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Planet of the Apes (1968)

by on 2011/01/08

As a child, I remember feeling a sense of trepidation about Planet of the Apes.  They were among the TV serials I’d stumble across on weekend afternoons, or lurking about midnight.  Their haunting music, near-painful sense of desolation, and monstrous gorillas all left a strong impression.

In a flea market north of Toronto, I once found Apes action figures, comics, those sorts of things, and actually avoided them.  However, their long-term allure was inevitable for, a decade later, I was actively seeking out VHS tapes at the Orillia Square K-Mart, each now as long gone as the other.

Fortunately the landmark film of Pierre Boulle’s original novel lives on, carried forward by each new medium.  Scripted by Rod Serling (creator and host of TV’s Twilight Zone) and Michael Wilson (who also adapted Boulle’s The Bridge on the River Kwai), and directed by Franklin J. Schaffner (Papillon), this original entry plumbs several satisfying levels of insight and entertainment.

A crew of four astronauts has left their Earth of 1972 behind, traveling 320 light years distant, preserved in stasis.  They awaken eighteen months later, finding over two thousand Earth years have passed owing to Hasslein’s theory of time dilation, a convenient riff on relativity.

Their ship crash lands on a planet, possibly around Bellatrix, in Orion, and they barely get ashore as the craft sinks into the sea.  Yet their safety is far from guaranteed, for they have stumbled upon a world where mankind exists only as the lower end of the food chain.

This world is dominated by apes.  Orangutans preside, assisted by brutish gorillas, and served by wily chimpanzees.  Led by Taylor (Charleton Heston), the astronauts have survived their arrival, but against the holy crusade of Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans of Rosemary’s Baby), they stand far less of a chance.

While series veterans Kim Hunter and Roddy McDowall memorably debut as chimpanzee scientists Zira and Cornelius, the performance most audiences will remember is Heston’s.  To characterize his performance as hammy would be something of an understatement.

Understandably, he is frequently (ahem) aped for his delivery of the lines “Take your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!” and “It’s a madhouse, a madhouse!”  Memorable deliveries, though hardly exceptional.  Heston’s approach to portraying Taylor struck me as melodramatic throughout, particularly in scenes where he’s dictating journal entries or lecturing his fellows.

The character is an unusual one, especially at the time, for his anti-heroic cynicism.  The greatest adjustment I had to make was that an actor so often associated with religious work would embody such a bitter upstart.  Some might see Taylor as messianic.  I myself considered him a direct threat to the simians’ spirituality.  Fortunately, the story is strong enough to support varied interpretations, no doubt a factor in its ongoing appeal.

Themes of faith and state go beyond my associations with an actor.  The conflict between these establishments forms the very core of the plot.  Intellectuals Cornelius and Zira pursue studies of evolution and, shall we say, “animal rights” naively assuming, given proof, “If it’s true [the ruling council] will have to believe it.”  Tragically they fail to accept that their own truth is ape society’s heresy.  Science is allowed to exist only in lip service to free inquiry, as a form of torture, or to support religious interests.

The faithful apes preach that “There is no contradiction between faith and science, true science.”  In practice they avoid acknowledging “profane” ideas like evolution, let alone considering them seriously.  At any sign of dissent, a ruthless whitewashing is the order of the day.  At best, those unfamiliar with their religious precepts are considered mentally ill.  At worst, heresy verging on high treason is met with imprisonment, a “living death” of experimentation, or execution.

The apes are not necessarily unaware of their own hypocrisy.  They perpetuate the conspiracy in service to a supposed greater good.  Zaius admits as much when he tells Taylor, “All my life I’ve awaited your coming, and dreaded it like death itself.”  Small comfort to a sentence of emasculation and testing.

On a technical level, the movie is a solid effort with more flair than failings.  The panoramic images are awesome to this day, with great cinematography, composition, and framing.  Handheld passages convey a strong sense of surveillance and its attendant paranoia.  Occasionally shots become blurred, and the editing can be disorienting; if either effect was intended, neither feels successful.  More often than not, however, the editing works, and the pacing is excellent, with slowdowns suggesting isolation, not boredom.  The introduction of the apes — though spoiled somewhat by the title — happens gradually:  we see their tools, horses, and distant silhouettes before the eventual reveal.

The sound design is one of eerie extremes, and composer Jerry Goldsmith’s score is beyond reproach.  He deserved an Academy Award nomination, at least.  As catchy and memorable as it is innovative in execution, his use of unusual percussion and animal sounds never feels like an academic exercise.

As has been noted in other discussions of the production, the Oscar-winning makeup is exemplary.  Time has been kinder to the apes’ faces than many comparable efforts, particularly those shot in colour, not only because of its quality, but because of the simplicity of design.

It all put me in mind of video games.  As many titles strain to increase frame rates and multiply polygons, certain others enjoy a greater longevity by avoiding the graphical math race altogether, taking an artistic route instead.  This film feels like an adherent of the latter approach.

Even if I were never to see 1968’s Planet of the Apes again —

Aaaaaaahhh!!!

— I’d probably still be exposed to it from time to time.  Stores display its series collections prominently, and revisitings are intermittent:  as live action shows, cartoons, remakes, and prequels.  I did a double take some years back, recognizing Goldmith’s “New Identity” sampled in the Snake River Conspiracy song “Breed”.

Such cultural mirrors rarely fade.  This superlative piece of science fiction stands the test of time, as relevant now as it ever was.  A product of its era, but never confined to it, Planet of the Apes is a legitimate classic, a timeless fable of time and space, facts and faith, a cautionary tale for simians and sapiens alike.

* * * * *

Rated PG for violence

112 minutes

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