It's a Madhouse! A Madhouse!
Planet of the Apes (1968)
When it comes to debates about the big sci-fi franchises, we usually think about it as a two-party system. Sure, you have the Mad MaxStarted with a single 1970s Australian exploitation flick (a popular genre in the country at the time), the Mad Max series went on to spawn three sequels, an entire genre, style, and what many consider the greatest action film of all time, Fury Road. Not bad from a little low-budget film about cars smashing each other after the fall of society. movies and all the The MatrixA speculative future story with superhero and anime influences, The Matrix not only pushed viewers to think about the nature of their own reality but also expanded what filmmakers could do with action sequences and filming. It then launched a series of movies, games, and comics, creating a franchise still talked about today. materials, your Aliens v PredatorOriginally two separate franchises, the Alien and Predator series came together first in a series of comics and video games before, finally, Fox Studios merged them together is the Alien v Predator film franchise. and TerminatorIs it a series about a future nuclear war and the survivors of the aftermath? Is it a series of chase movies set in the present day? Is it a series about time travel? That fact is that the Terminator series is all of those concepts. The mash-up of genres and ideas shouldn't work, but the films have proven adept at mixing into a heady series unlike any other., but really, most sci-fi geeks will fall into one of two camps: Star TrekOriginally conceived as "Wagon Train in Space", Star Trek was released during the height of the Hollywood Western film and TV boom. While the concept CBS originally asked for had a western vibe, it was the smart, intellectual stories set in a future utopia of science and exploration that proved vital to the series' long impact on popular culture. and Star WarsThe modern blockbuster: it's a concept so commonplace now we don't even think about the fact that before the end of the 1970s, this kind of movie -- huge spectacles, big action, massive budgets -- wasn't really made. That all changed, though, with Star Wars, a series of films that were big on spectacle (and even bigger on profits). A hero's journey set against a sci-fi backdrop, nothing like this series had ever really been done before, and then Hollywood was never the same.. I know I've fallen into this, stating a greater affinity for the Federation over space wizards with their laser swords, but deep down I truly had love for a different franchise: Planet of the ApesAlthough originally started with the 1963 novel, La Planete des singes, it's fair to say that the Apes franchise truly began with the 1968 film that kick started the original Fox film series and has helped tto keep these intelligent primates in the public conciousness for years.. While I like a lot of Sci-Fi, for some reason the Apes franchise struck a chord with me and has stuck with me for years even as the franchise only updates via drips and drabs. The question, really, is why?
I mean, if we go back to the original film, the 1968 production is a tad cheesy, a little silly looking. Some of that is, of course, due to the fact that the special effects are very dated, owing to when the film came out (1968) and the kinds of special effects that were considered "futuristic" for the era (this isn't something the original series was able to shake as, with the later films, the 1970s trappings of the era are alive in well despite the films still existing in a vague "future" of Earth). The astronauts flying in on their ship, the makeup effects of the Apes, everything has a very 1960s feel to it, and not a realistic "this is what NASA is going right now" kind of Sci-Fi but the Hollywood vision of the future, which is anything but.
While the look of the Sci-Fi might be silly, the story itself is anything but. Four astronauts -- Taylor (Charlton Heston), Landon (Robert Gunner), Dodge (Jeff Burton), and Stewart -- are at the end of a six month mission to travel deep space and study the effects of time dilatation. Due to them traveling at relativistic speeds, their six months in space should equal close to 200 years on Earth, meaning everything they knew is gone. Excited to return home and see what kind of new wonders await them, the four strap themselves into hypersleep and prepare for the final journey home. Unfortunately something goes wrong and their ship crash-lands on a seemingly alien planet, one where intelligent Apes (that, for some reason, speak perfect English) are lords of the land while humans are mute, cattle-like creatures that roam the outskirts of society.
Dropped into this world, Taylor and his crew are considered sacrilege, mutants that shouldn't exist and must be destroyed. With the help of two friendly apes, Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) and Zira (Kim Hunter), Taylor has to find a way to escape and prove, somehow, the intelligent humans really can exist (and that he isn't just an aberration).
Of course, while that's the story of the movie, Planet of the Apes plays its truth close to the chest. Sadly, after decades of existence the statute of limitations on spoilers for the film long since passed which is why everyone knows that the planet is really Earth in the distant future, as made famous by the scene of Taylor, on his knees, staring up at the remains on the Statue of Liberty (a sequence as famous as another Charlton Heston film, Soylent Green, and it's much quoted, "it's people!" ending). Knowing the ending colors the story upon second (or first, if spoiled) viewing (and it can easily be spoiled just by the cover art of most DVDs which, usually, use the Liberty shot for their art) but I wouldn't say it ruins the movie. Knowing Taylor and his crew are on a distant Earth doesn't change much of the message of the film or the bleakness of its telling.
