Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, July 24, 2017

RECENT WATCHES: Planet of the Apes (1968)

It began with a book. Pierre Boulle's novel, known in some parts of the world as “Monkey Planet,” immediately caught the eye of Arthur P. Jacobs, a producer at 20th Century Fox. The adaptation, entitled “Planet of the Apes,” would become a huge success. The film would spawn a series that would, in many ways, be the predecessors to many modern day sci-fi franchises. It was one of the first on-going genre film series to be made with A-budgets and to be heavily merchandised, now standard practices. Nowadays, the original “Planet of the Apes” is an iconic classic, referenced and parodied countless times over the decades.

As an adaptation, “Planet of the Apes” follows the general outline of Boulle's short novel while changing most of the details. In both, the crew crash-land on a strange planet, loose their clothes while swimming in a lake, encounter primitive humans, and eventually get hunted by upright apes. In both, the protagonist impresses a pair of chimp scientists with his speech and bonds with a female human named Nova. As for the differences, Boulle's French astronauts become American, of course. In the book, the ape civilization is as advanced as modern man, with cars, planes and television. This is in stark contrast to the film's more primitive society. Boulle uses the premise for social satire, while the film focuses on rousing adventure. The twist ending is entirely different though clearly inspired by the book's switcharoo conclusion.

I think the reason “Planet of the Apes” most captured the public's imagination is the way it transports the audience to another world. The production and special make-up were groundbreaking at the time. Even today, the ape make-up is charming, expressive, and fantastically assembled. More importantly, the ape society strikes the viewer as fully formed. The apes have their own religion, entertainments, and political divides, just like people. The scientific chimps bristle against the leadership of the orangutans, all of them conservative politicians, while gorillas function as a working class, soldiers and blue collar individuals. The world of the apes works as both an absurdist parody of human civilization, mirroring and subverting our Earth, and a strange sci-fi world that was completely new in 1968.

That satirical element, taken from the original book, is sometimes married to a goofier sense of humor. Images of humans being purged by ape hunters, their dead bodies strung up like freshly killed deer, the hunters posing with their kills, place us in a chilling world where humans are prey and animals rule. A mid-film trial, devoted to determining if the intelligent human has any relation to the resident apes, is obviously a darkly humorous twist on the Scopes trial. There's even an ape hippy, as Zira's teenage nephew is part of a youthful rebellion the includes vegetarianism and questioning authority. Yet, sometimes, “Planet of the Apes” is happy to admit that monkeys are just funny. Such as the simian hoots of the ape guard that sprays Heston with a hose. Or the orangutan politicians imitating the “See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil” image.

Though he'd probably prefer to be remembered for “Ben Hur” or “The Ten Commandments,” “Planet of the Apes” remains the most iconic role of Charlton Heston's great career. Heston's histrionic performance here has largely overshadowed any other acting he's ever done. Of course, Heston's sweaty, shouting, gnarled Tyler is perfect for a slightly over-sized film like this. (And, it must be said, that Heston's quieter moments are equally effecting.) Overall, the cast is entirely iconic. Kim Hunter's Zira is loyal, charming, and unforgettable. Roddy McDowell's Cornelius is funny, thoughtful, and immediately likable. Maurice Evans' Dr. Zaius is an impressive anti-villain, duplicitous and self-interested but for understandable reasons.

“Planet of the Apes” was Franklin J. Schaffner's fifth film. It was also his breakout film, as his first four features have been mostly forgotten while, afterwards, he made popular hits like “Patton,” “Papillon,” and “The Boys from Brazil.” Schaffner's direction is colorful and energetic. He frequently employs a roaming camera or spastic zooms to create a sense of motion and shock. The reveal of the apes' faces or the spaceship crash are oddly kinetic, in a herky-jerky way. The action sequences, like Taylor being chased through the ape village, build upon this movement. I also like the use of color during a scene where Taylor and Zaius talk in his office, bathed in warm oranges and evening purples.

If you're going to talk about “Planet of the Apes,” you have to talk about that ending. The twist ending famously came from the pen of Rod Serling, even if most of his draft was rejected. In retrospect, the conclusion that the Planet of the Apes was Earth all along is hardly surprising. The film foreshadows this fact repeatedly, eventually confirming that an advanced human society existed on the planet before apes. Yet the conclusion means something more. It makes the film's earlier satire more bitter. At the film's beginning, Taylor is practically a misanthrope. His interaction with Nova and the apes seems to convince him that humanity must not be so bad... Until he sees the Statue of Liberty on the beach, confirming his belief that mankind is destined to destroy itself.

Nearly fifty years later, “Planet of the Apes” is still a delightfully entertaining film. It's a brisk adventure, full of lovable characters and fascinating details. It's also still has the ability to provoke thought, it's apocalyptic ending still packing a punch even if you know its coming. Even if it hadn't launched a franchise, it's likely the movie would've been remained a classic. I admire its qualities as an eccentric cult classic, intriguing sci-fi, a fantastic piece of design work, and exciting adventure film. [9/10]

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