Directed by: Franklin Schaffner
Premise: Astronaut Taylor (Charlton Heston) travels into the future in a space ship and crash lands on a planet where apes are the superior beings and humans are mute savages. After being taken in by ape veterinarians, Taylor’s intellect and ability to speak makes him a threat to the social order of the ape society.
What Works: Planet of the Apes is one of the great moments in cinematic science fiction. As a piece of entertainment, Apes succeeds with rousing action sequences, especially in the hunt scene early in the film, and with well-timed humor that alleviates the tension and pokes fun at the film’s outlandish premise. But Planet of the Apes manages to go further than just divertive entertainment and makes for a piece of social satire. As the film goes forward, Taylor observes and is threatened by the dogmatic and hegemonistic structure of ape society and through Taylor’s story the viewers are able to experience an acute criticism of their own society in the safety of a fantasy. This is a film with a heavy social message to it, dealing with class and race issues as well as conflicts between religious and scientific matters, but it is able to couch the social criticism in an entertaining story and use humor to diffuse the stuffiness and self-importance that usually makes a “message” film unbearably pompous. As a film, and particularly as a science fiction picture, Planet of the Apes stands out in few ways. The first is in Charlton Heston’s performance as Taylor. Rather than provide the kind of earnest, good natured character who represents our ideals, the film gives the job of defending the human race to a misanthrope. This gives Heston’s character some depth and an arc to go through from the beginning of the story to the end. Heston’s nemesis in the film, Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans), is a very interesting figure and a very complex character. Rather than shouting at the rain in the mode of someone like Matthew Harrison Brady in Inherit the Wind, he is instead portrayed as someone who views himself as protecting society from itself by concealing the truth. This softer presentation doesn’t make the terrible secret any less potent and it gives the film a mature take on the structures and traditions that hold society back. Another way Planet of the Apes stands out is in its impressive make up work, which still holds up more than forty years later. What is most extraordinary about the make-up effects is that they were designed in such a way that the actors playing them can emote through the appliances on their faces. This was groundbreaking in 1968 and the work still holds up. Lastly, the sound of Planet of the Apes is very effective. Jerry Goldsmith provides one of his most interesting scores on this film, filing the music with unconventional instruments and using traditional orchestral sound very sparingly. The use of percussion is a great example of a music score supporting the visuals and help create the world of the film.
What Doesn’t: Contemporary viewers may struggle with the opening half hour of The Planet of the Apes which is very slow compared to many of today’s sci-fi adventure films. This is a more thoughtful picture and it is told in a style that is quite different from films like Transformers.
DVD extras: The two-disc edition of Planet of the Apes includes two commentary tracks, one with actors Roddy McDowell, Natalie Trundy, and Kim Hunter and make-up artist John Chambers, and the other with composer Jerry Goldsmith, as well as text commentary by film historian Eric Greene. The second disc includes the documentary Behind the Planet of the Apes, outtakes, makeup tests, sketch and photo galleries, behind the scenes footage of some Ape sequels, and theatrical trailers.
Bottom Line: Planet of the Apes is a watershed film; like the original Night of the Living Dead, this is a film of its time, but its commentary on society penetrates deeply into American culture and many of its observations are still relevant decades after its release. This is an extremely entertaining film that proves that broad box office appeal and intelligence are not mutually exclusive.
Episode: #197 (July 13, 2008); Revised #352 (August 14, 2011)