Surely one of the more esoteric sci-fi franchises ever to exist, the Planet Of The Apes movies are a fascinating mash up of game changing sci-fi, hardcore philosophical concepts and wildly fluctuating budgets that didn’t always allow the films to achieve their over-reaching grasp. However, the one thing that has never changed is that the orginal movie is a phenomenal piece of filmmaking that champions big ideas and scathing social commentary over action beats and blindly spectacular visuals that was co-written by the keeper of the Twilight Zone himself, Rod Serling and directed by Franklin J. Schaffner (now THERE’S an old-timey director’s name) who went on to direct Patton and Papillon.
Intelligent and vehemently orginal, Apes is a movie that never once panders to an audience or sells out it’s message to an audience even once from it’s concise beginning to it’s devastating end.
After their space expedition ends in disaster by rudely crashing on a mysterious planet, surviving astronauts Taylor, Dodge and Landon traverse the rocky plains with absolutely no chance of getting home. According to the ships readout, due to some funky space anomalies and the nature of in-flight hibernation, the crew have woken up over TWO THOUSAND YEARS after they first blasted off into the stars and so they set about exploring their new surroundings to avoid the very real danger of dying from a great many things. Pretty low on that list, I’d imagine, would be to avoid getting shot in the neck by a talking gorilla, but lo and behold the indignities heaped upon the hapless crew steps up a notch when they discover the planet is populated by intelligent apes who ride horses, wield guns and have a slightly less advanced culture than we do (although the apes don’t have reality television so actually it’s more 50/50). Taylor, his throat gravely wounded and unable to speak, is locked in a cage for study by animal psychologist Dr. Zira who is fascinated by his intelligence (the humans in this world are mute primitives), gives him the nickname “Bright Eyes” and gifts him with a female mate. However, the monkey shit hits the fan when the naturally rebelious Taylor regains the power of speech with immortal effect (“GET YOUR STINKING PAWS OFF ME YOU DAMN DIRTY APE!” is delivered with typical salty Charlton Heston venom) and thus thrusts all of Ape City’s religious beliefs in flux.
With Taylor facing death, or at the very least the primate version of a lobotomy, and Zira and her archeologist fiancé Cornelius at risk for being tried for heresy, the 3 make a break for the Forbidden Zone to find evidence that will prove Taylor’s claims of intelligent humans but could also destroy everything the ape culture believes. With Dr. Zaius, the ape’s Chief Defender Of The Faith AND Minister Of Science, ordering a swift and brutal pursuit in order to snuff out any chance of proof coming to light, Taylor has an appointment with a revelation that have devastating repercussions that concern the origin of this planet of the apes.
There are a lot of things that holds Planet Of The Apes aloft as the genuine and shining masterpiece that it is but the main thing that’s always stood out to me is how relentlessly cruel the movie is and not just because of how the apes treat mankind. Charlton Heston’s lead is an unabashed prick; a man so distrustful and disillusioned with his own species he has quite happily hurled himself out into the emptiness of space just so he can get the hell away from us. Even when he seemingly gets his wish after the crash landing, he can’t help relishing the irony of his situation and actively bullies another surviving member of the crew for having the audacity of having hope, unleashing mocking bellows of laughter when the man corrects a pathetically tiny American flag in a small gesture of patriotism.
This all obviously comes back to bite him in his grizzled butt when thrust into a world where sentient simians constantly treat him like the dirt beneath their nails and he’s forced to argue the virtues of his race against a ruling class who places science a firm second after their religion.
Heston, obviously, is resplendent; fighting desperately for dignity against a world that doesn’t even believe he even has a soul let alone a right to live; and he manages this all while clad in a tiny loin cloth for most of the running time. The sheer weight and gravity the man exudes in the role cannot be measured and his final realisation about where he has actually crash landed is surely a good shout for the greatest movie ending of all time.
All of Heston’s grandstanding and iconic screaming wouldn’t amount to much, however, if the apes who populate the movie were silly or laughable. Thankfully avoiding sticking actors in fancy dress gorilla costumes, the state of the art (in 1968) monkey make-ups by John Chambers may look a little crude by today’s standards, but even after all these years the prosthetics manage to be be hugely expressive and aid the ape performers massively in making these beings three dimentional characters. Kim Hunter, Maurice Evans and, of course, the magnificent Roddy McDowell all produce sterling work from under copious amounts of rubber with Evans’ stubbon orangutan Dr. Zaius being a memorable foil for Heston’s bitter grand standing.
The world building is incredible with the ape’s society split into distinct social sections with the orangutans as the ruling class, the gorillas as labourers and military and the intellectual chimpanzees as scientists and the Ape City is all bestial right angles and jagged corners.
Similarly cutting edge is Jerry Goldsmith’s highly experimental score who’s harsh drums and wailing brass compliments the cruel proceedings perfectly – the hunt scene which introduces us mercilessly to this upside down world by hurling us headlong into it is wonderfully nightmarish.
A cinematic watershed rich in allegory and drama, Planet Of The Apes is an intelligent work of art that engages the mind while telling a legitimately engrossing and timeless story.
Not a bad for a movie about some damn dirty apes.