The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Planet of the Apes (1968)

Ah, science fiction, sometimes I forget how good a genre it can be. For Christmas, my girlfriend got me the Planet of the Apes: Legacy Collection, five films making up one of my favorite film series. It is a series that got progressively worse, continuing because audiences liked them, not because they were particularly classic movies. That said, I like them all a lot and always will, especially the first film, the one genuine classic in the bunch, 1968's Planet of the Apes.

A U.S. spacecraft is traveling in deep space, its four-person crew commanded by cynical astronaut George Taylor (Charlton Heston). Their mission involves exploring the far reaches of space, but a malfunction awakens Taylor and two other survivors as their ship crash lands on a seemingly empty planet. Taylor, along with fellow astronauts Landon (Robert Gunner) and Dodge (Jeff Burton), gather what little supplies they have and head out into this unexplored world, looking for any sign of life. Walking for days inland, they finally do find life, a human-like race that is primitive to say the least, dressed in animal furs and unable to speak. The scientific find is one thing, but the trio of astronauts is in for a far bigger shock. The humans begin to run away from an unseen threat, and then they're there. Taylor and Co. run with them, stunned to see talking apes, dressed in military uniforms on horseback and armed to the teeth. What the hell is going on? What kind of planet have the astronauts found?

It's easy to forget how much impact this 1968 sci-fi classic has had on the science fiction genre as a whole. From director Franklin J. Schaffner, 'Planet' is the first of five movies (in the original series at least) that was followed by a short-lived TV show, an attempt at a reboot (2001's Planet of the Apes), and a far more successful reboot (2011's Rise of the Planet of the Apes). I'm curious to see where the most recent series goes, but this original entry will no doubt be the one all others are compared to. It's smart, original, unsettling and keeps you guessing until the end. There are some moments in the second half that drag a little bit, but the moments that work are science fiction perfection. I plan on watching and reviewing all the Apes movies so keep an eye out, and here we go!

Obviously when you're going into a movie titled Planet of the Apes, you kinda know the twist, right? There's a planet...well, of apes. Still, Schaffner's film (working off a novel from Pierre Boulle) builds the tension to almost unbearable levels in making its revelation. In a mission that isn't completely explained, NASA sends four astronauts (one dies during the voyage) deep into space at the speed of light, working off a theory that it will advance them in time. It does, some sort of malfunction bringing the spaceship into a planet's orbit, the crew crash-landing in a huge lake. We follow them for the next 30 minutes as they venture into a seemingly empty world, Lake Powell in Utah providing a beautiful, creepy, eerie backdrop. Composer Jerry Goldsmith's score is spot-on (listen to an extended sample HERE), using regular musical notes and cues but mixing it in with a variety of odd noises that sound natural and spooky, building up that fear of the unseen and unknown.

It is around the 32-minute mark we are shockingly introduced to the world run by apes. We learn over the course of the movie more about this culture with a hierarchy of government (gorillas = military/power, chimps = educators/science, orangutans = political/authority), a history going back thousands of years, beliefs and faith in a religion and a God-like being, all these little things that make the reveal all that more involving, unsettling and fascinating. As Taylor explores this world as a prisoner -- all humans are slaves -- we meet Dr. Zira (Kim Hunter) and Dr. Cornelius (Roddy McDowall), two intellectuals and scientists, interested in learning and advancing. In Heston's Taylor, they see a chance to learn, but also a threat to everything they know, believe in and hope for. Also look for Maurice Evans as Dr. Zaius, an intellectual who knows what threats history and humans hold, the film's biggest villain, James Whitmore as the President of the Assembly, James Daly as a prosecutor trying to prove Taylor is a mutant. The idea of something so well thought out, so innovative, that simian culture is an obvious but underrated reason for the movie's success. It doesn't hurt either that the makeup for the apes is immaculately impeccable.

Charlton Heston is the man. That is all. He's one of my favorites, and I think he gets a bad wrap at times because at times, he could be a tad wooden, even playing similar roles one after another. Fair to a point, but he's a Hollywood legend for sure. In a long, distinguished career, Heston piled up memorable roles, but this is one of his best. His George Taylor is smart, cynical and willing to question anyone and everything. So when he crash lands on a planet run by intelligent apes? Yeah, he's going to have some issues. His complete shock at what he's found is genuine, Heston committing to the part. At a certain point, his goal is simple, just survive on a planet and in a community that is equal parts curious and scared to death of him. He shows off his acting too, as he's struck mute for an extended portion of the movie. I love the cynical, questioning nature of the character, and the iconic lines from 'Get your paws off me, you damn dirty apes!' (one of the most iconic lines ever) to his final line still resonate 40-plus years later.

Lost at times in the science fiction world and mystery of what we've found are some great moments among the characters. I love the dynamic between Heston's Taylor and Hunter's Dr. Zira. Their dialogue scenes, with McDowall's Cornelius too, have an easy, charming back and forth to them. It just looks easy. This is where some of the ideas and messages of 'Apes' come from. Within a different culture, we see the same questions that humans ask about evolution, survival, faith, beliefs, religion, destiny and finding your niche in life. In an underrated cast that doesn't boast a ton of star power, Hunter and McDowall really step up to the plate in support of one of Heston's best performances. Also look for Linda Harrison as Nova, a woman who bonds with Taylor, even if she is mute, Lou Wagner as Lucius, Zira's nephew who helps Taylor late in the movie, and Buck Kartalian as Julius, a gorilla guard who works with Zira with their human slaves. 

Well, here we are. The ending that rewrote the twist ending, something movies from every genre have tried to duplicate ever since. If you've made it this far into a Planet of the Apes review, I'm guessing that A. You either know the ending or B. Want to know the ending. No spoilers here. If you haven't seen 'Apes,' you deserve to go in fresh without any knowledge of what's coming. It is a great finale, one that deserves its fame and notoriety. A pretty perfect ending to a pretty perfect science fiction flick.

Planet of the Apes (1968): ****/****

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