Stop the PLANET OF THE APES, I Want to Get Off!

December 5, 2022 - 10:34am
Posted by Jim Healy


These notes on Planet of the Apes (1968) were written by Lance St. Laurent, PhD candidate in UW Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A double feature of Planet of the Apes and Beneath the Planet of the Apes will conclude our series, "Damn You All to Hell: Charlton Heston and the End of the World," on Saturday, November 10 beginning at 6 p.m. Two 35mm prints will be shown! The screening takes place at 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Avenue. Admission is free!

By Lance St. Laurent.

“God damn you all to hell!” So ends one of Hollywood’s most unlikely franchise-starters. After decades of sequels, remakes, reboots, and endless parodies, it is easy to forget what a strange piece of work the original Planet of the Apes really is. A pitch-black piece of sci-fi nihilism released the same year as Stanley Kubrick’s awe-inspiring 2001 and only a year before Apollo astronauts would touch down on the lunar surface, today Planet of the Apes is probably best remembered for its shattering twist ending. On the off chance anyone is going in fresh tonight, I won’t delve deeper other than to say it’s a masterclass in actorly histrionics from an actor who specialized in such displays. Charlton Heston, in one of his most iconic roles, stars as George Taylor, an astronaut hoping to escape the drudgery and petty squabbles of his own time (1972, we’re told) to seek possibility elsewhere, only to crash land on a foreign planet sometime in the late 3900s. Taylor is the exact opposite of the bright-eyed, clean-cut image of American astronauts. Heston’s clenched jaw and slightly stilted delivery here curdle into the sneer of a man driven by his cynicism and misanthropy, a belief that any planet out there has to be better than home. Of course, that misanthropy is immediately challenged by his new hostile world where, as the title suggests, apes have evolved into the dominant species of life and human beings have been rendered mute, animalistic, and subjugated. Although Heston’s Taylor would return briefly in the sequel Beneath the Planet of the Apes (also screening tonight), his final moments here remain the definitive statement from the character and of the long franchise it spawned.

Based on the novel by Pierre Boulle (who also wrote the novel The Bridge Over the River Kwai) and directed by journeyman filmmaker Franklin J. Schaffner (later of Patton and Papillon), Planet of the Apes perhaps best represents the sensibility of its co-screenwriter Rod Serling. Already well known for The Twilight Zone, it is Serling’s adaptation (rewritten by Michael Wilson) that gives the film its ironic punch, reworking the original text into a parable of man’s hubris. However, the film’s high-minded sci-fi ambitions never get in the way of its entertainment. Buoyed by groundbreaking makeup effects from John Chambers—who won an honorary Academy Award for his efforts and later worked in the CIA operation that inspired the film ArgoPlanet of the Apes presents a credible world turned upside down, one where the natural order has been upended but the small-minded pettiness of those in power still remains. 55 years on, the technological limitations of Chambers’ work are certainly more evident, but his designs remain iconic and surprisingly expressive, a high bar that the franchise has repeatedly tried to top, first with Tim Burton’s ill-begotten remake (though featuring terrific makeup from the master, Rick Baker), then through the technological wizardry of WETA’s performance capture technology in the recent reboot trilogy. Despite these advancements, though, none can quite match the charm and personality of Chambers’ original, even if one may let out a chuckle watching Zira and Cornelius’s stiff kissing.

Speaking of Drs. Zira and Cornelius, Kim Hunter and Roddy McDowell shine here as our primary ape protagonists, with Zira’s open-hearted pursuit of truth clashing well with Cornelius’s prickliness and caution. In a dystopian world of oppression, they are two bright lights of decency, love, and humanity (or whatever apes might call it). Hunter would return as Zira in the next two sequels, and beginning with the third film Escape from the Planet of the Apes, the series was reoriented around McDowell, first reprising his role as Cornelius before stepping into the role of Caesar, Zira and Cornelius’s son. Perhaps most memorable, though, is Shakespearean and Bewitched actor Maurice Evans as the vainglorious villain Dr. Zaius, a figure of unwavering close-mindedness and dogmatism whose stonewalling belies deep secrets about his world. Other notable cast members include Linda Harrison, making the most of the thankless role of Nova, mute human eye-candy meant to soften the troublesome Taylor, and legendary character actor James Whitmore, later of The Shawshank Redemption fame, as the obstinate President of the Ape Assembly.

As 20th Century Studios begins to prep yet another reboot of the Apes franchise, currently titled Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes, it is worth asking why Planet of the Apes has so thoroughly endured as a cultural touchstone. It is more than just the ending, though that is a huge part of its appeal. Perhaps it’s the way the film’s fundamental premise toes the line so expertly between the uncanny and the absurd through strange images like fully dressed apes on horseback capturing primitive humans in nets. Perhaps it’s the world’s casual disregard for human life, or the way Taylor’s misanthropy gives way to a sense of pride in humanity before the ultimate rug-pull. Maybe it is simply studio persistence. Planet of the Apes stays with us because Fox and now Disney-owned 20th Century Studios keep making new ones, and the series remains largely sturdy, thoughtful entertainment, a rarity in the current franchise marketplace. As with any long-lived cultural phenomenon, the answer is ultimately complex and incapable of being fully unpacked here. What is certain is that the original film remains a startlingly nihilistic piece of popcorn entertainment, a dystopia of human bondage that proved to be fun for the whole family. For that alone, Planet of the Apes remains an essential text rife with contradictions, at once allegorizing the cultural tensions of its era while also retaining a timeless quality as both a work of challenging genre fiction and accessible studio entertainment. It’s a delicate balance that many have attempted to imitate (including within this very franchise), but few have been able to successfully replicate. It’s the apes’ planet, and we’re all just living on it.