Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner
Written by Michael Wilson and Rod Serling
I had made plans to do a watch/re-watch of the Planet of the Apes movies for a very long time. Especially with the popularity of the newer films in the series, I felt I owed it to myself to catch back up in the series. Admittedly, a while back I actually started this marathon at speed, watching the first three films of the original series in quick succession. However, I failed to sit down and write about my thoughts on the movies, and then life happened, I got much too far away from the experience to be able to write intelligently about the films, and I ended up deciding the scrap the project for the time with hopes of eventually returning to it. Well, we’re back! And I’m excited to go down this journey and hopefully discover some interesting films and entertaining times with the original series, the Tim Burton remake, and then lastly the modern prequel series, which is much acclaimed. So I’ve seen some or all of a few of these movies, but largely this will be a new or re-discovery of Planet of the Apes. What I remember of it, it will be fun for sure, but whether these films hold up after so many years, that will be the question.
The first movie is the oddity that started it all. When a space crew which left Earth in 1973 is on its final course home, it crash lands on an unknown planet, nearly 2,000 years in the future. The crew, led by Taylor (Charlton Heston), traverses desert land and eventually finds a primitive group of what appear to be humans. Soon, the humans are raided by a more dominant and intelligent race of apes, capturing Taylor along with them. Taylor’s throat is injured in the capture and unable to speak, making the ape doctor Zira (Kim Hunter) curious about his abilities, appearing more intelligent than other humans. She pairs him with Nova (Linda Harrison) in hopes of them mating, and presents her discoveries to her boyfriend Cornelius (Roddy McDowall), who is an anthropologist with a theory of an intelligent, advanced culture which predates their own. But Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans), the Minister of both Science and Faith, distrusts Zira and Cornelius’ claims of Taylor being an intelligent human, ardent about the human’s ability to be their equals.
What a weird movie. Seriously, there is just so much going on this film that I can’t begin to describe how weird it is, but what might be stranger is for how weird it is, so much of it manages to land. It’s essentially filmed like a B-movie: odd premise, some questionably cheap production values (mixed with some that are great which makes it all the more weird), overly earnest performance from Charlton Heston which plays in stark contrast to the fun that the apes (Kim Hunter, Roddy McDowall, Maurice Evans) are having here. Like, weird. Where to start unpacking, I guess we’ll start with the story. The story feels like a cheap, B-movie sci-fi premise, but in reality, its a pretty real and very dark outlook on humanity (likely why it translated so well to the modern prequels). It has nice sci-fi elements like the time travel of the ship which lands Taylor and his team back on Earth in the distant future, the evolution of the apes.
It also comments on a couple things that are pretty edgy. The obvious allegory is perhaps human’s treatment of apes and other zoo animals as being inhumane, but certainly in the late sixties there had to be some racial undertones here as well. And as far as that approach goes, I’m not sure how far it manages to be progressive. It’s certainly a great thought exercise to have the roles of whites and blacks presumably reversed, but the apes as depicted here are also not to the intelligence and cultural level as the “previous culture”. It doesn’t subvert that historical wrong perfectly, although perhaps that is how it still managed to be a great box office hit which spawned so many sequels, by not upsetting the apple cart too much. All things considered, it at least is a thought-provoking scenario that largely succeeds in that regard.
The production of the film honestly really threw me for one. Wild, bombastic and in-your-face sci-fi score by Jerry Goldsmith, which manages to be effective. Some really cheesy camera zooms to artificially heighten tension and suspense. These approaches really make the film campy when paired with Charlton Heston, who is taking this role about as seriously as he could have Moses in The Ten Commandments. In a very weird way though, the performance works set against the ridiculousness of the ape costumes and premise. His central performance both increases the amount of camp this movie is putting off while also giving it the legitimacy required to keep it from being a complete farce. That is what is most remarkable about Planet of the Apes. It should, from the surface, have been a Mystery Science 3000 bad sci-fi movie, yet it somehow isn’t? It’s actually really good? It’s a paradox I know I’m not explaining very well. But it’s weird, it’s fun. Planet of the Apes is a really good movie.