Planet of the Apes (United States, 1968)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Planet of the Apes was arguably the first American science fiction franchise of the post-serial film era. In many ways, the Planet of the Apes series developed the blueprint used by many subsequent multi-segment science fiction endeavors (such as Star Wars, Star Trek, and, to a lesser extent, Superman) in the advertising and merchandising arenas. Not only did Planet of the Apes spawn four theatrical sequels, but it was the basis for a short-lived television series, a Saturday morning TV cartoon, countless books, comic books, and other spin-off material - not to mention the "action figures", costumes, lunch boxes, and various other paraphernalia that are now mandatory to the success of any would-be blockbuster.

Planet of the Apes began its life as a mainstream hit. When producer Arthur P. Jacobs brought his version of Pierre Boulle's novel to the screen, he had no idea that it was going to be anything more than a moderately-budgeted, one-off science fiction feature. The cast was headlined by a single big name - Charlton Heston - but that was no guarantee of success. Heston was a marketable commodity at the time, but he had participated in his share of flops. There were several lesser-known (yet far from obscure) performers in the cast, but those actors were virtually unrecognizable beneath their makeup. Nevertheless, the film was a huge success, and Jacobs was faced with the enviable task of figuring out how to keep things going. However, by the mid-'70s, Planet of the Apes had run out of steam. No more movies were being made, both the live-action and the cartoon TV programs had been cancelled, and the series' fan base was in a state of erosion. A decade after the first movie's theatrical release, the status of Planet of the Apes had metamorphosed from that of mass audience fare to that of a cult phenomenon. For more than two decades, it remained just on the fringe of national consciousness until, in 2001, Tim Burton grabbed the reins of a big-budget re-make and brought the apes back to cinema screens.

The success of Planet of the Apes took nearly everyone involved by surprise - even those who believed the film had a chance to do well at the box office. By comparison, in order to achieve the same level of gross-to-cost ratio, the 2001 Planet of the Apes will have to bring in more than $300 million domestically - a tally most analysts believe is beyond its reach. Still, when it comes to Apes, it's difficult to guess at popularity, especially if the new version strikes the same chords sounded by its predecessor.

The 1968 movie opened with a short prologue inside a spaceship. Col. George Taylor (Heston), one of four astronauts on board, gives a mournful monologue before joining his fellows in deep sleep. Approximately six months later, their ship crash-lands on an unknown planet. One astronaut's suspended animation chamber has failed, resulting in her death. The survivors - Taylor, Landon (Robert Gunner), and Dodge (Jeff Burton) - emerge from the vessel to explore their new world, searching for the basics of survival, food and water. Soon, they discover that their new home is inhabited. There are other humans, but they are mute, and they are treated like cattle by the dominant species. On this planet, evolution has favored the apes, who have developed into the walking, talking, thinking rulers of a society where tolerance is minimal, and superstition is valued over science.

Taylor is captured by the apes during a human hunt. His throat is injured and he is unable to speak, but two scientists, Zira (Kim Hunter), and her fiancé, Cornelius (Roddy McDowall), take an interest in him because he seems more intelligent than most of his kind. "Bright Eyes" (as he is called by Zira) soon surprises the pair by being able to write. Then, after briefly escaping, he shocks the entire ape population by regaining his voice in time to curse his captors with the immortal line: "Get your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!" Suddenly, no one knows what to make of him - a human who can talk!

The apes give Taylor a woman, Nova (Linda Harrison), hoping he will mate. While Cornelius and Zira argue on the unique man's behalf, the lead scientist, Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans), believes he should be executed. Since Dr. Zaius' opinion carries more weight than that of either Cornelius or Zira, Taylor's fate is sealed. But, before he can be killed, his protectors orchestrate an escape and accompany Taylor and Nova into the "Forbidden Zone", where evidence about the true origin of the planet of the apes lies.

Like most good science fiction, Planet of the Apes combines action, adventure, futuristic settings, and allegory into an entertaining whole. It is by no means a masterpiece, but, even after more than three decades, it holds up reasonably well (especially if you view the film without looking for logical flaws; nitpickers will find plenty of those). The special effects are tacky, as was the case with many pre-2001 science fiction motion pictures (this movie came out a few months before Kubrick's seminal feature), but set design, costumes, and makeup are superlative. The apes look like advanced simians, not just men in monkey suits. That, in fact, is a key to the film's success. The creatures are believable enough that we accept them, rather than laugh at them. And, once the audience buys into the concept of a planet ruled by apes, everything else slides easily into place.

