In the year 1972, four astronauts are deep in space, on a mission of discovery. They awake from suspended animation to find that one of their crew is dead and their ship has landed on an unfamiliar planet, and is rapidly sinking into a body of water. After making a quick escape with as much equipment as they can carry, the three survivors must find a way to survive, something made much more difficult by the planet’s native population.
Recently we recorded an episode of the Lambcast all about the original Planet of the Apes movies, from 1968’s Planet through to 1973’s Battle for the Planet of the Apes. I’d never seen any of the films before, so I was especially looking forward to the show, as I’ve now seen them all. They vary from the excellent (this one) to the dismal (Battle), the thought-provoking (Escape from the Planet of the Apes) to bat-shit insane (Beneath the Planet of the Apes), and you can listen to the discussion we had about them all here. As it happens, Planet of the Apes is also on the 1001 Movies list, and is widely regarded as a classic, so I’m selecting it as my Blind Spot pick for this month.Given that this is such an oft-parodied film, with an infamous twist ending that’s ridiculously displayed on everything from the film’s poster to the DVD box and menu (as well as next to the entry in the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die book), you might think I’d know practically everything about it all going in. Well, other than the plot points specified in the wonderful musical version depicted in The Simpsons, I was pleasantly surprised by everything, other than the lack Phil Hartman, and characters chanting “Dr. Zaius” to the tune of Falco. For example, I really appreciated how much set-up there was, with far more time than was expected with just the three astronauts making their way across this alien landscape. Also, the fact that our lead and the captain of the crew, Charlton Heston’s Taylor, is something of an arsehole, was a welcome bit of character depth I wasn’t expecting in the slightest. He seems almost gleeful to be stranded with no way of returning home, as if this is his dream come true, boldly going where no man has gone before, and with no chance of any men ever bothering him again. The pinnacle of this is his speech to his fellow survivors when one of them, Robert Gunner’s Landon, begins complaining about their predicament, and his desire to return home. Taylor’s response? “You’re 300 light years from your ‘precious’ planet, your loved ones are dead and forgotten for 20 centuries. If you did get back, they’d think you were something that fell out of a tree.” And all of that is delivered through a beaming smile! Other than Heston’s later work (his cameos in Tim Burton’s inferior remake, Wayne’s World 2 and Hamlet, and his narration in Armageddon), this is the only work of his I’ve seen, but I imagine he was more used to playing typically straight-laced characters before this one, so this may have come as something of a shock to audiences at the time.Eventually, of course, I’m going to have to mention that the planet the astronauts landed on is populated by a race of apes – made up entirely of the intellectual orang-utans, the militant gorillas and the working class chimpanzees – who are essentially a slightly more primitive version of humans in our time, with a role reversal of keeping the small band of rough-living humans – who cannot talk – in cages and experimenting upon them. Like some of the best science fiction, the central conceit is fairly simple, and is delved into enough to pose questions about our own way of living. Unfortunately it left a lot of questions unanswered – is the whole planet like this? Are there other colonies? Is there a small country run by capuchin and howler monkeys? Why not? (Answer: you couldn’t do that with a guy-in-a-suit).The effects stood up far better than I thought they might. I expected it to be on a par with the man in a gorilla suit as seen in the likes of Trading Places, but in actual fact it was very impressive. Some of the mouths don’t quite move correctly during speech, but otherwise I can’t fault them, especially for 1968. It’s the performances underneath them that are most impressive though. The three main apes are two chimpanzees, Dr. Zira (Kim Hunter) and her husband Cornelius (Roddy McDowall), and the orang-utan leader of both their religious and scientific endeavours, Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans), who in effect is the closest thing the film has to a villain, although that’s up for debate. The performances given by these three, and the ones they would continue to provide throughout the rest of the franchise, particularly McDowall, who would go on right through to Battle (albeit not always as the same character) are all exemplary, particularly when you allow for the over-emphasising they must have had to do to properly emote though those masks.I really wish I could have seen it without knowing anything prior (I’ve also regretably seen Tim Burton’s 2001 remake), and even the title of the film gives something away. It’s the kind of film that would work best if you stumbled across it late at night on TV, but didn’t look to see what it was called. As it stands, with the near-impossibility of having escaped the spoilers, it still really works as a solid piece of science fiction. It’s easily the best in the franchise too, although I did enjoy the insanity that occurred within Beneath the Planet of the Apes, and the ballsy ending that film has too. You could argue that perhaps this film has almost too much plot to satisfactorily cover it all in one movie, and that the final act revelations could be separated out into a different film entirely, as some places felt rushed, and I could have done with more time looking into the society of the apes and their way of life, but other than that this is a deserved classic, which doesn’t get mentioned as often as it should.
Choose film 8/10