The Planet of the Apes film franchise consists of, to date, eight films released between 1968 and 2014. Each week, venerable Apes mega-fan Max Robinson and inquisitive relative newcomer Dylan Roth journey to the center of the Planet of the Apes experience, one movie at a time. This is Turn Around, Bright Eyes.
Planet of the Apes (1968)
Directed by Franklin Schaffner
SYNOPSIS: The original film! The dang primatefamilias!
NASA ANSA astronaut Taylor awakes from deep space hibernation on a planet where intelligent apes, not humans, are the dominant species. The talking, reasoning Taylor fascinates chimp scientists Zira (Kim Hunter) and Cornelius (Roddy McDowell) but finds himself in the cross-hairs of chief scientist/defense of the faith Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans), who fears the presence of the “mutant human” will reveal ape-ciety’s terrible secret. Spoiler: IT WAS EARTH ALL ALONG!
Max: I’ve probably seen this movie…twenty times? I come back to the original Planet of the Apes a lot and I’m always surprised by how differently it strikes me each time. This movie holds up really well and the stuff that doesn’t hold up super well is at the very least interesting.
Dylan: The original Planet of the Apes is the only film in the classic franchise that I’ve seen before, though this would be my first viewing as a full adult. While I always found it to be visually interesting and worthy of a little thought and some laughs, I don’t know that I appreciated all that it had to offer until we sat down to watch this last week.
Max: The original Apes holds up so well because it’s visually just super fascinating. The physical ape city set is small potatoes now, but watching Taylor haul ass across it while he’s chased by gorillas with nets really gives everything a visceral dimension. Just look at the costuming alone: Taylor’s bizarrely asymmetrical ’60s spacesuit, the fact that the apes all wear caste-designated uniforms or that Dr. Zaius gets three distinct outfits?
Dylan: So much of Planet of the Apes’ visuals work because of the surprisingly effective makeup. While extras and secondary characters have more or less static ape faces, Lead Apes Zira, Cornelius, and of course Dr. Zaius each have unique prosthetics that mimic the actors’ facial expressions better than one would expect from the late Sixties. This film presented a real challenge for actors Hunter, McDowell, and Evans, because the ape make-up obscures a lot of the tools that actors use to act, but the performances are just stagey enough to poke through all that latex. It was pretty revolutionary.
Max: Planet of the Apes is pretty important in a couple of respects. For one, it really informs the kind of downer high concept sci-fi flicks of the ’70s. This is a studio movie with (for the time) huge special effects that isn’t really an action movie as much as it is just a compelling, oddly resonant parable. Matt Reeves’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes from last year is great for exactly these reasons. There wasn’t really anything like Planet of the Apes before Planet of the Apes.
Dylan: Planet of the Apes was released in 1968, probably the most tumultuous year in American culture since the Civil War ended. Maybe it’s because of this that it was also a very special time for science fiction. At its best, sci-fi is a way to dress up complex or subversive ideas in such a way that it can sneak past an audience’s biases, and the more tense and divided your audience is, the more necessary works like Planet of the Apes (or the original Star Trek, born of this same era) become. Planet of the Apes doubles down on this by making the story itself about a society refusing to accept a subversive idea.
Max: This movie is like 50% subtle nuance and 50% Charlton Heston jumps over a casket at an ape funeral, and it rocks ass. There’s a lot to talk about here, but I always tend to come back to how great Taylor is as a lead character. There’s something kind of poetic to Taylor, a callous jackass who has no one waiting for him back on Earth, inadvertently becoming the sole remaining human voice on Earth. Charlton Heston really plays all of this to a T, and his lockjaw delivery of lines like “Dr. Zaius, would an ape make a human doll….that talks?!” really work up against his heavily made-up co-stars.
Dylan: On the one hand, portraying your protagonist as a stubborn borderline sociopath is usually a surefire way to separate him from your audience, but in this case, a first-time viewer essentially has no choice as to who to latch onto—after the first thirty minutes, Taylor is the only human being with language or agency. He’s horribly mistreated and completely disenfranchised, so of course we root for him to triumph even though he’s not terribly likeable.
Max: Watching this with you and [music editor Julian Ames] last weekend, he joked that the movie was “white people’s fear of being treated like black people” and, man…pretty much. Planet of the Apes doesn’t really have anything substantive to say about racism, but a dude being straight up blasted with a firehose while a guard screams “SHUT UP, YOU FREAK!” isn’t exactly subtle in its implications. To say nothing of Taylor’s kangaroo court trial, which is literally the Scopes Monkey Trial, but backwards.
Dylan: Planet of the Apes holds up as a piece of social sci-fi because it has a little to say about a lot of subjects. It’s not specifically about race, or animal cruelty, or the looming threat of nuclear war, but it compels you to think about all of them, hopefully in new ways. Planet of the Apes is like a big budget Twilight Zone episode (hell, it’s even co-written by Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling), but its grander scope allows it to be broader and more subtle than TZ’s transparent twenty-five minute ethics seminars.
Max: The weird thing about Planet of the Apes is that I feel totally desensitized to the ending. Taylor on his knees, screaming “DAMN YOU ALL TO HELL!” at the remains of the Statue of Liberty is such a huge pop culture touchstone that’s been homaged, parodied, and referenced ad nauseam. I genuinely wonder how the reveal that Taylor was on Earth and not an alien planet plays if you aren’t aware of it in advance since, to me, it feels implied.
Dylan: It also works as a solid piece of dramatic irony, because the whole movie is about Taylor trying to combat a false, stubborn preconception, and all the while he’s been harboring one of his own despite a heap of evidence being dropped in his lap. By the time they find the talking human doll, when he recognizes all those artifacts in the cave, he has to know in his heart that this is a ruined Earth, but he can’t or won’t accept it, just like his captors.
Max: Alright Dylan, time to ask the most important question of our column: Which Ape Was Your Favorite Ape? This viewing really made me appreciate the subtle dimensions of Dr. Zaius, a loathsome bureaucrat whose destructive brand of fascism is built on a surprisingly reasonable and even relatable fear of the threat Taylor represents.
Dylan: I also appreciated Dr. Zaius for all the reasons you give above, so to mix things up I’m gonna give the prize to Lucius (Lou Wagner), Zira’s rebellious nephew who’s the clear stand-in for the righteous but impotent counter-culture of the era, as written by a man in his forties. “Never trust anyone over thirty,” Taylor (Heston, 45) tells Lucius, in the one of the film’s only dated moments. I hope we’ll see Lucius again in one of the sequels.
Max: Well, hope is an important thing to have because next week we’re watching the cinematic hell that is Beneath the Planet of the Apes and, uh, well it’s… Pretty Shitty.
Dylan: There’s nowhere to go but down, baby!
Check back in seven days, as we venture Beneath the Planet of the Apes!