Skip to main content

Empire Magazine Greatest Movies List - #350: Planet of the Apes

The movie with the iconic ending where Charlton Heston damns them to hell, the original “Planet of the Apes” (1968) was one of the first science-fiction franchises of the second half of the 20th century. It started with one movie featuring talking apes and then spawned four sequels, two TV series, a Tim Burton remake and then a re-energized prequel with the ever-versatile James Franco. Not bad for a film with a very Z-movie concept and a Twilight Zone ending.

Seeing the original Franklin J. Schaffner version for the first time was like seeing a dusty old blueprint for a building I had seen many times before. I had seen the Tim Burton remake while living in Peru, and while there I also saw one of the sequels, “Escape from the Planet of the Apes,” on TV. Unfortunately, I had also already seen the big twist ending of the original movie when the American Film Institute did one of their specials on great movies. They should really stop giving the ending away when they re-examine a film like that. Still, when the film played on TV in 2011 I thought I might as well watch it since the prequel was coming out in a few weeks. Actually the night before Freida Pinto was on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart to talk about “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” so it all fitted quite nicely.

The original story, whether or not it will end up being integrated in the new franchise, dealt with three astronauts who are lost in space. George Taylor (Heston) notices the time difference between their place in space and Earth is of several thousand light years, meaning if they were to ever make it back home, everyone they know would be long gone. He accepts this graciously as he is a cynic who never had any love for the world he left behind. Landon (Robert Gunner) the second crewman is a believer in their exploration mission and rejects Taylor’s bleak view. When the ship crash-lands on an unknown planet, he plants a tiny American flag on a beach, eliciting raucous laughter from Taylor. The third crewman Dodge (Jeff Burton) gets a lot less development being the only black character in a 1960s film. In fact, when the apes show up he is the first one to be killed.

The apparition of the intelligent apes is a slow reveal, preceded by the three astronauts exploring what appears to be a deserted landscape. Yet there are disquieting signs something is amiss, as they find strange figures posted in the wilderness like a warning sign. They should have listened. After encountering a group of primitive human beings, the astronauts are hunted by horse riding apes who ensnare them with nets like wild animals.

In a world where apes are the intelligent species and humans are held in cages, Taylor ends up in zoo to be studied by scientists Zira (Kim Hunter) and Cornelius (Roddy McDowall). Impressed by his intelligence, they are even more shocked when Taylor escapes and roars the iconic line “Take your stinking paws off me you damn dirty ape!” This sends deep repercussions in the apes’ belief system. To them the idea that a human could be intelligent contradicts everything they ever thought to be true. Their outrage reminded me of the reaction religious fundamentalists have when confronted by the theory of evolution.

The film’s primary antagonist is Dr Zaius (Maurice Evans) a true believer in the idea that only apes were ever the dominant species. He does everything he can to ensure Taylor is silenced, as though he as something to hide. Yet once Taylor gets his hands on a gun, he manages to get the upper hand and go after whatever deep dark secret Zaius is hiding. The way a gun gives Taylor power over his jailers possibly heralds Heston’s love of firearms.

The original “Planet of the Apes” touched on some deep issues such as evolution, science, belief and religion. Heston gives a strong performance throughout, despite having to spend most of the movie dressed like Tarzan. A lot of credit must also go to the makeup by John Chambers and all the actors who had to endure it. In the most recent entry of the Apes franchise, actors like Andy Serkis had to wear motion-capture suits in a studio to play the apes, but back in the 60s actors were buried under layers of makeup and had to perform in the hot sun while riding horses. It may look dated today, but it should still be recognized as brilliant work.

As for that twist ending, it’s still a mind-blowing moment, even if you know it’s coming.  


Popular posts from this blog

Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #85: Blue Velvet

Exactly how do you describe a David Lynch movie? He is one of the few directors whose style is so distinctive that his last name has become an adjective. According to Urban Dictionary, the definition of Lynchian is: “having the same balance between the macabre and the mundane found in the works of filmmaker David Lynch.” To see a prime example of that adjective film lovers need look no further than Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986), which does indeed begin in the mundane before slowly sinking in macabre violence.
My first introduction to the world of David Lynch was through his ground breaking, but unfortunately interrupted, early 1990s TV series Twin Peaks. This was one of the first television shows to grab viewers with a series-long mystery: who killed Laura Palmer? A mix of soap opera, police procedural, and the supernatural, it is a unique show that showed the darkness hidden in suburbia and remains influential to this day. Featuring Kyle MacLachlan as an FBI investigator with a love for …

Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #90: When Harry Met Sally...

There is an age-old question regarding whether single men and women can be just friends. In real life the answer is obviously “yes,” but in movies and TV the answer always has to be that at some point two single characters will get attracted to each other and move beyond friendship. On TV I find this to be contrived and overused, but some movies can have a lot of fun with the concept, most notably Rob Reiner’s comedy classic When Harry Met Sally…(1989). It may not change your view on love and friendship, but it forever changed the meaning of the phrase “I’ll have what she’s having.”
On paper this film’s premise sounds like another rom-com, but seen by oneself during an evening of Netflix binging it does make you think about deep stuff like the long-term impact of your decisions on your life. A person you meet during a tense trip might turn up again sometime later down the road in the most unexpected ways. If there is one thing I believe in it is infinite possibilities, and Nora Ephron…

Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #83: Brazil

Dystopian movies from the 1980s are a funny thing since we now live in the future of those movies and if you look at the news for more than five minutes it will feel as though we are one bad day away from being into a dystopia. On the plus side, if it ends up looking like the dystopia portrayed in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985) at least we will have lovely architecture to look at while the government is busy telling us how to think. This might not be a movie that will cheer you up, but the production design is amazing, the performances are great throughout, and you get to see Robert DeNiro play a maintenance man/freedom fighter.
I first saw Brazil as a Terry Gilliam double feature at the Université de Sherbrooke’s movie club paired along with 12 Monkeys around ten years ago. Those two films are similar in that they both feature a rather dour future and, as with most Gilliam movies, incredibly intricate sets. However the dystopian future in Brazil is somewhat scarier than the disease-ra…