Friday, 12 August 2016

Classic Movie Review: Planet of the Apes (1968)

It's not often that we review a classic movie that is actually a classic. Although Planet of the Apes has one of the biggest legacies of any movie, it's more of a forgotten classic. People know what the movie is without actually having seen it. In fact I went for twenty years of my life knowing the general idea (thanks in part to The Simpsons) and I think that is the case for most of the people my age.

Taylor (Charlton Heston) is the leader of space crew tasked with finding a new planet for the people of Earth to inhabit. He and his crew are put into suspended animation and while the light-speed journey lasts only eighteen months for the crew, three thousand years have passed on Earth. The ship crash lands in a watery canyon on a seemingly deserted planet. They escape ship and travel for many days until they encounter primitive humans who have no form of communication. Soon it is revealed that the dominant form of life on this planet are apes, who begin to hunt the humans. Taylor and his crew are caught up in the hunt and soon he is the only one left, having been shot in the throat and unable to talk. He is taken to Ape City, where he attracts the attention of Dr. Zira (Kim Hunter), an animal psychologist who soon recognises that Taylor is unlike any of the other humans there. She and her fiancé Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) start to study him, but come under the scrutiny of the sinister Dr. Zaius (James Whitmore) who knows that Taylor could threaten the power system that holds ape society together.

Planet of the Apes is actually a very political movie. The whole thing can be seen as an allegory for the racial discrimination that was prevalent up until the 1960s, as the humans could easily be substituted for black people. While they aren't used as slaves, they are considered animals by the apes. This would make a lot of sense since Charlton Heston was a big advocate for the Civil Rights movement. Another thing this movie makes an argument against is the separation of church and state. In it, Dr. Zaius is both the leader of the scientific institute and high up in the ape's religious order. He has a direct interest in not wanting apekind to find out the truth that they weren't divinely made and rather came from a lesser species. That's pretty progressive stuff to pack into a movie. It is also critical of the United States' military industrial complex, given that the final scene is the realisation that war on Earth when he left resulted in man killing each other to the brink of extinction. At least that's what it was prior to the current series of reboot movies.

The performances in this movie have to be praised so much. While Charlton Heston gives one of the best performances of his career and also spouts three of the most famous movie quotes of all time ("Get your stinking paws of me, you damn dirty ape!", "It's a madhouse! A madhouse" and "Damn you, you blew it all to hell!"), the real praise has to be given to the actors playing the apes. Roddy McDowall, Kim Hunter and James Whitmore all had top of the line prosthetic masks of the day, so much so that they couldn't really emote much except with their eyes, but they all manage to make their characters feel real and believable.

The legacy of this movie is amazing. It spawned four direct sequels after this (Beneath, Escape, Conquest and Battle), a ill-advised Tim Burton remake starring Mark Wahlberg, a more recent reboot franchise and countless TV shows and references in other pop-culture (like The Simpsons crutch I've been using throughout this review). It also manages to do so well what science fiction is supposed to do, be a social critique.

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