Planet of the Apes (the 1968 original of course, not the Tim Burton remake) is one of the most beloved science fiction movies of its era. While it’s certainly fun, it’s also a movie that shows its age rather badly.
Charlton Heston had mixed luck with science fiction movies. In the late 60s and early 70s he made quite a few and they were quite successful and pretty well thought of at the time. Sadly they haven’t stood the test of time very well. Soylent Green now seems embarrassing, and while The Omega Man is still a good deal of fun it’s definitely fun with an emphasis on camp.
All of Heston’s sci-fi movies of that period have this in common, that they captured the zeitgeist of the era remarkably well. And that’s their problem. They’re all imbued with that counter-culture radical-chic gloom-and-doom ethos. The world is always suffering some dreadful calamity, and you can bet It’s All Our Fault.
Planet of the Apes has an even bigger problem. Much of its impact comes from the Shock Ending, and by their nature such tricks only work once. Even worse the posters for the movie, and many of the video and DVD covers, revealed the Shock Ending. Of course it’s possible that we’re meant to know the secret while the protagonists don’t, so as to Heighten the Irony. It still doesn’t pack the same punch the second time you see it (and I think this is at least the third time I’ve seen this movie).
Everyone probably knows the plot, but here goes anyway. A spacecraft was launched from Earth in the early 1970s. Travelling at almost the speed of light the journey has taken just a few years for the crew, but on Earth two thousand years have elapsed. They’re on what they think is the return journey when they crash-land on an unknown planet. At first it seems to be desolate and uninhabited, but eventually they find life. But not quite as they expect it. The planet is inhabited by humans and by apes, but the apes are in charge and the humans are regarded as mere animals without intelligence. And without any rights. They’re basically livestock.
That offers the opportunity for lots of heavy-handed satire about our treatment of lesser species and our intellectual arrogance, etc, etc. And even more heavy-handed satire about religion, morality, etc, etc.
The spacecraft commander, Taylor (Charlton Heston), finds himself a captive of the apes. Luckily he’s in the custody of two idealistic and kindly scientists, Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) and Zira (Kim Hunter). They’re surprised to find themselves in possession of a talking animal, and even more surprised when he tells them he arrived on their planet in a spaceship, given that the ape scientists of this planet are convinced that flight is impossible, for men or apes.
The planet’s head scientist is also their guardian of religious truth (more opportunities here for heavy-handed satire) and he’s not happy at all about men who can talk. He plans to solve that little problem by firstly gelding and then lobotomising Taylor, but he forgets that if Taylor can talk he can also understand.
It probably sounds like I didn’t like this movie but in fact I’m quite fond of it. The 60s vibe is quite amusing, the makeup effects were dazzling in 1968 and are still quite impressive. This was no low-budget affair and there’s some spectacular location shooting.
It’s the acting that makes this picture work however. There’s nothing half-hearted about the performances. Roddy McDowall and Kim Hunter play the chimpanzee scientists as if they really believed in the roles and it pays off. The performances are good enough to achieve the necessary suspension of disbelief.
And then of course there’s Charlton Heston. It’s easy to mock Heston for his outrageous over-acting but more often than not in his movies when Heston chewed the scenery that scenery needed to be chewed. There were certain roles that were just not going to work with anything less than a comprehensively over-the-top acting approach and this is one such role. It works, and Heston in full cry is a joy to behold.
This is the first movie I’ve ever seen in Blu-Ray. The British Blu-Ray release looks good although I’m still not sure Blu-Ray is worth the money or the hassle.