): United States – directed by Franklin J. Schaffner
Rated G by the MPAA – contains violence, some language
Planet of the Apes is often considerd seminal science fiction, a landmark in both the genre and popular culture. All it takes is a quick look and listen at either “Futurama’s” Calculon or “The Simpsons'” Troy McClure to see the enduring legacy of Charlton Heston’s Colonel Taylor. Regardless of its impact on culture, Planet of the Apes works markedly better as a broad allegory and insightful dissection of society than a scientifically correct film.
The film begins with a small crew of spacemen aboard a flight some 320 light years from Earth. The year is 3978, though none of the men (the sole woman dies before she has a chance to understand her plight) aboard realize this until it’s too late. A systems malfunction has sent them off course, and failed to awake crew members in proper order. There is a planet nearby, one that seems hospitable, and the crew crash lands in a lake.
The three men who escape unharmed soon find themselves in an arid desert (despite the lake they landed in). Venturing farther inland they come upon less barren land, and some strange and potentially deadly creatures. They find a group of humans, but their mute silence is not encouraging. Less encouraging is a hunt that soon ensues, seeing intelligent ape-creatures hunting down, killing, and capturing the humans.
Soon Col. Taylor (Heston) finds himself in enemy hands (paws?). He is spared from a lobotomy by his ability to speak in the tongue of the apes, and is rescued by Dr. Zira (Kim Hunter) and Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) to be preserved for further study. But the bigotted and close-minded Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans) believes him to be an abomination and wants him murdered. Soon Taylor plots his escape, with the help of Zira and Cornelius. They find themselves on the lam, running away from Zaius and his murderous minions intent on preserving the sanctity of their faith.
As cinema, Planet of the Apes is generally pure Hollywood convention. Heavy musical cues and obvious delivery of important truths are to be expected. Heston’s masculine and strong Taylor is most at fault, uttering nearly every statement as if the fate of the world rests solely on how he delivers the line. Every time he appears in a dramatic pose with a dramatic voice it is difficult to not picture a bizarre hybrid of Calculon and Troy McClure. Still, this far from ruins the film, and rather imbues it with a type of camp value.
The film is competently crafted, with gorgeous sets and expansive, lingering shots of the various landscapes. The set design and make-up effects are superb. Any of the film’s faults generally lie with the screenplay, aspects of which have not held up particularly well in the four-plus decades since its release.
Planet of the Apes was made pre-moon landing; this is important when weighing its scientific capabilities. As such, it is believable that a planet remarkably similar to Earth, with humanoid creatures who speak in a language similar to English, might actually inhabit another planet. It is almost absurd for modern viewers to believe that it is not Earth that Taylor has alit upon, but the final scene’s twist is still potent today. Similar problems exist with the ape culture, as presented in the film. They live in dirt huts, with a system of dirt and stone hallways and wooden bridges, yet have firearms and metal hose nozzles. Where on earth are these mechanical and metallic parts crafted? Where is the manufacturing and industry that would necessarily be a part of such a society?
But the film is not concerned with logistical details. Befitting a script by Rod Serling (“The Twilight Zone”) and Michael Wilson (screenwriter for The Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia), the story is more concerned with broad allegory. While the sequels would focus on race relations as they pertained to the United States in the 1970’s, this opening film is more concerned with science vs. faith, and the close-mindedness that often accompanies religious extremism. Taylor is an eternal realist, even telling one of his fellow astronauts to “buy the fact” that they are stranded in the future on a foreign planet, because “you’ll sleep better.”
Zira and Cornelius are the words of wisdom in the ape-culture, eager to learn about the human brain and how the creatures function. But Dr. Zaius, who may know more about the scientific truth than he initially lets on, is representative of many religious figures from the time of Galileo. He shuts down anything that goes against what their religious figure has written down, regardless of any pure scientific value. And, like many of the science fiction films from the ’50’s and ’60’s, Zaius even gets an overly didactic speech or two in which to delineate his views on science and religion.
These themes are advanced and well thought out, and make the film a richer experience than its mere production would allow. Deeper veins, including threats of nuclear annihilation, racism, and the aforementioned fear of intellectual advancement, are all present, though the science vs. faith battle most concerns the filmmakers. Planet of the Apes is worth watching on many levels. As a cultural curiosity, a science fiction film from before science had taken man to the moon, it is interesting and engaging. It’s beautifully crafted, if occasionally overstated, and Heston makes for a strong lead even if he lacks subtlety. More fascinating, though, is the allegory that runs through nearly every exchange between man and ape, one that should still be thoughtfully considered today. Perhaps it errs on the side of science, not allowing religion or faith much room for maneuver or compromise, but what can you expect from a gorilla-god who lives again and demands his followers to whip and stone pagans and infidels?