17 April 2009

Retro Review: Planet of the Apes (1968)


Planet of the Apes
1968, 106mins, PG
Director: Franklin J. Schaffner
Writer (s): Michael Wilson, Rod Serling
Cast includes: Charlton Heston, Maurice Evans, Kim Hunter, Roddy McDowell, Linda Harrison, James Whitmore
Release Date: 3rd April 1968

It’s not hard to see how “Planet of the Apes” has maintained a cult status in the 40+ years since its release. It’s blend of sci-fi fizz, superb make-up and memorable performances have ensured that it has survived as a genre treasure, and helped it overcome a mess of nasty sequels and an unnecessary remake in 2001. The film is largely remembered for its masterful denouement, but one has to remember this is a piece of cinema able to offer much more than a shocking climax. No film could have enjoyed the longevity that “Planet of the Apes” has based on an ending alone, it’s the tight script and well executed plotline that really are to be credited for the pictures classic status.

Only a cinematic heathen wouldn’t be aware of the basic concept at the heart of “Planet of the Apes”. A group of astronauts headed by George Taylor (Charlton Heston) crash land in the distant future, on a planet where apes have become the dominant species and humans are their animalistic and feral underlings. The apes treat the humans like slaves and even engage them in zoos, treating them like a plague which needs to be eviscerated. George is separated from the rest of his crew and is caught by the apes, but instantly comes to the attention of their scientists through his communicative ability and understanding of reason and logic. Two of the society’s primary heads in the department, Cornelius (Roddy McDowell) and Zira (Kim Hunter) bring this to the attention of the leaders of the civilization but they openly scorn the idea of domesticated and educated human. Chief amongst the critics is Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans) the chief defender of the ape faith, and of a particularly sickened disposition when it is even suggested that humans be equal to apes. As a result Cornelius and Zira take George to the “forbidden zone” the place where the ape culture supposedly began. They travel through this desert wasteland in the hope that answers concerning the start of the ape’s civilization will reveal the fall of the humans, and when there they discover a terrible secret.

Anybody who enjoys well constructed escapism is bound to like “Planet of the Apes”, a Sci-Fi film that spawned a series so popular DVD reissues still sell well today. That is not to say I’m recommending the continuation of this saga to anyone, rankly this is a classic example of a franchise that should have wrapped up after part one. Yet, what a gloriously enjoyable opening chapter it is, directed with skill and understanding by Franklin J. Schaffner and featuring a handful of truly iconic moments “Planet of the Apes” is a marked must for film buffs everywhere. It’s also worth remembering that this was a science fiction megahit nearly 10 nears before “Star Wars”. It’s not necessarily a better film than Luca’s space opera but there is no denying that Schaffner got there first.

As an actor I’ve always been incredibly hot and cold with Charlton Heston, for instance only two years later his wooden and ham fisted performance in “The Omega Man” was the key reason that movie didn’t work. However in “Planet of the Apes” he makes for a fine hero, cynical and square jawed the audience are rooting for George the whole way through the movie. It also helps that the scripting throughout is exquisite, the amount of iconic one liners on show is nothing short of phenomenal. Heston is really the only heavy duty performer not shrouded under layers of wonderful technical wizardry and without a doubt amply provides the human connection the audience requires. Roddy McDowell also impresses as chief human sympathiser Cornelius whilst as the dastardly Dr. Zaius it’s surely Maurice Evans who steals the thespian show. Zauis is a villain with obvious and at times almost logical motivation, but the entire time you can guarantee its George who the audience want to see come out on top.

In comparison to the effects in Tim Burton’s mediocre reimagining it’s not hard to predict that the make-up and ape attire might have dated a little, and in truth it has. However it’s still pretty passable and considering this was a film made over four decades ago that is an impressive feat. Plus it only speaks higher of the wonderful script and compact direction that in the end it’s this version which will be cherished, rather than Burton’s glossy but confused rehash. There are several magnetic set-pieces on show to, which thanks to well executed camera work are as exciting as nearly anything that Michael Bay could concoct today, only on a twentieth of the budget. However like the best Sci-Fi efforts the picture doesn’t depend totally on exciting action moments but rather on dramatic tension and the ever developing and effortlessly gripping screenplay. Seriously there are hundreds of hired hacks who in taking a leaf out of “Planet of the Apes” book could become far more accomplished directors and writers. Like other seminal blockbuster classics this is a film that firmly understands less is more, and treating an audience with intelligence will only gain you kudos.

Obviously the everlasting element of the film is its masterfully planned finish; the final shot in “Planet of the Apes” is planted in the minds of those who haven’t even seen it. Fuelled by post Cold War paranoia and with an intricate understanding of shock, “Planet of the Apes” ensured that with its curtain call the world would never forget. Based purely on the strength of this shot alone you could debate that the plethora of sequels did the series more damage than good, because despite more than a dozen more apes films never was a scene so potent or memorable to grace the franchise again.

When listing the greatest Sci-Fi movies of all time it’s only right to at least consider “Planet of the Apes”. It may not have the fully created universe like “Star Wars” or the truly horrible creature of “Alien” but I’ll be damned it’s still a masterpiece. I can only use this as a pointer to the event filmmakers of today, CGI can do only so much, but a well written and taut story complimented by good acting can cover virtually any cracks. “Planet of the Apes” deserves its legendary status and long may it be cherished for years to come.

A review by Daniel Kelly, 2009


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