It's A Mad House: Planet of the Apes (1968)
An ingenious, thought-provoking science-fiction film that holds up over 40 years after its initial release, Planet of the Apes is a cinematic experience like none other in film before it. With War of the Planet of the Apes fast approaching, it's time we here at Talk Film Society look back on the films that came before.
Spurred from the mind of producer Arthur Jacobs with a script co-written by Rod Serling (The Twilight Zone), it’s a classic “new kid in town” story where the “new kid” just so happens to be played by Charlton Heston and the “town” is an alien world controlled by super-intelligent apes. Revolutionary for the time, it’s a hallmark of science-fiction cinema, and with good reason, entertaining and constantly thought provoking, this is a picture that needs to be seen by fans of the genre.
We begin with Heston's Taylor, an American astronaut who crash lands on an Earth-like planet after years of hibernation during his crew’s journey through space. Joined in the early parts of the film by two fellow astronauts, they eventually come upon some primitive human beings who behave more like cavemen than anything else. Soon after they become hunted by several gorilla warriors and Heston is taken captive and held prisoner in Ape City. It truly is their planet as these evolved apes are now the ruling class, outranking humans to a vast degree.
Charlton Heston gives a particularly interesting performance considering his Hollywood stature at the time. Audiences who were used to him playing capable hero types were probably thrown for a loop here as this time around he’s treated more or less like an animal in captivity. That said, he ends up giving one of his more memorable turns as an actor, marred only by a few “over the top” moments. As good as Heston is, even better are Roddy McDowall and Kim Hunter as Cornelius and Zira, the chimpanzee scientists who take Taylor under their wing when they find he’s far more advanced than any human they’ve encountered. McDowall and Hunter have a great lived-in chemistry together, and you really believe that they’ve known and worked together for the ages, mostly evident during the trial/inquisition scene.
Known to Simpsons fans thanks to the Troy McClure starring musical, Dr. Zaius is a perfect villain in the form of orangutan scholar played by Maurice Evans. He brings a menace to the role that's unsettling at times and Dr. Zaius and his beliefs are also where a lot of the real world issues come into play, issues that are still relevant today. From separation of church and state to racial and sexual equality to unfair trials and overreaching/controlling governments, all are just as relatable now as they were in 1968. These issues are made even more apparent by Hunter’s Zira, her being the scientist under religious duress by Zaius.
Modern audiences might be turned off by the lack of action or computer generated effects, but those with a love for the old-school will find a lot to appreciate here. The Oscar winning makeup effects by John Chambers are a sight to behold and are still very effective to the point of having to do a double-take every now and then to make sure that those are really people underneath all that latex. Later make-up artists owe a lot to Chambers’ work on this film and it’s great to see makeup from over 40 years ago still look so damn convincing. On the action side, the few scenes that contain it, specifically the early hunting sequence, are impressively staged and edited together and add quite a few of thrills to the film. Add in an impressive and memorable score by the legendary Jerry Goldsmith (Chinatown, Alien) and all the ingredients for a classic are in place.
Planet of the Apes is a definite classic of science-fiction and had it not been for the release of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey a few months later, would have been the crowning achievement for the genre in the 1960’s. For fans, it more than warrants a revisit in advance of War of the Planet of the Apes. If however, you’ve never seen this sci-fi masterpiece, it's worth checking out, as being disappointed will prove to be a hefty challenge.