Monday, August 1, 2011

Planet of the Apes (1968)

This review was prompted by a request from DJ Hates You at No Bulljive.  I had no intention of revisiting this classic for a while, but I was reminded that the upcoming Rise of the Planet of the Apes was just around the corner.  So, here we are.  Here's a tidbit that I found interesting: Netflix describes Planet of the Apes as a "camp classic."  While there are certainly many chuckle-worthy moments in the film, I don't think it falls into the camp genre.  Then again, I had this song stuck in my head for two hours after watching the movie:

In the far-flung future of 1972, faster than light speeds are not only possible, they have been implemented in NASA spaceships.  George Taylor (Charlton Heston) and his fellow astronauts have achieved the objective of their space mission (to...go somewhere for...something?), and they are going into a hibernation sleep with the expectation of arriving back on Earth sometime around 2040.  Who would volunteer for a mission that --- best case scenario --- turns you into a person without friends, family, or a place in society?  Astronauts, apparently.  Asshole astronauts, specifically, in Taylor's case.  He seems to revel in pointing out his crew's position ("everything you know is dust," he mocks) whenever he can.  Well, something went wrong.  Instead of arriving home in 2040, they crash on an unknown planet, with the spaceship clock reading 3978 AD.  Whoops.  Someone overslept. The planet they crashed on has a breathable atmosphere, but is very different from our world.  Here, humans (or something like them) are mute, cavemen-ish beings, and apes are the dominant species, walking on two legs, wearing clothes, speaking, and all that jazz.  If I had to describe this concept in a house-related metaphor, I would call it a "madhouse."  A MAAAAAD HOOOUUUUUSE!!!
So...where does all the leather clothing come from?
Anyway, one thing leads to another and Taylor and his astronaut buddies are ambushed, along with a tribe of mute humanoids, by apes; one of the astronauts dies and Taylor's vocal cords are injured in the attack.  The captured people are brought to some scientists for study.  Here, Taylor draws the attention of Zira (Kim Hunter) and Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) because he can clearly understand them and communicate, even without his voice.  The very concept of an intelligent human is too much for the ape government, though, and they make moves to have Taylor castrated and/or lobotomized.  What does the ape power structure have to fear from a single alien humanoid?
Sad fact: Roddy McDowall would be typecast as an ape, due to his clear ape ancestry.

Sure, I can understand the possibility of  Planet of the Apes being campy.  There are a lot --- a lot --- of unintentionally hilarious moments.  I love that Taylor is abrasive and mocks any sense of hope that his crew members might have in the beginning of the movie --- that's true leadership.  I also laughed when the astronauts found their first sign of life on this strange planet, a small plant, and they dig it up; it's like they were trying to say, "We found life!  Let's kill it!"  It's also silly that the astronauts found proof of intelligent creatures (the scarecrows) in an area and immediately opted to all get naked and swim.  It amused me that a movie that insisted on a man-ape kiss...
...would also have movie posters vilifying the concept of man-woman sex.
I don't really see the whole "forced to mate" tag line as a problem.  Zira wants to reward Taylor for his intelligence, so she has a beautiful and, surprisingly, not too hairy woman (Linda Harrison) placed in his cage.  Taylor seems insulted that he is being offered sex as a reward, but I have a feeling that a more realistic reaction would have been along the lines of "I'll have sex with this beautiful woman, but not just to please you apes."  Also unbelievable is the scene where Taylor runs and climbs circles around a city of apes.  Really?  He's better at climbing than them?  Well, I guess that's slightly more believable than the ape society of 3978 AD speaking (and writing) in 20th-century English.

The acting in Planet of the Apes doesn't help the silly tone any.  Charlton Heston is not exactly an understated thespian, especially in films that are supposed to be larger than life.  Aside from his inexplicably dickish behavior to his fellow astronauts, I was fine with Heston's overacting; he has so many classic lines in this movie and I can't imagine anyone delivering them better.  I will say that Heston is the worst fake mime I have ever seen.  Sadly, he's pretty much the only cast member that is allowed to emote.  Linda Harrison did a good job as a sexy cavewoman-ish lady, but it's not like that was a role that required much.  The chimpanzees, played by Roddy McDowall and Kim Hunter, were fairly expressionless in their prosthetic facial makeup.  The orangutans, Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans) and James Whitmore (Brooks from The Shawshank Redemption) were a little better.  I actually like the Dr. Zaius character, if only because he's believably complex; he's probably the most well-rounded character in the film.
Maurice Evans' honest-to-goodness IMDb profile picture

I'm not really sure how to gauge Franklin J. Schaffner's direction in this movie.  The script is filled with dozens of eye-roll-worthy references to 60s culture and bits that are supposed to point out how similar the ape society is to ours, and the makeup (while impressive for the time) inhibits almost all of the acting in the movie.  And the acting that isn't hampered by makeup is the ridiculously macho performance from Heston.  Something about Planet of the Apes makes me want to argue that Schaffner did a good job, though.  For as silly as movie is at times, it is able to maintain an epic scope that isn't hurt by the silly costumes or over-the-top dialogue.  It helps that the score is pretty cool, even if it is melodramatic, but I think this director had a vision for this movie and made it happen.

Is Planet of the Apes subtle or thought-provoking?  Not especially.  The two things that everyone that sees this film can agree on is that it is epic, and it is science fiction.  Even with the abundance of silliness in this movie, there is something kind of awesome about how everyone in this movie just goes with the flow.  As much as I find Heston's lines (especially the "damned dirty apes" one) to be funny, I also find them genuinely effective.  This is a movie that should be, by all rights, absolutely awful.  It's called Planet of the damned dirty Apes, after all!  However, it is keeps a pretty quick pace, and keeps any philosophical notions about the nature of man as minor plot points that don't hamper the adventure.  I don't know if it's actually a good movie, but I find it pretty entertaining.

Here's my favorite Planet of the Apes reference, via The Simpsons.  In my opinion, I would have rather seen this musical than the Tim Burton remake.  Apparently, the internet is a little scarce on English-language embeddable Simpsons clips.

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