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Planet of the Apes

movie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Planet of the Apes

Starring: Charlton Heston, Roddy McDowall
Director: Franklin Schaffner
Rated: G
RunTime: 112 Minutes
Release Date: February 1968
Genres: Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Classic, Cult, Action

*Also starring: Kim Hunter, Maurice Evans, James Whitmore, James Daly, Linda Harrison

Review by Dragan Antulov
3 stars out of 4

The author of this review has rarely greeted a film with higher expectation than in the case of original PLANET OF THE APES. I have been hearing great things about the film decades before being able to see it for the first time. My expectations weren't discouraged by the fact that I was able to see the important Final Scene or with the utter disappointment in the form of 1970s TV series. When I finally watched the film for the first time, I was nevertheless forced to admit that PLANET OF THE APES falls deep bellow my expectations. Afterwards, when I had the opportunity to watch the film for the second or third time, or had the misfortune to watch some of the four sequels, I managed to have my opinion about the film improved, although not very much.

The plot of the film is based on the novel by French author Pierre Boulle who had been fortunate enough to have his previous work, BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI, turned into one of the greatest films of all times. In 1968 it seemed that this happened for the second time - PLANET OF THE APES was the first science fiction film to transcend the usual fan base and become an interesting cultural phenomenon of its time. Genre aficionados later never failed to mention this film as one of the milestones in the history of science fiction cinema. For them, THE PLANET OF THE APES is the film that made an important leap from the realms of genre ghetto into the world of mainstream cinema, mostly due to employing the previously escapist genre to talk about important issues of its time and thus paving the way for the intelligent and socially conscious brand of science fiction cinema that would dominate Hollywood until the arrival of Spielberg and Lucas.

Genre credentials were given to the film by Rod Serling, famous creator of THE TWILIGHT ZONE, who paired up with Michael Wilson, screenwriter previously targeted by 1950s witch-hunts, who would contribute to the plot with his experiences. The film begins in the U.S. spaceship that is about to spend thousands of years travelling through space until it finds a new solar system. The crew, led by Colonel George Taylor (played by Charlton Heston), is going to spend much of this time in hyper- sleep before it awakes and start a new human civilisation on the new planet. The plan, however, doesn't go as it should be - the only female part of the crew has died during the travel, the spaceship crashes into the lake, and Taylor, as well as two of his companions - Landon (played by Robert Gunner) and Dodge (played by Jeff Burton) - now must fight for survival on an alien and presumably hostile planet. However, the crew soon finds that the planet is populated by a race of humans who appear to be mute and not very intelligent. It soon appears that the humans are not the dominant species on the planets - the real masters are the intelligent apes who hunt and imprison them. Taylor is the only survivor of the raid, yet he is shot in the throat and unable to speak when he is being imprisoned. He is nevertheless peculiar enough to arouse interest in the chimpanzee scientist Zira (played by Kim Hunter), as well as her fiance, archaeologist dr. Cornelius (played by Roddy McDowall). Their interest is rewarded when Taylor finally manages to establish communication. But for the authorities, embodied in the powerful orangutan Dr. Zaius (played by Maurice Evans), Taylor represents the threat to established order of the apes' world and therefore has to be eliminated.

Original PLANET OF THE APES might be criticised for many things, but hardly for not being an entertaining and thought-provoking science fiction film. From strictly technical standpoint, the film is more than adequate - the action scenes are intense, while the architecture, clothes and artefacts of the ape society still manage to create a sense of wonder despite having recognisable human origin. The apes are among the most convincing aliens in the history of science fiction cinema and the "Oscar" for the make-up is well deserved. Finally, Schaffner manages to establish the pace of the movie, keeping it a short, yet giving it an epic scope, thus giving the feel of "larger than life" film to the PLANET OF THE APES.

However, the most important element of PLANET OF THE APES comes in the context that is going to be missed by contemporary audience. This film is undoubtedly a product of its time. Created in 1968, one of the most turbulent years of American history, PLANET OF THE APES was heavily influenced by the conflicts that threatened to tear American society apart and end the Western civilisation - the never ending nightmare of Vietnam War, radicalisation of the race issue in the era of civil rights and, finally, the escalating struggle between the new progressive ideas of the young and conservative order embodied in the old generation. All those themes - racism, bigotry, and, more than anything else, human ability to destroy the world - are present in this film. The script goes even further than the most radical filmmakers in the era when radicalism used to be the norm and the sight of protagonist laughing at the sight of U.S. flag was not the unforgivable atrocity as it is today (even before WTC massacre, which gave whole new dimension to the ideals of patriotism). For filmmakers, the mankind is not only the victim, but also the cause of the evils in this world. Screenplay cleverly brings this thesis in the powerful finale, in which all tables are turned. The protagonist, for whom we were supposed to root for, was suffering terrible humiliation from the hands of racist and bigot apes that are supposed to represent all the worst in humanity. When he is finally free and unconstrained, he shows his true nature by using violence in order to achieve his ends, thus justifying his ape oppressors who saw him as a dangerous freak. In view of this, even the powerful final scene, which was supposed to clear this point, as not as powerful as it should be and it could have remained on the cutting room floor without damaging the film.

Because of this radical departure from dominant anthropocentric point of view, PLANET OF THE APES was often seen as one of the most important films in the history of science fiction genre. However, because it approached the issues seriously, it also required more scrutiny and this is exactly the reason why it fails to reach criteria necessary to be viewed as a truly grand film. While some corners might be cut in a light-hearted fantasy like STAR WARS, the "science" in the whole concept of "science fiction" prevents us from having the proper suspension of disbelief necessary to truly enjoy this film. There is simply too much of implausibility for that, ranging from the fact that three Adams and one Eve would be sent to start new Eden to the obvious fact that the apes speak perfect English and understand Latin alphabet, yet our hero still believes that he is not on Earth. Because of this, what was supposed to be one of the defining films of 20th Century can be seen as a trash. This impression is enhanced by the presence of Linda Harrison, whose character doesn't usher a word during the whole film and whose acting ability is proportional to the quantities of textile she is wearing. Her presence in the film, although at times pleasing to the eyes of male audience, is almost insulting in the same company with talented actors like Heston, Kim Hunter, James Whitmore and especially Roddy McDowall, whose role of Cornelius would afterwards be one of the rare things worth watching in sequels and subsequent TV series.

The first incarnation of PLANET OF THE APES is, regardless of its apparent flaws, a very good film, that could be enjoyed in appreciated even by those who might not see it worthy of its cult status.

Copyright 2001 Dragan Antulov

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