Monday, July 6, 2015
PLANET OF THE APES (1968)
(February 1968, U.S.)
PLANET OF THE APES, the original film that started it all, is one of the most exciting and imaginative science fiction films of all time, but I swear, you wouldn't think to guess that by judging the content of the original movie poster! I mean, look at it! What exactly is tempting and inviting about a giant cage in an orange/yellow background that would lure anyone into the movie theater in 1968 based on no knowledge whatsoever about this film? Thankfully, film history does not judge on movie poster artwork alone! On the other hand, if one were to actually read the poster carefully for names like Charlton Heston, Roddy McDowall, Kim Hunter and co-written by "The Twilight Zone" creator Rod Serling - well, then, now we're talking! It's also interesting to note that this film was released just one month before Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. I'd say that makes the year 1968 real damn good for great science fiction!
And so, we begin with simple astronauts on an unspecified mission. We're already caught up in the intrigue, though, because of Taylor's (Heston) recorded description of time dilation (look that up!) in which the astronauts have aged about eighteen months in space, while Earth time has aged thousands of years. Having crash landed on a mysterious planet, Taylor notes that the year is now 3978 AD, approximately two millennia (twenty centuries!) after their original departure in 1972 (four years into the future by the film release account). When discovered and captured by armed and uniformed apes, Taylor cannot speak due to a bullet in the throat and discovers that the various apes, who can talk, are also living in a strict caste system: gorillas are the police, the military, the hunters and the workers. Orangutans are the administrators, the politicians, the lawyers and the priests, while chimpanzees are the scientists and the intellectuals. The apes have developed a primitive society based on the beginnings of the human Industrial Era. They have rifles, carts, ride horses and even have primitive photography. Humans, who are believed by the apes to be mute, are considered inferior vermin and are either hunted, killed, enslaved or used in scientific brain experiments. Animal psychologist ape, Dr. Zira (Hunter) and her fiancé, Cornelius (McDowall), an archaeologist, take a kind interest in Taylor due to the minor examples of intelligence he displays while still unable to talk. When he does finally talk, however, all chaos breaks loose in the ape village with the harsh cry of, "Take your stinking paws off me, you damn, dirty ape!" in front of a huge ape crowd. What the hell has just happened? A man just spoke and he insulted an ape, to boot! All one can say while watching this grand spectacle is, "WOW!" Taylor has now gone from human vermin to a mutant and freak of nature, believed to have developed his speech through scientific brain alterations by Zira and Cornelius, accused of scientific corruption and heresy. We know better, of course, but we also know that in a world run by apes, the ugly emotions of racism, prejudice and the unfair treatments of the class system that we're all-too familiar with in real life, the film seems well timed and perfectly fitting during a decade that was filled with racial and political unrest. And like our own society, there are those in power who will do anything to conceal the truth of the current state of things. It's Dr. Zaius (played Maurice Evans), minister of science and chief defender of ape faith and law who will do whatever it takes to conceal the truth of man's existence, which is that man was on this planet before the apes, was superior and inevitably succumbed to their own extinction before the apes rose and took over.
Now bear in mind that the word planet is very key here in the story. The whole time we're following Taylor's adventure, we're wondering just where the hell he is! What sort of "upside down world", as he puts it, is this where apes dominate man? The answer and resolution to this nagging question is both awe-inspiring and shocking to anyone who's never seen this film (Really? Who hasn't seen this film??). As Taylor, a free man by the end of the film, rides his horse along the shoreline with his love interest Nova, he comes upon the horrifying truth of just what this "alien" planet really is and that's this (sorry, can't keep it to myself! It's just too damn good!) - the planet in question is actually our very own Earth long, long after the devastating holocaust of global thermonuclear war. Taylor, angry, defeated and wasted, can only fall to his knees in despair and condemns all of humanity for destroying the world he left behind. It's truly one of the greatest moments in science fiction cinema, and if you know the film well enough, you know I speak the truth!
Let me conclude now by taking you back in time several years ago when I originally wrote my blog post for APOCALYPSE NOW (1979). I bring this up as a relevant point because I concluded that post by stating that Francis Ford Coppola's fade in and opening shot of the jungle and napalm explosions that follows has been, still is and always will be my all-time favorite opening to any film I've ever seen. So now it's my pleasure to tell you that director Franklin J. Schaffner's final shot of the beach and the Statue of Liberty in PLANET OF THE APES, and I know you've seen it, is my favorite closing to any film I've ever seen...
This image is beautiful, horrifying, captivating and so thoroughly thought-provoking. Honestly, I could stare at it for hours! And when I'm done staring at it, I like to think about how it capitalizes on our worst fears (at least during that era of the 1960s) that mankind could inevitably bring itself to such a destructive and tragic destiny. The image and the idea is just so...final. Yes, it's so final, that having embraced this original film so close to my mind and heart, I have, over the years, deliberately avoided all the sequels that followed in the 1970s. Sure, I've seen them all for the sake of seeing them once (that's what the ABC 4:30 movie on the East coast was for when I was a kid)...
...but I have to point out that sometimes in film, there is what is, and then there is how we choose to remember things in our own way. I choose to remember PLANET OF THE APES as a single tale of man, ape and our final realization of how things could turn out. But exactly how things did turn out could be, I suppose, dependent on ones interpretation of just how Earth started over after its destructive annihilation. You can choose to accept a specific explanation given in the second sequel ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES (1973) in which we're told that in the future, cats and dogs were made extinct by disease and the human race chose to replace their household pets with apes, until the apes eventually rose against their abusive masters and took over the world. That's acceptable if you prefer something rather campy and silly which leaves the door open for two more sequels. For myself, I choose to believe that, just as Taylor believed, man's ignorance and stupidity inevitably lead to his own destruction and that we simply started over again by way of Charles Darwin's Theory of Evolution in which the ape occupied this planet before us. It's a darker, more frightening explanation of what happened to Earth, and given what human nature is like in all its ugliness, it's the one that makes the most sense to me. So in short, the sequels BENEATH, ESCAPE, CONQUEST and BATTLE just don't exist for me! Who says I have to embrace reality, huh?? I don't! And by the way...FUCK TIM BURTON! Just what the fuck did he think he was doing anyway?? Well, I say damn him! Damn him to Hell!!!
But for the record, I have to confess that I do like and appreciate the most recent reboot Planet of the Apes films of RISE and DAWN that have been released over the last few years. They are, in my opinion, new and original interpretations of a tale my generation of film lovers have embraced since the first dawn in 1968. Just goes to show you that anything is possible with me!
Favorite line or dialogue:
Taylor: "Oh my God! I'm back. I'm home. All the time, it was. We finally really did it! You Maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to Hell!"