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Friday, April 15, 2011

Planet of the Apes

This is, perhaps, the second biggest movie of 60s sci-fi. The biggest is 2001: A Space Odyssey, which set the benchmark for future cinema sci-fi. Planet of the Apes (PoA) would provide sequel fodder for the 70s and beyond, but was, in its first iteration, an A-level grand culmination of 50s sci-fi. PoA had big names: written (mostly) by Rod Serling, and starring Charlton Heston, Roddy McDowall, James Whitmore, etc.. Its director, Franklin Schaffner was big stuff too. He would go on to do Patton and The Boys From Brazil. This was no cheapy B film. Much has already been written about PoA, in books, magazines and internet articles, so this review won't try to cover everything.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Taylor, Dodge, Landon and Stewart are astronauts on an interstellar flight. Taylor (Heston) is making last log reports before entering his sleep chamber. They are rudely awakened when their ship crashes into a lake in a desert. Stewart died of old age, due to a leak in her chamber. The three men clamber out and make it to shore. The desert is lifeless, but they finally encounter vegetation, then people too. A tribe of cavemen steal their clothes. All are caught by gorillas on horseback, with guns. Dodge is killed. Landon lost. Taylor shot in the neck. Back in Ape City, a surgeon saves Taylor, but he cannot speak. He becomes the pet project of Zira, a chimpanzee animal psychologist. Taylor struggles to understand this "upside down" world in which apes are the civilized masters and humans are the beasts. Zira and her fiancee Cornelius are convinced Taylor is intelligent and proves their theories that apes evolved from men. Taylor escapes and causes mayhem in the city. He is recaptured, suddenly able to speak again. All the disturbance invokes a hearing in which Zira and Cornelius are up on charges of heresy. The sentence is handed down. Zira arranges for Taylor to escape. She and Cornelius leave the city too. They travel to an archeological dig site in the Forbidden Zone. They are followed by Dr. Zaius and his armed thugs. Cornelius shows Zaius archeological proof that man predates apes, but Zaius argues all the evidence away. Taylor holds Zaius hostage, demanding a horse, supplies and a gun. He rides off down the beach with his mute girlfriend, Nova. Zaius has the cave blown up to hide evidence that man was there first. Taylor discovers the half-buried Statue of Liberty in the beach sand. He then realizes that they landed back on earth somehow, in the far future. A nuclear war reduced mankind to brutes and elevated the apes. Fade to black. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
PoA is a classic bit of story telling and turned tables. There's enough food for thought to spawn several sequels. It has action, adventure and drama.

Cold War Angle
This is classic 50s mind-set. A nuclear war escalated to the point of destroying civilization as we know it. It was the Cold War nightmare come true.

Iconic Ending -- The twist ending of PoA is one of the most famous. It's final form was shaped by many hands, including the second script writer, Michael Wilson and director Franklin Schaffner. Yet, the idea was clearly Rod Serling's. He had done many rewrites of the script since he began in 1963. Boulle's twist ending, was that the astronauts reading the tale as flashback, turn out to BE apes. A movie couldn't withhold info like a book could, so Serling's twist was to reveal that the planet of the apes was actually earth. He used the Statue of Liberty as an earth-only icon. His endings had the statue in fragments, or just an arm, or the upper part of the head, overgrown in a jungle, etc. Serling was good at twist endings in his Twilight Zone episodes. One that is similar in theme to PoA was the 1959 episode, I Shot an Arrow into the Air, in which a crew of astronauts suffer some technical trouble and think they've crashed on a distant desert planet. The twist ending is that they discover they landed on earth. In that case, it was telephone poles that served the role of proof.

50s Roots -- One PoA's primary plot premises is a close copy to that used in World Without End ('56). A crew of astronauts inadvertently travel into the future, but they don't know that (yet). They crash land on a planet which turns out to have two populations -- bad brutes and good but "soft" humans. The spilt into those two populations was the result of a nuclear war. The iconic ending (see above) is solidly in the 50s' Atomic Angst idiom. Nuclear war would destroy our world. What survived would be bad. Serling had written several stories for his 1959 and 1969 Twilight Zone episodes with that moral underpinning.

Based on the Book -- Pierre Boulle's 1963 novel "Planet of the Apes" is essentially the same story as the movie, in it's middle portion. Astronauts find the earth of the future to be run by apes. Man has been reduced to an animal. Boulle's beginning, with a message-in-a-bottle, and two astronauts basically reading the story as flashback, was not screen-friendly. Boulle's ending in which the earth man flies back to find earth ruled by apes, had its problems too. Serling opted to leave Taylor stranded and alive. (a few early variations had him killed at the last). The novel's subtle commentary on oppressed working classes (in this case, apes made to work as slaves for humans, then visa versa) has been in sci-fi for decades. The movie did not delve into that theme as much.

Evolution's Popular Hole -- The Spring of '68 saw three big movies in a row incorporate the evolution of man into their plots. In all three, the slow-and-steady theory (held popularly, but not so much by scientists) is punctured by some outside influence. In Five Million Years to Earth, it was the Martians who tampered with earth apes, bestowing intelligence. In 2001 it will be aliens to mess with earth apes to start intelligence. In PoA, the surface of the plot suggests a lampooning of religion (in favor of evolution) but beneath that is the sting. Again, slow-and-steady did not do the trick. In PoA, it was a nuclear war which mutates apes into sentience, and degrades humans into beast-hood. All three movies play on the nagging doubt that slow-and-steady just couldn't have produced humans from apes. There had to be something outside that did the trick.

Bottom line? Planet of the Apes is a big-time classic of 1960s sci-fi. The original is better than the many sequels, though it's hard to recreate the power of the twist ending nowadays. Still, PoA is very much worth watching, for sci-fi fans and people who like action adventures.

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