Monday, December 20, 2010

Review – Planet of the Apes

December 20, 2010

Planet of the Apes – US, 1968

Where are we? Where are we heading? What is the consequence of our present course? These questions are often at the core of science fiction. On the one hand, science fiction can offer an optimistic view of the future. In the world of Star Trek, humans have resolved problems related to racism, sexism, and classism, and have learned to live with the other inhabitants of the earth. Relations with their galactic neighbors however are a work in progress. On the other hand, science fiction can also offer viewers a rather bleak outlook of the future, one that shows what may happen if mankind doesn’t address its problems or change its present course. The Day the Earth Stood Still, the recent reimagining of Battlestar Galactica, and Minority Report all ask viewers to reflect upon what mankind is doing right now and to think about how it will impact our future. Franklin J. Schaffner’s 1968 film Planet of the Apes falls into this latter category, and it is an example of science fiction at its best.

From its opening scene, in which astronaut George Taylor (Charlton Heston), jaded by mankind’s belligerent nature, wonders aloud whether the world he and his three crew members are returning to is one where mankind is still fighting wars and refusing to help those in need. He doesn’t hold out any hopes that the situation he’ll find upon his return will be any different from the one he left years earlier. Later, we learn what Col. Taylor’s motive for taking this mission was – He hoped to find something better than mankind, and space, with its seeming infiniteness seemed a logical place to find it. This hope, that outer space holds the answers to mankind’s earthly problems, is still with us, even after Stephen Hawking’s warning that space exploration would not likely be started with peace in mind.

As a result of a computer glitch, Taylor and the other surviving members of the crew, Landon (Robert Gunner) and Dodge (Jeff Burton), crash on a mountainous, desert planet filled with stunning dry landscapes. According to their computer, the year is 3978, and based on their surroundings, they surmise that they are on an alien world. Following the tradition of countless explorers before them, Dodge plants a small American flag in a pile of rocks; Taylor just laughs. With just three days’ worth of supplies and food, the men then begin to explore this new world. They eventually find plant life, a lush lake, and a group of humans who cannot speak and are dressed in clothing traditionally seen on wax models of cave men. Soon, something rather unexpected finds them.

Planet of the Apes has at least four broad themes, one of which I will not reveal. The first is inhumanity toward animals. In the film, the animals are the humans, and they are hunted with as much indifference as many people hunt deer or lions. In one scene, a group of apes, each smiling proudly, pose for a picture while standing over the dead bodies of the “animals” they have just shot. Later, we see a different perspective, as a female behavioral scientist argues for more humane treatment of the humans. One thing she is against is the Minister of Science’s “experimental brain surgeries.” Later, we see just why she would be so against them. Second, the film includes a running debate between believers of creationism and believers of evolution, between the laws written in the ape’s ancient scrolls and scientific evidence that may contradict the ideas spelled out in these old texts. How one views the humans depends upon which camp one belongs to. The film also makes a brief reference to racism. We learn from a chimpanzee scientist that chimps have a lower status that apes, despite the fact that they have the same education and experience.

The screenplay for Planet of the Apes was written by Michael Wilson, whose credits include The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, and 1954’s underappreciated Salt of the Earth, and Rod Serling, who is best known for The Twilight Zone, but who also wrote the screenplay for Seven Days in May, a film about an attempted military coup in the United States. Wilson knew about persecution first hand. He was blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Commission and had to write under a pseudonym for many years. It was not until 1984, six years after his death, that his work on The Bridge on the River Kwai was fully acknowledged.

Recent science fiction films have spent so much time and money dazzling viewers’ eyes that they seem to have forgotten that the best science fiction stimulates the brain, makes people see the real world differently, and challenges common perceptions and values. Too many films lead up to a big finale that ends up saying nothing of importance. The original Planet of the Apes is different. It takes its time. We see the alien world and wonder at its beautiful vast emptiness. We get to know the characters, both good and bad, and we come to empathize with them, even those keeping secrets from their own people. We keep expecting a climactic battle, but instead we get a mesmerizing conversation in a cave that reveals much about people’s willingness to accept scientific facts that contradict their long-held beliefs. This is the way science fiction should be. It should be about the story, not just the spectacle. And you have to admire a film that has the courage to end in a way that explains everything yet resolves nothing. (on DVD)

4 stars


Anonymous said...

There is no character Colonel George Taylor in the movie Planet of the Apes. The character played by Charlton Heston in that movie was named George Taylor with no military rank or association assigned to him. This is an error and you should correct your review.

Azrael Bigler said...

I included Taylor's military rank because that's what IMDB has listed on its website. I don't recall if his rank is specifically mentioned in the film.

Azrael Bigler said...

I see now. According to Wikipedia, Taylor is not referred to as Colonel Taylor until the third film, Escape from the Planet of the Apes. Thanks for the correction.