So, no one ever told me the original Planet of the Apes movie was about religion! Now I can finally see what everyone had against the Tim Burton remake which came out a few years ago. (I was not a fan of the remake myself.)
Movies revolving around people who are captured, enslaved, and turned into freaks by their supreme oppressors usually have a very specific theme and formula. Sparticus, Gladiator, Braveheart, all were there for inspiration, to give us the story of the great underdog who rises up and either wins everything or becomes a martyr who inspires his people to keep fighting the good fight. The remake of Planet of the Apes in fact follows that very same formula. But the original Planet of the Apes gives us no such delusions of grandeur. There's no human rebellion, no great uprising which turns the tide against the apes. What is does give us is a lot more subtle and haunting. The ending is as anti-climactic as it is brilliant. Thanks to the countless references and parodies, yes, we all know the mysterious planet the main character lands on is really Earth, but the implications go beyond that.
The original movie begins with four astronauts going into deep hibernation for a 2006-year long journey to an unknown planet, which their shuttle proceeds to crash on. One of the astronauts is dead because of an air leak, and that leaves three: Dodge, Landon, and our main character, Taylor. The three of them go ashore and start looking for signs of intelligent life, and after wandering for awhile, they run into more humans. Unfortunately, that doesn't necessarily mean intelligent life, because it seems the humans on this planet are mute and confused pack animals. Soon, they all get overrun by a bunch of apes who are riding horses and appear to be hunting for the humans, Dodge is killed, and Landon and Taylor are taken hostage. Taylor is shot in the throat and rendered literally speechless, so when Zira, the ape scientist who is experimenting on him, catches him moving his lips as if to answer her absentminded questions, all the other apes think she's being silly for believing Taylor can understand her. Taylor steals paper and a pen to write with, and the two of them begin communicating.
Everyone still thinks Zira and her partner Cornelius are nuts and that Taylor is simply trying to imitate, but when he gets caught after an escape attempt and learns that his throat has healed, he makes a bold statement that catches the entire ape community off guard. ("Take your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!") His intelligence catches the attention of Dr. Zaius, a type of ignoramus who doesn't believe that humans could possibly be as intelligent as Taylor is. Taylor and Zaius ultimately kick off a cold war in the ape community over the questions of where life came from, what it turned into, and at what point intelligence turns animals into higher beings.
Zaius is the Minister of Science and a big-time defender of the old-timey ape religion. Cornelius and Zira are purely scientists, and the world they are fighting for is one full of scientific inquiry and curiosity. The court hearing scene is a kind of scene that theologians and philosophers could write entire books about, considering some of the questions which get raised. Zaius is an intriguing character because there are a few levels of him which need to be peeled away. He starts out like an old-fashioned priest, trying to hide behind his scriptures, and there are even scenes where he denounces this new-fangled theory about the origin of life called "evolution." He spends the whole movie verbally sparring with Taylor about how smart and good humans are capable of becoming, and develops a grudging respect for him. Ultimately, he reveals the fact that many of the actions he takes come because his spot as a religious minister have given him access to scriptures the regular apes never get to see, and Zaius proves to know far more about the origins of the apes than he's letting everyone think he knows.
Taylor himself is a bit of a jerk. When the astronauts come out of the spaceship, he's not the inspirational leader Charlton Heston was known for usually playing. Although he respects the two people with him, he does insult them, and some of that is out of contempt for their characters. Taylor tells one, in so many words, that the partner was a seeker, but who took the mission in large part for personal glory. Taylor says he's also a seeker, but he generally agrees with the way he's soon viewed by Zaius: He's a seeker who seeks because he believes there is something better than mankind out there. Really, he's a contrarian. He attacks humanity when his partners praise it, defends humans when Zaius knocks humans down a few pegs. When they first encounter the planet's humans and sees how they live, he suggests they could be ruling them within a matter of months.
It's a remarkable feat that a movie which tackles so much heft also comes off as such a strong action movie that people with short attention spans don't have any trouble sitting through it. There are a few scenes which are dragged out, especially in the beginning. But the big ape hunt, Taylor's escape attempts, and Zaius intercepting Taylor, Cornelius, and Zira at an archeological digging site all stand out, and they're all spectacular.
The outdated makeup effects certainly didn't age well, and that can be a bit of a hinderance. Not a real problem, mind you, but a hinderance. The apes rule the movie, and aside from Taylor, the only other humans who talk are quickly removed. Even Nova, the woman given to Taylor early on because Zira wants them to reproduce, doesn't say anything. Taylor is the one who names her, and he's seen trying to teach her to speak in a few scenes, but she never learns the trick. The apes don't look like real apes, as you might assume, but like humans wearing ape suits. It's a mark of shallowness to complain about poor special effects when comparing today's CGI against technology from 1968, when Planet of the Apes first came out, but there is always a sense if immersion that comes from good, convincing special effects. It's a trickly line to follow even today - I once read an interview with a special effects artist who said that if someone walks out of a theater talking about how awesome the special effects were, he hasn't done his job properly. But a kid who was there in the 90's to see the incredible dinosaur effects from Jurassic Park or the incredible breakthroughs seen in the first Star Wars - STILL more convincing than the CGI from the prequels - might not be able to get caught up in the story of Planet of the Apes.
The ending creates a few questions and leaves you with the fact that when Taylor damns them all to hell, he's not screaming about the apes. It's haunting and disturbing and one of the most brilliant endings I've ever seen in a movie. And the journey there isn't bad, either. It won't take over 2000 years, and it's entertaining and thoughtful the whole way.
It is quite a small irony that Charlton Heston (Moses) is the star of this movie. He builds the franchise well as Taylor the self-absorbed commander reduced to animal in a cage. He plays the role well but has plenty of help. Kim Hunter and Roddy McDowall (one of the most underrated actors who have been)and Maurce Evans do their best to steal the show. (Particularly Evans who's proves the screen presence of a great stage actor cuts through any amount of makeup. The passion and interaction of the … more
Many early science fiction films are now, quite inadvertently (and in most cases undeservedly), objects of camp attention: we laugh at the silly makeup, tin-can special effects, and the naive "high-tech" dialogue.Planet of the Apes is no such film. Its intelligent script, frightening costuming, and savagely effective conclusion (which needs no big-budget special effects to augment its impact) remain both potent and relevant. When Colonel George Taylor (the fabulous Charlton Heston) crash lands his spacecraft on what seems to be an unfamiliar planet, he is captured and held prisoner by a dominant race of hyperrational, articulate apes. However, the ape community is riven with internal dissention, centered in no small part on its policy toward humans, who, on this planet, are treated as mindless animals. Befriended and ultimately assisted by the more liberal simians, Taylor escapes--only to find a more terrifying obstacle confronting his return home. Heavy-handed object lessons abound--the ubiquity of generational warfare, the inflexibility of dogma, the cruelty of prejudice--and the didactic fingerprints of Rod Serling are very much in evidence here. But director Franklin Schaffner has a dark, pop-apocalyptic sci-fi vision all his own, and time has not dulled the monumental emotional impact of the film's climactic payoff shot. If you don't know what I'm talking about here, you owe it to yourself to check out this stone classic, and even if you do, see it ...