Monday, January 10, 2011

#22 Planet of the Apes (1968)

Planet of the Apes (1968)

"A timeless, ham 'n cheese classic."

Our film for today is the 1968 film Planet of the Apes, starring NRA head, noted creationist, (and legendary actor) Charlton Heston. This is another of those films which I had seen numerous times when I was younger, but had turned my nose up to it when I got to high school. These types of films are why I am happy that I am doing this list, almost more than getting an opportunity to watch those legendary films I have never seen before, simply because now I get to rewatch those films I’ve seen a hundred times, but in a totally different light, with a new look on life and on film in general. It enables me to see the films as wonderful works of art. This is huge for a movie like this, which, until I watched it now, I had always considered to be a bit of a lame cheesy movie, rather than the spectacular piece of art that I now unequivocally consider it to be.

The movie opens to a spectacular monologue, delivered by Heston’s character, George Taylor, in which he details how he is the captain of a space ship who is out exploring the depths of space. Thanks to some scientific mumbo jumbo, Taylor reveals that while only a couple months had passed for the crew, over 700 years had passed on Earth, meaning that everyone and everything the crew once knew was dead and gone. Taylor then goes into deep sleep, and the film then cuts to one of the coolest opening credit scenes I had ever seen. The music was absolutely spectacular. The credits pass, and the ship crash lands on a planet which, Taylor muses, is about 300 light years from Earth. The crew, minus the one female member, survives the crash and travel through what appears to be a barren desert wasteland. Over the course of this trek, we learn much about the crew members and their personalities and motivations. Eventually, the crew comes upon life, and soon discovers a population of primitive humans. Taylor’s character muses that with life this primitive, in 6 months the crew will be lording over the planet. The reverie is cut short when apes riding on horses and wielding guns bust onto the scene, and soon start killing and capturing all the humans they can get their hands on. One member (naturally, the black guy) is killed, and the other two are captured. We soon learn that the humans on this planet are mute and stupid, and that apes have a very low opinion of humans on this planet. The next hour or so of film involves Taylor struggling to show to the apes that he is intelligent, and therefore should be treated as an equal. After some time, he is deemed a mutant and is set to be executed. After mounting a daring escape, Taylor, with the help of some sympathetic chimpanzees, flees to the so-called “forbidden zone” to find proof of intelligent humans existing before the apes. This proof is discovered, but the religious leaders of the ape society still do not want to accept that humans are equal to apes, and so the evidence is destroyed, though Taylor is set free. Taylor rides off, and, in one of the biggest twists in film, sees a half-buried Statue of Liberty, showing that he has been on Earth the whole time.

The cinematography and directing in this film is simply superb. Director Franklin J. Schaffner does a simply superb job with long sweeping shots, showing the viewer the true scope of the planet when the crew is travelling through the barren wasteland. I love the way the film goes from showing the individual actors, to cutting back to show the viewer the full scope of the region. It tells you more than any words can, and that is the scene of a truly great movie. Another excellent technique the film uses is quick jumps from mystery to blatant showing. What I mean, is best shown through the first scene in which the apes are seen. When the apes first start attacking the humans, we don’t see the apes for many minutes. All we can really see are the horses they are riding, and the tips of the threshers they are holding peaking over the corn fields. This continues for many minutes so that we don’t actually know what is chasing the humans, until, suddenly the film starts showing us. What I like about when they finally show us the apes, is that it is done very casually. The film suddenly goes from showing us nothing at all, to showing us the apes as though it’s been showing them to us the whole time. It’s very natural and done very well.

The acting in this film is…interesting to put it lightly. While there are some good scenes with the two other crew members, and the actor playing Dr. Zaius does a very good job for example, the focus is on Heston and his performance. What’s interesting about Heston’s character is that in any other actor I would call it gross overacting, and it really is. He’s hammy and cheesy, but the thing is, Heston has such a presence, such a gravitas that it really works for him. Though his delivery is on the whole very cheesy, it is actually remarkably compelling, and I actually really liked the cheese. What’s interesting is that many of the other characters are equally cheesy, ham and cheese would probably be the best description of the performances in this movie, but the thing is Heston as the large ham, and the movie’s over the top character just make the ham and cheese work, flat out.

Another thing about this film that really works is the makeup. The way in which real actors were rendered to look like apes in the days before green screen, before the days of Avatar technology, and before computer rendering technology is just really well done. You actually don’t realize that it really is a real human underneath all that hair.

The thing that really made the film for me though was the tension created throughout this film. Everything about this movie is exciting. From the chase scene in which Taylor and the crew are running from the apes, to Taylor’s dramatic discovery of the truth, you are constantly on the edge of your seat. What I like is that you really find yourself feeling for Taylor. You agonize over his inability to talk just as he does. You convince yourself that “if he could only just tell them who he is, then every will be sorted out.” What is more remarkable is that even though you know the truth, even though you know the ending of the film, you completely forget about it through the course of the film. It really is an excellent accomplishment.

With all this praise, however, I do have a couple complaints. One thing I didn’t like was the young chimp Lucius, who only comes into the film towards the end when Taylor escapes to the forbidden zone. I believe he is supposed to show the jaded, cynical youth of the chimpanzees, to demonstrate that the apes really are no different than humans, but he really just comes off as obnoxious, and I felt the film could have been much better without him. There were also a couple scenes that I felt were a bit superfluous to the film as a whole, for example Taylor’s first attempt at escape from town was way too drawn out, and if these scenes were cut down, the film as a whole could have been much better streamlined and paced a little better. However, these are really little more than nitpicks, rather than actual complaints.

Finally, the themes of this film are superb. This movie, at its most fundamental is on the first part about the importance of science, reason, and doubt, and also the importance of keeping science separate from religion. On the second part, the film is about the haughtiness of man, and a warning against the hubris of man being his major failing. One thing I find most interesting that best demonstrates this point is when Taylor finally reveals what the mission of the crewmen was. Their mission was a so called “Adam and Eve” played out in reality, in which the three male crewmen and one female would land on a new planet and repopulate human life on the new planet, with the idea of creating an Earth colony. When one thinks about this mission logically, they will immediately realize the idiocy not only of just sending 4 people on their own without communication to just arbitrarily find an hospitable planet to settle on, but to think that 3 men and 1 woman would be able to successfully create a new population. This mission shows that, in spite of Taylors sweeping anti-religious rhetoric, science and religion were blending on Earth as well. Finally, this movie is also about man’s penchant for destruction. One of my favorite lines in this film comes from the Orangutan cleric Dr. Zaius:

“Beware the beast Man, for he is the Devil's pawn. Alone among God's primates, he kills for sport or lust or greed. Yea, he will murder his brother to possess his brother's land. Let him not breed in great numbers, for he will make a desert of his home and yours. Shun him; drive him back into his jungle lair, for he is the harbinger of death. “

Finally, I can’t help pointing out the irony of Charlton Heston, today a major proponent of creation science and religious fundamentalism, in his youth doing a movie that is strictly anti-religion and pro evolution. Nevertheless this film is simply stupendous and definitely worth multiple watches. I am really glad I watched this film as rewatching it now has completely changed my opinion both of the movie and the series as a whole.

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