1968 was a fantastic year for science fiction in film. The release of two all time classic science fiction films provided the genre with much needed credibility. Until this point, science fiction was the realm of children or dreadful B-movies about giant ants or flying saucers, but these two pictures forever marked the area as a respectable cinematic niche. One of them was 2001: A Space Odyssey, the seminal collaboration between directing legend Stanley Kubrick and British science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke, a film that reveled in it’s intellectual obtuseness and pioneered the depiction of space travel on celluloid. The other, the topic of this article, was Planet of the Apes, a low budget venture from 20th Century Fox that would become one of the first (and longest lasting) cinematic franchises in history, and revolutionize the use of prosthetics in film-making.
Based on the oft-overlooked French novel La Planète des Singes written by French author Pierre Boulle in 1963, the film was the brain child of producer Arthur P. Jacobs, a former press agent who had recently turned to film-making with movies like What a Way to Go! and the commercially unsuccessful Dr Dolittle. Jacobs hired Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling and screenwriter Michael Wilson to script the production. Wilson, who had been blacklisted after refusing to answer questions when called before the House Un-American Activities Committee some years prior, proved critical in creating the themes of subjugation and injustice present throughout Planet of the Apes. Finally, Jacobs called on Franklin J. Schaffner (who would later win an Academy Award for his direction of Patton) to helm the production.
The film follows an American astronaut named Taylor (Charlton Heston, in what would become a career defining role) and three others who leave the Earth to investigate outer space. The group essentially travel through time thanks to a complicated theory known as time dilation. Simply put, the idea is that an object travelling at a high enough speed experiences time at a slower pace than objects at a lower speed. The higher the speed, the slower the pace. Taylor and the others travel so fast that they blaze through 2000 years in 18 months.
When they crash land on a seemingly deserted planet (an episode which lowers their number to three), the group tries to get their bearings and quickly encounters a group of mute, unevolved humans that seem to live in packs. More startling however are those that prey on them: heavily armed, horse riding apes with the power of speech. After encountering these mysterious creatures Taylor finds himself captured and rendered mute after being shot in the throat. Locked in a cage with a collection of devolved humans beings used by the apes for testing, Taylor attracts the attention of “animal psychologist” Dr. Zira (Kim Hunter), a chimpanzee who shows far more compassion for humans then her overseer Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans).
More then forty years removed from Planet of the Apes, it’s easy for modern audiences to see still images of rubber monkey masks and gorillas wielding assault weapons and dismiss Planet of the Apes as hokey and out of date. In actual fact it’s an extremely intelligent movie, a thoughtful examination of mankind and our arrogance towards nature, animals and each other. The idea is actually pretty clever when you think about it. Accepted science is that man evolved from ape, so the role reversal of these two species allows a simple and easy to understand prism through which the film can examine issues of animal cruelty, enslavement and discrimination while also drilling in some home truths.
Planet of the Apes is also pretty entertaining on a surface level, a fun action adventure that holds up brilliantly in 2016. The exploration of the apes culture and class systems feels natural and thought through, while the bravura introduction of the apes, in which they run down a pack of wild humans on horseback through a cornfield, remains an exhilarating and extraordinarily well done action sequence. The prosthetic masks also hold up surprisingly well. Viewing a still photo does not inspire confidence in the make-up’s believability in this age of CGI and more sophisticated prosthetics, but in action the apes all look pretty good. Sure, the lips are never quite in sync with the dialogue and when two apes kiss it looks more like they’re slamming their faces together then signifying affection, but for the most part it works well. Eventually you even stop noticing it and just accept that they’re walking, talking monkeys. Make up artist John Chambers won an honorary Academy Award for his work here, years before the category became a regular addition to the Oscars, and it’s well deserved.
Finally, there’s that ending. I have no reservations discussing the film’s final images because that bleak last scene has become so ingrained in pop culture that anyone with even the vaguest movie knowledge likely recognizes it regardless of whether they’ve actually seen Planet of the Apes or not. It’s one of those rare movie moments that has transcended the picture it’s in, like the shower scene in Psycho, the theme song of Ghostbusters or Darth Vader’s revelation of parenthood in Empire Strikes Back. It’s an extraordinarily downbeat moment, one that zeroes in on the ultimate terror of the Cold War: nuclear annihilation. The upper half of the Statue of Liberty looming from the sand as Taylor bellows in horror is a chilling image and daring one to leave your audience with as they exit the theater, but it’s stunningly effective and cements Planet of the Apes place in speculative fiction.