Saturday, September 14, 2013

Planet of the Apes (1968)

Director: Franklin J. Schaffner                         Writers: Rod Serling & Michael Wilson
Film Score: Jerry Goldsmith                            Cinematography: Leon Shamroy
Starring: Charlton Heston, Roddy McDowall, Kim Hunter and Maurice Evans

This is one of the great science-fiction films--from an equally great science-fiction concept--of all time. When it was first released the final reveal was such a great ending that it made the film an instant classic, and it does not fail to satisfy even to this day. Planet of the Apes begins conventionally enough, with Charlton Heston leading a crew of four astronauts into deep space. They’re testing a theory about the curvature of space that results in their traveling for two thousand years while they have physically aged only a year and a half. When the ship crash-lands in water on an unknown planet, it wakes them from their sleeping chambers and three of the crew manage to escape before the ship sinks. Once ashore Heston and the two other men begin hiking to find food before their supplies run out. When they finally reach civilization, that’s when the fun begins.

After the astronauts run into a group of humans who seem uncivilized, gorillas on horseback carrying guns suddenly begin shooting and rounding them up, including Heston. He is shot in the throat during his escape attempt and so it takes a while before he can talk. His first words, however, are cinematic magic. Kim Hunter plays the chimpanzee Zira, who is studying humans, and her boyfriend is played by Roddy McDowall in one of his best-known roles. Edward G. Robinson was originally going to play the orangutan Dr. Zaius--and had worked previously with Heston on another sci-fi classic, Soylent Green--but the makeup was too arduous for him and so Maurice Evans took over the role. The other big star was James Whitmore as the leader of the council. The irony that infuses the entire series is inescapable, with the apes mimicking the ignorance and callousness that humans display all of the time toward animals and those people they consider lesser humans.

The original story was written by the brilliant French novelist Pierre Boulle who also wrote the source novel for The Bridge on the River Kwai a decade earlier. Rod Serling’s screenplay downplayed the racial undertones that would inform the entire series, focusing instead on a cruelty-to-animals motif. The creator of the Twilight Zone also added a sort of communist overlay in the way the ape society was structured. All of these themes are wonderfully explored in Eric Greene’s book Planet of the Apes as American Myth. Of course the film was so unique and hugely popular that it spawned four sequels and two television series, as well as modern remakes of the original series. The reversal of evolution as the result of an atomic catastrophe is simply delightful to contemplate and the original makeup still has yet to be improved upon. The original Planet of the Apes is a fantastic film, of any genre, and shows no sign of diminishing in the decades to come.

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