Going Ape for Good Science Fiction
A Film Review of Planet of the Apes (1968) by Christopher Wostenberg
I am back doing film reviews for CHS Sideline. I appreciate everyone’s patience in waiting for a new article from me, but hopefully it has given you time to catch up on all of the old reviews. Over the last month or two, I have been thinking of various films from my collection to review and how to organize over the course of the next year. What I have come up with is to go through various genres of films, similar to what I have done with horror films for Halloween (The Birds), and romantic films for Valentine’s day (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Ali: Fear Eats the Soul). With the new Star Wars Trilogy having come to an end and the new Star Trek Series premiering this year as well as to complement the most recent CHS Sideline film review by Amreen Sunil on 2001: A Space Odyssey, I have decided to start with science fiction. When I think good science fiction—whether it is films, television or literature—I think of allegorical stories that comment on the social aspects of the present. The famous science fiction writer Isaac Asimov might have put it best when he said:
“Individual science fiction stories may seem as trivial as ever to the blinder critics and philosophers of today, but the core of science - its essence - has become crucial to our salvation, if we are to be saved at all.”
Therefore, my choice for a science fiction film to review is the 1968 version of Planet of the Apes. While I enjoy the sequels, the Tim Burton remake and the reboot series all for different reasons, this review will focus on the original film. As a word of caution going forward, this movie has a fairly well-known surprise ending, which I will talk about in my review, so SPOILER ALERT is in full effect going forward.
The movie starts when a spaceship manned by four astronauts from 1972 Earth crash lands on a planet after a light speed voyage. Three of the crew members survive the crash, only to realize that they have landed on a desert wasteland planet over two thousand years in the future. Eventually, they stumble upon an oasis guarded by eerie scarecrows and come across primitive humanoids. Next, the astronauts along with the humanoids are hunted by gorillas on horseback. During the hunt, the leader of the astronauts Colonel George Taylor (Charles Heston) is captured after being shot in the throat, while one of the other astronauts is killed and the third is knocked unconscious. The bulk of the rest of the film deals with Taylor’s treatment at the hands of an ape society, where gorillas are in charge of the military, orangutans are involved in government and religion, and chimpanzees are scientists and doctors. A tribunal hearing is convened to determine the origins of Taylor, who seems to the apes to be an atypical, intelligent human. To find out the truth, Taylor is broken out of custody by archaeologist Cornelius (Rodney McDowell) and animal psychologist Zira (Kim Hunter) and taken through the desert wasteland known as the “Forbidden Zone” to a cave that contains artifacts of a tribe of intelligent humans. In the end, Taylor learns that the planet is the same as his Earth after a nuclear holocaust has caused humans to become primitive, while apes evolved to intelligence.
Since my reason for choosing Planet of the Apes (1968) was because it commented on the social nature of the U.S.A. in the late 1960s, it is important to note what was going on during that time period. First, the Cold War was in full effect with the constant fear of a nuclear holocaust possible, and tensions were especially heightened with the Vietnam War going on. In addition, the space race was about to hit its peak in 1969 with the moon landing. Internally within the U.S., the Civil Rights Movement was ending and the second wave of feminism was in full swing. Also important to note is the divide between the young and old that led to the counter-culture and changing norms of society. Needless to say it was probably one of the most revolutionary times in America in many facets of society. Unlike most science fiction movies, Planet of the Apes (1968) aims and succeeds on reflecting on many of these issues.
I will touch on the most obvious and enduring message of the film briefly, which is the outcome of a nuclear holocaust. The last scene in the movie shows the ruins of the Statue of Liberty, revealing that the planet is Earth after a nuclear holocaust destroyed civilization, which led to the nightmarish world Taylor encountered throughout the rest of the movie. The last line of the film uttered by Taylor, “You finally really did it. You maniacs! You blew it up! God dam you! God dam you all to hell!” clearly states what has happened leaving the audience with no doubt what the moral of the story is. While the rest of the movie does not touch on the dangers of the nuclear arms and power in any way, the fact that the final scene focuses on the devastation of a nuclear holocaust is enough to make the significance clear and permanent.
If this theme interests you, I suggest watching the sequel, Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970), as it further comments on the nuclear age.
The commentary on the Cold War fear of a nuclear holocaust is enough to make Planet of the Apes (1968) worth watching, but it is more the social commentary that makes the movie great science-fiction. Most of the social commentary is imbued in the character of Zira, an intelligent, rebellious female chimpanzee who puts her life and reputation on the line for Taylor. Other than Taylor, Zira is the strongest character in the film. Without Zira, Taylor probably would not have survived. She is constantly arguing with the authorities in order to change the preconceived notions of the ape society in order for the society to grow and better itself. She is never violent with her protests but demonstrates rational thought in her impassioned arguments. This mirrors many of revolutionary leaders of the 1960s, like Martin Luther King Jr. fighting for equal rights of minorities, Gloria Steinem leader of the second wave of feminism in the U.S. and Abie Hoffman an icon of the anti-war and counter-culture movement to name a few. In addition, some of Zira’s arguments for the protection of Taylor against unjustified science studies pre-date the animal rights movement that would take hold in the UK in the early 1970s. Thus Zira makes it clear to the viewer how the ape society is a reflection of the culture of the late 1960s in the U.S.
Favorite Scene: The scene I have chosen as my favorite is the tribunal scene that is about half-way through the movie. To me, this scene encapsulates the essence of the film and the societal commentary the movie as a whole is portraying. Taylor is regulated to the background for most of the scene with Zira taking more center stage against the judges and prosecutor. While the scene is heavy handed with its message, the scene is vital to bridge the beginning with the end to make everything come together and give depth to the whole film. It does this by focusing on the verbal battle instead of physical action that most of the rest of the movie has. By doing this it changes the tone of the film, making the viewer pay attention and think about the rest of the film.
The scene also gets in some humor by showing the judges as the Japanese pictorial maxim of the three wise monkeys. The trial gets to a point where the judges do not want to hear, see, or speak what might be an unsettling truth for them that apes are not the only intelligent species on the planet. Unfortunately, this comes with the dark side that it is not far from the truth in society where many people, including politicians and judges, chose to not hear, see or speak of the changes occurring, especially during the tumultuous 1960s.
I know there are lots of other great science-fiction films, but give the original Planets of the Apes a viewing and I think you will not be disappointed. Heck, you might wind up like me and watching all five of the original films and still wanting more. Next time, I will look at one of my favorite superhero/comic book movies. Until next time here is a great Spock line from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), “The needs of the many outweigh … the needs of the few … or the one.”