Planet of the Apes is almost too obviously allegorical. With little evidence of subtlety, the production tackles issues like racism, class divisions, and the dangers of close-mindedness. The apes treat the humans as property - chattel with no inherent value that can be disposed of at will. Within ape society, there is a distinct social structure, based on species. The chimpanzees are the scientists and thinkers, the orangutans are the politicians, and the gorillas are the warriors. Of the three, the chimpanzees are clearly the lowest on the totem pole. In this culture, free thinking is discouraged, and, when Zira and Cornelius attempt to encourage new ways of regarding human beings, Dr. Zaius (motivated largely by his desire to protect his own position) intervenes. In a kangaroo court, he discredits Zira, Cornelius, and Taylor. Some of Planet of the Apes' social criticisms were leveled at the racist mentality that still permeated significant portions of the United States at the time. Other aspects were thinly-veiled attacks on the government's militaristic policy in Vietnam - a conflict that was becoming increasingly controversial while Planet of the Apes was in production. The movie also has a strong anti-nuclear undercurrent which is brought to the surface during the final, shocking scene.

Today, most people, whether they have seen Planet of the Apes or not, are familiar with the closing image: Taylor and Nova, having escaped the apes, come face-to-face with the ruins of the Statue of Liberty. At this moment, Taylor, recognizing that his race destroyed itself in a nuclear holocaust, collapses to the ground, banging his fists into the sand in impotent anger. It's a strong image, and an effective way to end the movie. For those who knew about the scene before seeing the movie, it's difficult to imagine the impact that such an unexpected ending would have had on unprepared viewers. (This conclusion was chosen over an alternate one, in which Nova gave birth to a child.)

As important as the social commentary is to Planet of the Apes' subtext, this is first and foremost a futuristic adventure film. The movie features two lengthy, high energy action sequences. The first occurs when Taylor is captured by the apes during the hunt. The second is when he escapes and is pursued throughout the ape village. A third, less suspenseful action scene occurs near the end, when Taylor and his small ape entourage holds off a larger group within the "Forbidden Zone".

To direct Planet of the Apes, Jacobs hand-picked Franklin J. Schaffner, a predominantly unknown filmmaker (at the time), who would go on to great acclaim making pictures like Patton and Papillon. Schaffner's influence on the film is immediately evident. More than any of the other Planet of the Apes movies, this one has a sense of near-epic grandeur and scope. While there's a current of irony flowing through the material, Schaffner treats the subject seriously, but not so earnestly that it becomes laughable. Some of the film's best moments are early in the proceedings, as the astronauts scout out the planet. Throughout the movie, Schaffner's meticulousness is evident.

The screenplay was initially written by Rod Serling (of "The Twilight Zone" fame), who stuck closely to Boulle's source material. Jacobs eventually brought in Michael Wilson to do a re-write. Wilson's most evident contribution is during the kangaroo court. Having suffered through blacklisting during the previous decade, Wilson drew upon his experiences (not to mention his bitterness) in crafting these scenes.

In order for Jacobs to obtain funding for Planet of the Apes, he needed to attach a star to the project, so he approached Heston early in pre-production. The actor liked the script, although, in some ways, it represented a departure for him. Taylor is a heroic figure, but far from the indomitable icon that Heston had become synonymous with in movies like The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur. Never a great actor, but always possessing an abundance of charisma and screen presence, Heston has no trouble commanding the viewer's attention, even though he frequently overacts his part (most notably in the final scene). (Planet of the Apes also contains Heston's first nude scene, although he is only seen from behind.)

Joining Heston in the cast are veterans Kim Hunter (best known for her turn as Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire) as Zira, Maurice Evans (a frequent participant in stage and film adaptations of Shakespeare) as Dr. Zaius, James Whitmore as the President of the Assembly, and newcomer Linda Harrison as Nova (she speaks nary a word in the movie, but she wasn't chosen because of her voice). Then there's Roddy McDowall, who would become inextricably linked with Planet of the Apes. Over the course of a long and varied career that featured well over 100 motion picture appearances, McDowall forged a name for himself as one of Hollywood's best character actors. Yet, to many people, he was known only for his work under the chimpanzee makeup (and, to his credit, he did not shun the accolades of Planet of the Apes fandom). In addition to appearing in four of the five Planet of the Apes movies, McDowall was also the star of the weekly TV series.

Planet of the Apes was strongly received by critics and the public alike. In some ways, it was a victim of its own success. The creative team behind Planet of the Apes had gone into the film without thoughts of a sequel, so, when the desire for one became obvious, no one knew exactly where to take the story. Predictably, the resulting motion picture, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, turned out to be a muddled, poorly conceived, B-movie adventure that did to the series what inglorious entries like Alien 3, Return of the Jedi, Superman 3, and Star Trek V did to their respective franchises. Fortunately, things got better with the third installment, Escape From the Planet of the Apes.

Planet of the Apes is one of those rare films whose historical impact outweighs its quality. It's a good film, but not a classic. Yet, although little more than a socially conscious, well executed science fiction adventure film, Planet of the Apes arrived in theaters at just the right time to capture the country's imagination. It was a family feature that parents could take their children to, an allegory for those upset with the current cultural tides, and a source of escapism for those wanting to lose themselves in another reality for two hours. Aside from being an instant hit, Planet of the Apes has endured - so much so that, for the second time in 35 years, the heads of 20th Century Fox are hoping that this franchise will remove the financial monkey from their backs.

Planet of the Apes (United States, 1968)

Run Time: 1:52
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "G" (Profanity, Brief Nudity, Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1