Picture this – you are in 1968, and a new sci-fi action movie seeks to break the rules, raise questions and earn your bucks simultaneously. The flick explores the darkest recesses of humanity through an absurd premise. Its only relation is a 1963 novel by Pierre Boulle. Before you know it, the Planet of the Apes’ unique vision, stunning costumes and its gasp-inducing plot twist in the final scene, has wowed you and every cinema-goer on Earth.
The Planet of the Apes became an instant classic for being weird in the best possible way. Its plot starts off with shocking intensity, with three astronauts – most notably Charlton Heston’s Taylor – crash landing in a lake on a desolate, dystopian planet. After the female crew member is found dead, the three men band together to figure out what happened and, most importantly, where they are. Taylor discovers they are in the year 3978, centuries after their departure from Earth in 1972.
Director Franklin Schaffner’s masterpiece re-established the social and artistic value of science fiction on film. The genre is defined by obvious symbols (spaceships, space, aliens) and the more subtle (socio-political commentary about the world today). Planet of the Apes blends the two with expert precision. Since its release, the movie has etched its share of talking points and quotable moments (Take your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!) into film history.
The movie kicks into gear when the titular apes enter the frame. Our three protagonists, along with a group of scruffy human beings, are hunted down, picked up by ape warriors and taken back to the apes’ base of operations. It follows Taylor’s point of view, giving the audience answers whenever Heston’s character learns them. This surprising, break-neck sequence sets an eerie tone for the remainder of its narrative. As horns blare and nets are thrown, we fear for the human prisoners and resent the threatening ape underlings immediately.
From here, the movie’s discussion of war and race become prevalent. Taylor, the white leading man archetype of the time, is depicted as the victim and prisoner throughout. Meanwhile, the majority resemble a different colour and behavioural traits to him. Shaffner and co. turn the white hero into a scared minority beaten down and controlled by the larger group of opposing beings. The apes stand above the humans, talking articulately about their civilisation with a perplexed Taylor. Meanwhile, the other white human characters have become mute and primitive.
Of course, turning human extras into a legion of hyper-intelligent apes is no easy task. Until humanity’s dying day, Planet of the Apes has to be commended for remarkable and detailed practical effects and costumes. The movie sees gorillas, chimpanzees and orang-utans occupy the screen for minutes at a time. Shaffner’s experiment gave the production design, costuming and make-up teams enough leeway to fully realise the world without too much CGI.
The ending solidifies Planet of the Apes as darker, smarter and more contemplative than your average blockbuster. Taylor and mute human woman Nova, escaping the evil Dr Zaius and his army, come across the Statue of Liberty, proving the ape world was a nuclear wasteland version of Earth the entire time. The bleak finale and Taylor’s final line condemn the human race’s penchant and thirst for violence. The movie makes a powerful statement – ignorant and arrogant decisions would lead to the fall of mankind. This dismal, anti-human theme was also passed to the prequel trilogy, depicting virus’ dominance and mythical ape being Caesar’s rise to prominence.
Revered film critic Roger Ebert discussed the public’s scepticism before Planet of the Apes was released. Referring to the initial bad word of mouth prior to the opening-day screenings, Ebert said: “What they were really implying was that any movie named “Planet of the Apes” had to be awful. This kind of snobbery may be good for a chuckle or two, but those who practice it miss a lot of entertaining movies”. This blockbuster proves expectations and reality are entirely different. Too often, we let scepticism get in the way of enjoyment. The original utilised a silly premise and developed a though-provoking look at science fiction and science fact.
Image courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox