Friday, July 07, 2017

Summer School: 'Planet of the Apes' (1968)

Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's big returning franchises.

There's almost nothing about the original Planet of the Apes that suggests the birth of a long-running media franchise, one that would inspire four direct sequels, a remake and an ongoing prequel/reboot series, in addition to two short-lived TV shows (one live action, one animated), comic books, video games and other spinoffs. The story of Planet of the Apes, based somewhat loosely on a novel by French author Pierre Boulle, is a parable of sorts, and it's no surprise that Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling is one of the two credited screenwriters (the other is Michael Wilson). It tells an unsettling sci-fi story with plenty of contemporaneous social relevance, capped by a twist ending that hammers home its moral. As a standalone story, Planet is extraordinarily successful, with just enough hints of a wider world to be satisfying without overexplaining everything. While there are occasional clumsy moments, the movie holds up remarkably well, in terms of both its themes and its production values.

Charlton Heston's excess machismo is perfect for the part of astronaut George Taylor, who crash-lands along with his two crewmates on what appears to be a distant planet populated by intelligent apes and primitive humans (but we all know that it was Earth all along) and is taken captive by the ape government. He's an example of the best and worst of humanity, with his short temper, male chauvinism and boundless cynicism, alongside compassion, intelligence and hope. Taylor scoffs at fellow astronaut Landon's optimism about the human race, but he also fights to prove to the apes that humans are noble and worthwhile, even when all the apes want to do is imprison and experiment on him. He gives the benefit of the doubt to his captors Zira (Kim Hunter) and Cornelius (Roddy McDowall), eventually winning them over to his side.

It's easy to forget that the apes don't even show up until half an hour into the movie, and before that point it's an eerie sci-fi movie about landing on an unknown planet, light-years from home with almost no resources. Taylor's rants about how everyone they knew on Earth has been dead for centuries are entertainingly bleak, and the way he casually lights a cigar while discussing their limited food supply is great gallows humor. I was almost disappointed when the two other astronauts left the story (one is killed, while Landon ends up lobotomized), but Taylor remains wryly pessimistic as he interacts with the apes, even as he refuses to give up the fight for his own life and freedom. At times the movie's political allegory could come off as heavy-handed, but Taylor's almost nihilistic perspective on the prospect of social change effectively undercuts the potential self-righteousness.

Even without the social commentary, Planet is a really effective sci-fi adventure story, with suspenseful chase sequences, tight pacing and some impressive costume and makeup work that looks pretty good even now. The ape makeup does restrict the actors' facial expressiveness a bit, but it gives them an uncanny enough appearance that they resemble an ape-like alien race, rather than realistic apes (as in the recent prequel/reboot movies), which adds to the sense of having traveled a long way in space and time. The ape society is an intriguing mix of technological sophistication (in medical equipment, for example) and primitive ignorance (in religion, but also in a lack of understanding of the mechanics of flight), and the adobe-like structures (a product of budget constraints, most likely) reflect that. It has obvious echoes of the culture clash of the time (most awkwardly shown via the character of Zira's nephew Lucius), but it's not as schematic as some of the allegory-based alien races on Star Trek from the same time period. The movie is smart enough to make you think, but pulpy enough to know when it's time to get to the action.

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