Planet of the Apes
d. Franklin J. Shaffner /1968 / USA / 112 mins
It’s well known that Twentieth Century Fox showed enough lack of faith in the possibility of profits from movie merchandise to allow George Lucas to retain the rights for his Star Wars films. What makes this so surprising is that Planet of the Apes had previously proven to Fox and the world how one film could spawn a franchise of sequels and tie-in goods, leading to two future television series and a reboot. Planet of the Apes is a franchise that took the public’s imagination in its paws and was strained until every single dime had been extracted, best observed in the fictitious musical, “Stop the Planet of the Apes, I Want to Get Off” featured in The Simpsons and Mad Magazine’s “The Milking of the Planet That Went Ape”.
Much has been written on how Planet of the Apes acted as a godsend for advocates of civil rights, vegetarians and animal rights activists. The political and cultural messages are embedded in our social memory as deeply as that of the film’s final image that was once one of the most surprising twists in cinema’s history.
Watching Planet of the Apes again, it remains hugely dramatically exciting. Its flair for action and adventure comes straight from the pulp classics and television shows such as The Twilight Zone (which Schaffner as director was a veteran of) yet it manages to escape the conventional B movie trappings by implementing an unforgettable avant-garde score by Jerry Goldsmith and striking cinematography that perfectly conveys a stark panorama of desolation that’s as foreboding as it is beautiful.
Although they may be considered outdated, the then ground-breaking prosthetics created by John Chambers are still able to create a believability that developments in CGI have yet to attain. Roddy McDowall, Kim Hunter and Maurice Evans’s exaggerated expressions allow convincing characters to bleed through the heavy (and notoriously uncomfortable) makeup they wore in their respective ape roles. Charlton Heston manages to retain the sense of weight and biblical gravitas he had built up through leading roles in Ben Hur and The Ten Commandments for his role as Colonel George Taylor, an impressive feat considering he spends almost the entirety of the film naked and imprisoned.
In contrast to the futuristic setting of the original novel (La Planeté des singes by Pierre Boulle), what makes Planet of the Apes a film to remember is its blending of genres to depict civilisation’s beginnings. Taylor is at once both the lone gunman of the West entering a stranded community and a galactic explorer, encountering a world both alien yet familiar. Though the monster movie mentality first drew in audiences, it soon became clear that the film had no interest in demonising the apes and what we are left with is a picture that balances the evils and benefits of both religious traditionalism and scientific advancements in a manner that is still rarely seen to this day.
Planet of the Apes spoke to a frustrated audience who was becoming ever more willing to point the finger of blame at themselves rather than the frightening others of fiction. It’s no wonder that this is a franchise that filmmakers and audiences seem so unwilling to put down.