With a script originally written by (Twilight Zone creator) Rod Serling (although it went through other writers before being produced), the film spends a lot of time shining a mirror up to humanity and showing us our own sins. The Apes are a closed minded lot, believing the God created Apes in his own image. That's why humans, mute from some reason but not completely unintelligent, are treated as second-class creatures. They're segregated away from being "less" than the Apes, with the mighty primates being God's chosen, the ones that obviously are special and society must continue to treat them that way. Considering when it came out, those are obvious, pointed comments on race, religion, and the role man has in his own society. Since it comes from creatures that seem alien (but, really aren't) it also gives the ending more power -- we can think these creatures are different from us, but once it's revealed that the planet is Earth, we have to confront the fact that these "aliens" probably learned this behavior from us.
There's also a class system in play in Planet of the Apes. There are three types of Apes: the Chimpanzees, who work purely in science, the gorillas, who act as military enforcers, and the orangutans, who are the leaders and act as both protectors of science and the faith. Of course, as Taylor notes, when science and faith conflict, the orangs protect the faith over the truth. It's another pointed comment, this time about how humanity so often lets religion and beliefs stand in the way of innovation, ignoring reality to accept something safer and more palatable.
Plus, honestly, the film is just bleak and unforgiving. From the moment Taylor and his crew touch down they suffer one indignity after another. They lose their supplies, then their freedom (and, for a time, Taylor even loses his ability to speak due to an injury). Then Taylor discovers that the rest of his crew has been killed off, only to them be considered a religious menace and, very nearly, almost loses his life. Even when it seems like Taylor, Zira, and Cornelius have the upper hand, revealing the truth about the world and its past to the orangutans (that humans once lived on this planet and the apes came after, not the other way around as the Apes believe), religion still trumps science and the truth is buried. There are no winners, not really, in the Planet of the Apes.
Really, it's fascinating to me that the movie was a huge success ($30 Million Box Office on a $5 Million budget) considering how bleak and unforgiving it was. Some of that is probably because of it's hooky nature and the solid twist that reinvents the movie for viewers. I also think the pointed politics of the film spoke to people at the time. It's also probably why the film is still resonant: the issues the film addresses are still relevant today. We still suffer inequality, still have people leading from religion instead of blatant truth. The film never expressly addresses what caused human civilization to be wiped away meaning that the issues of the day, in any decade, can be used as the stand-in for the Apocalypse. Certainly, watching the movie now, I couldn't help but think that Global Warming could be what causes the Planet of the Apes to rise now. The film wisely lets us fill in the gaps for all occasions.
Despite how bleak it could get at times (and how dark the ending really was, although it's sequel has it beat in this department), the film did have moments of lightness. Taylor develops a bond with a female human he calls Nova (Linda Harrison), and there's genuine emotion between both actors, a real chemistry that sells their bond. Plus there's the two kindly apes, Cornelius and Zira, who help to illustrate that not all the Apes are bad. It's not a simple matter of good and evil, as even the orang leader, Doctor Zaius (Maurice Evans) is just trying to protect Ape society and, as we learn, prevent it from falling the same why humanity did. Most of the Apes can be view as villains but, from their perspective, they're anything but. To them Taylor is the villain, a fact Taylor only makes worse by how rough and abrasive he is to the Apes around him (only proving their point).
If there are heroes in the film, really, then they're Cornelius and Zira. McDowall and Hunter play their Ape characters with kindness and warmth, conveying so much emotion despite being layered all the ape prosthetics. The makeup effects, viewed now, are pretty crude, too stiff and plasticy to hold up to modern sensibilities, and yet the lead Apes are able to give amazing performances despite these limitations. That's a serious credit to the actors.
Heston has the bigger, showier performance, going all in and over-the-top in classic Heston style, but I actually feel like this hurts the Taylor character. He's so steadfast in his anger, in the fact that he's being mistreated without ever once trying to prove humanity is better than their potential for destruction and death. Some of that is because Taylor doesn't have the whole story, but some of that is also because Heston plays Taylor as the rough, gruff, swaggering Western hero (that, up til a few years before, was so popular). He's a man out of time, in more than one way, and he comes across as an anachronism in this planet of apes.
There's so much going on in this movie that helps it transcend its cheesy, 1960s trappings. The film becomes so absorbing, so committed to telling its story that you get sucked up for the journey. It's a sad movie, a tough movie, a bleak movie, but it's also honest and powerful. I think that's why it resonated with film goers back in the day and why, even with all the other great Sci-Fi we have in this era, I keep going back for visits to the Planet of the Apes. There's not a lot of sci-fi as good, and as honest, as this film.