19 January 2009

Planet of the Apes (1968)

Classic Planet of the Apes Still Stunning
By Kristin Battestella

I’ve been begging my husband to watch the original 1968 Planet of the Apes for weeks. It’s been on cable a lot recently, and I tune in every time. No matter how many times you see it, Planet of the Apes still offers unforgettable moments and speculative insights on the human condition.

American astronaut George Taylor (Charlton Heston) is readying his ship for its return to earth. While the crew is in suspended animation, the ship crashes on an unknown planet. Taylor, Landon (Robert Gunner) and Dodge (Jeff Burton) survive, but their female crewmate Stewart (Dianne Stanley) died when her pod was damaged. According to the ship’s clocks, several thousand years have passed. The men debate where and when they are as they travel through the rough and dangerous desert. When they finally find trees, water, and a mute tribe of humans, things seem on the up-until Taylor is captured by a group of talking and gun toting apes who refuse to believe his outlandish story.

I finally convinced my husband to watch after our holiday Twilight Zone marathon. ‘Rod Serling wrote Planet of the Apes’, I casually said. Although his script was taken part and parcel with Oscar Winner Michael Wilson’s (A Place in the Sun, Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia) rewrite, many of Serling’s touches can be found in the film and both men receive credit. From Taylor’s iconic ‘Get your stinkin’ paws off me you damn, dirty ape!’ to Apes’ still disturbing ending, the movie carries a lot of The Twilight Zone’s topsy turvy feeling. Taylor traveled to the stars in an effort to find something better than man, and instead he finds a world where man is at the bottom of the food chain. So many memorable, yet humorous and tragic observations accent Planet of the Apes with their species reversals: Taylor’s black crewmate Dodge ends up in museum; people are lobotomized and gelded at will in hopes that ‘man can be domesticated’; a gorilla’s eulogy proclaims, ‘I never met an ape I didn’t like’; and although we may laugh at ‘human see, human do’, we really can often be that basic and stupid. 

I remember seeing this original as a kid. I was surprised my parents were encouraging me to watch a film with seemingly so much nudity and skimpy clothing. That’s all harmless bits of course, but beyond the sixties styles and sets, the story and situation from director Franklin Schaffner (Patton) blew my mind. Although it advanced the science fiction genre onscreen and off, Planet of the Apes is really about the arrogance of man. I remember groaning over the opening desert segment, feeling the hopelessness and isolation of these stranded astronauts. In spite of its title, the shock of seeing a gorilla riding a horse and carrying a gun instantly tells you the kind of world in which the Planet of the Apes takes place.

We can joke that a movie with plenty of nudity and guns is right up Charlton Heston’s alley, but his performance here is just as worthy as The Ten Commandments or Ben Hur. He’s older, a bit more rough around the edges, but we believe Heston’s Taylor can be the rugged leader and cocky explorer exploring for the wrong reasons. When we meet him, Taylor is actually quite the jerk. When encountering primitive humans, he comments that if this was the cream of the crop, he could be running the planet in six months. Once he is stripped of all human dignity and helpless in this disturbing world, we are instantly on Taylor’s side. Heston gains our sympathy while keeping Taylor strong as the lone antagonist with no hope of proving himself.

Veterans Kim Hunter and Roddy McDowell are simply darling as the chimpanzee scientists Zira and Cornelius. They are a cute couple, and even though they have each other, Zira and Cornelius soon come to odds with their own society over Taylor. Maurice Evans is equally delicious as orangutan administrator Dr. Zaius. You know from the start he knows more than he’s saying. As much as we are disturbed about seeing man put in his place, these apes also don’t like an outsider telling them what’s wrong with how they do things. Taylor’s answer to Zaius that ‘some apes, it seems, are more equal than others’ sets the inevitable stand off that comes for these characters.  

Planet of the Apes [Blu-ray]Although the menus and special features are nothing special, the blu ray presentation of Planet of the Apes is a sight and a half to behold. For years I’ve seen the film cut up on television or wearing thin on grainy VHS tapes. The haunting Oscar nominated score by Jerry Goldsmith sends chills up your spine; The opening desert scenes and Lake Powell locations and excellent ape makeup not only hold up against digital technology, but look downright supreme. These visuals alone won my husband over, and he gave Planet of the Apes four stars.

In addition to the 2001 remake starring Mark Walhberg, Planet of the Apes spawned four sequels and a brief television series. While the remake is perhaps truer to Pierre Boulle’s 1963 French source novel and has better sf effects, its ape faces are sub par in comparison with John Chambers’ Oscar winning makeup. The Ape sequels bring the series full circle, but their quality diminishes as they go forth. The complete collection is however available in several DVD and blu ray sets.

Fans of science fiction and dystopian films cannot call themselves true fans unless they view the original Planet of the Apes. Apes collectors should definitely upgrade to blu ray the moment you can afford to do so. PG and tame by today’s standards, elder folks can introduce tweens to Planet of the Apes. Despite some old school looks, the story, social commentaries, and beautiful restoration to blu ray ensures Planet of the Apes will be with us for years to come.


Leon1234 said...

Hey, how are you doing? Hope all is well.

Adele said...

I loved this film, the recent version was fun but not as thought provoking.

Kristin Battestella said...

Glad you liked it!

thebonebreaker said...

Planet of the Apes Rocks!
[I love/own them all!] :-)

Nice Review Kristin!

Kristin Battestella said...

Hi Bone!

I can't believe some people think these are old and hokey. One of the grand daddys of the genre!