Review: Planet of the Apes

Cynical and jaded astronaut Col. Taylor (Charlton Heston) and his space shuttle crew crash land on an alien planet apparently in the year 3978, having left Earth in 1972! (Science-y stuff that went over my head was involved). They make a long trek across a desert before finally encountering first plant life, and then humans. Things turn topsy-turvy pretty quickly when our three spacemen (the lone female has died during hyper-sleep it would appear) are rounded up with several other humans by the planet’s dominant species…Talking, upright apes! In this society, apes are the planet’s rulers and humans are mute slaves.

Taylor soon finds himself in the care of behavioural scientists Dr. Zira (Kim Hunter) and her husband Dr. Cornelius (Roddy McDowall), rather benevolent chimpanzees who are taken aback when they discover that Taylor, unlike any other human they’ve ever encountered, can talk! When the two chimps discuss this development with Orangutan Minister of Science Dr Zaius (Maurice Evans), the elder statesman (statesape?) is dismissive…suspiciously dismissive, and more like a political figure than an ape of science. The rest I’ll leave for you to discover for yourself, though the DVD cover-art appallingly spoils the whole bloody thing anyway. James Whitemore’s unmistakable eyes and voice are heard as the President of the Assembly, whilst Linda Harrison is mute human girl Nova.

One of cinema’s unquestionable landmark science-fiction films, this 1968 loose adaptation of Pierre Boulle’s Monkey Planet, is great entertainment. Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner (“The War Lord”, “Patton”) and scripted by Michael Wilson (who has worked on “It’s a Wonderful Life”, “The Bridge on the River Kwai”, and “Lawrence of Arabia”- hell of a résumé) and the inimitable Rod Serling (TV’s iconic “The Twilight Zone”), this is a great premise that could’ve gone horribly, horribly wrong in less assured hands. Instead of a smart, humorous script, the film could’ve simply been one long awful joke that torpedoed the careers of cast in crew. Instead it’s an enduring classic that spawned two franchises, a ‘re-imagining’, and at least two TV series (one being animated).

The film gets off and running straight away, with really inventive camerawork that has you feeling discombobulated just as the characters are. Meanwhile, the late and great(est) Jerry Goldsmith (“The Omen”, “Star Trek: First Contact”) contributes one of his best and strangest music scores that also keeps you a bit off-kilter. The piano-tinkling used here has been done to death in the years since especially for chase scene music. Here’s the one time it works. You’ll know the music when you hear it, it’s been used that often subsequently. Although many will recognise the Lake Powell area, and some of those rock formations do have one wondering when John Wayne is gonna mosey on by, it’s not long before the scenery starts to look unfamiliar enough and certainly very interesting. Although the film gets off the ground running with the immediate crash landing, the first 30 minutes really are a masterful slow reveal, and the film only gets better from there. It’s a genuinely and deliberately funny film, from the very first moment we hear an ape talk. However, there’s also been given excellent thought to the structure of ape society: Gorillas are militant and not prone to intellectual or compassionate thought, Orangutans are the elders and lawmakers, and Chimps are predominantly the compassion-minded doctors and scientists. Meanwhile, the production/set design is perfect (the ape houses and buildings almost look “Flintstones”-esque), and the Oscar-winning makeup by John Chambers (Best Makeup wasn’t a category yet so he was awarded a special Oscar) still works wonderfully well for me, partly no doubt due to how well the chosen actors were able to act out from underneath it.

The manliest of male actors Charlton Heston is ideal as the human hero Taylor. People will claim that Heston is hammy as hell here, and yet…he gets most of the film’s most memorable moments and lines. The latter are usually yelled at the top of his lungs. He and the other actors truly do deserve a lot of credit for making something barmy more than acceptable for 100 minutes or so. The real acting standouts for me are our principal simians played by Maurice Evans, Roddy McDowell, and especially Kim Hunter. Dr. Zaius (I love you, Dr. Zaius!), and chimp doctors Cornelius and Zira are wonderful creations of character, makeup, and performance. The latter a triumph under presumably restrictive circumstances. Chambers’ makeup was such that it allowed for a decent amount of flexibility and expression, and the actors (having to deliberately overact with facial expressions) do the rest. Talking apes in 1968 must’ve been such an absurd concept to get over, but all three get their characters over by not condescending to the material, and whilst occasionally playing for deliberate comedy, also playing the characters as ‘realistic’ as possible within the context of an outlandish sci-fi film. Within minutes you forget that it’s completely bonkers and just accept that you’re watching these three wonderfully realised characters. In particular there’s something innately warm and genuinely sweet about Kim Hunter’s Zira in this and the later “Escape From the Planet of the Apes”. She steals her every scene, whilst Roddy McDowell probably got more to chew on in his subsequent role in the series playing Caesar in “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes” and “Battle for the Planet of the Apes”.

There’s lots of memorable moments throughout, including the unforgettable conclusion, however I’d like to draw attention to a brilliant visual moment earlier in the film where the Ape Assembly don’t like something Dr. Zira is saying, so one Assembly figure covers his ears, the next his eyes, the other his mouth. Priceless stuff, if not exactly a subtle in-joke (Amazingly, it was an apparent ad-lib on the day of shooting. Cinema is magic, people. Magic!).

This is a great yarn, and like most of the best sci-fi films it deals with interesting and intelligent themes whilst also being great entertainment. I have to imagine that in 1968 it was also one-of-a-kind. The ending is certainly one of the greatest and most iconic in cinematic history, it says as much about humanity in 1968 as it does now. It’s still an indictment of man’s destructive tendencies. Brilliantly performed by pretty much one-and-all, exceptionally well-mounted, thematically fascinating, endlessly entertaining. This is one of the greatest cinematic entertainments of all-time, albeit with a rather dark undercurrent. Must-see. Must-see again and again.

Rating: A+


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