a critiQal film review Planet of the Apes (1968)

Plot: Astronaut Taylor (Heston) crash lands on a distant planet ruled by apes who use a primitive race of humans for experimentation and sport. Soon Taylor finds himself among the hunted, his life in the hands of a benevolent chimpanzee scientist (McDowall).

836 words (Est. Reading Time 4m 10s)

Ah, the classics! With this week’s #TBT Review, we decided to go and visit one of those classic flicks that everyone says we should have already seen, but we’ve just never gotten around to it. This time, it was Planet of the Apes.

After a failed remake in 2001 (Planet of the Apes), Hollywood seems to have finally found the right formula to bring this classic to a new generation, producing Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011). After all, the 2nd sequel to that reboot, War for the Planet of the Apes (2017) was released recently, and seems to have done fairly well.

But, would the new reboot tarnish the original? Or had time wrought enough destruction to Planet of the Apes all by itself (like it had to another Heston classic, Soylent Green (1973))? Crossing our fingers and hoping for the best, we gave it a shot.

Charlton Heston again leads the show in Planet of the Apes. Sure, he’s a bit of an over-actor (which seems to get cheesier as the years pass in between the film and the viewing), but he still manages to bring a presence of his own to the screen. While Soylent Green (1973) wasn’t his best work, he shows much more talent in Planet of the Apes. For a length of the film, he isn’t even able to speak, and still manages to do a strong job of keeping the viewer interested. That’s actually pretty impressive, which explains the popularity of both him and this film. His character isn’t really all that likable, but the scenario he’s presented with ingratiates him with the audience anyway.

Wearing notoriously uncomfortable prosthetics, the other characters are nearly unrecognizable in their ape getup. Still, they manage to deliver decent performances anyway, with their characters bringing a bit of reserved emotion to even out Heston’s over-acting. While Roddy McDowell gets second billing (behind Heston, of course), it’s Kim Hunter as “Zira” that gets viewers to believe in the goodness of these strange ape men. While she sometimes is overwhelmed by Heston’s presence on-screen, her more likable character is really the heart of the film (what there is, anyway).

While the beginning of the film seems overtly cheesy and unfinished, once Heston shuts up and the scenario really starts playing out, a hidden gem of a film slowly emerges. With a world where apes rule and humans are treated as an inferior species, the film has thinly-veiled references to not only the ethical treatment of animals, but to the issues of slavery and racial inequality as well. With now-President Trump’s recent political campaign serving as a wake-up call to the continuing problem of racism in this country, this film’s themes are as relevant today as they were back in the 60’s.

Planet of the Apes twists society around with the apes ruling the humans, which makes for a fun sci-fi scenario. At the same time, under that guise – along with the aforementioned comments on slavery and racism – it manages to bring another of humanity’s faults to light. Namely, mankind’s ability to wage war on fellow humans – even to “kill his own brother” (an obvious reference to the Cain & Abel story in the Bible). This, of course, is itself a reference to the Vietnam War – something that many movies of the time incorporated into their story in some way or another. Sadly, again, this is another issue that continues to be relevant today.

The special effects have suffered a bit in the intervening years since Planet of the Apes was first released. Thankfully, the worst of these – the odd colors in outer space – are gotten out of the way early on in the film. After a few cheesy initial sequences, the special effects are turned over to the makeup department, and thankfully these effects haven’t really degraded at all. That’s one bonus with going low-tech on effects, and it’s a good thing they did that with this film, as – after those first few sequences – the effects are still darn good, and the viewer can get more involved in the story.

With most sci-fi flicks of the past (and even more so now), there has always been a huge reliance on computer-generated effects and the like to carry the viewer through the biggest sequences. While those are great at the time, a look back years later usually tends to be disappointing. Thankfully, while Heston may be a bit of an over-actor and some of the lines come off as pretty cheesy these days, for the most part, Planet of the Apes has withstood the test of the time rather well. Still an inventive idea (despite all the sequels, remakes and reboots), and containing more of a social conscious than many would expect, it’s a classic sci-fi flick for a reason.

Even nearly 50 years later, Planet of the Apes is still fun to watch. And, with 4 sequels readily available to this original film, the viewer doesn’t have to say goodbye to these characters when the film ends. Surprisingly enough, that’s a good thing.

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