Monday, 11 June 2007
PLANET OF THE APES
Planet of the Apes (1968) dir. Franklin J. Schaffner
Starring: Charlton Heston, Roddy McDowell, Kim Hunter
“Planet of the Apes” doesn’t get enough respect. Maybe it’s the Charlton Heston, overacting thing, maybe it’s the seven sequels and one remake overkill, perhaps it’s the now famous twist ending, but if you wipe this slate clean and watch it without distraction the film is a great film bar none.
Do I need to say there’s potential SPOILERS ahead?
George Taylor (Charlton Heston) is an astronaut whose mission goes afoul in space and crashes on an unknown planet with two of his compatriots. They venture out to explore the new world, only to find they’re on a planet where apes and humans have reversed roles. Humans are subordinate wild animals and apes of the highly evolved intelligent rulers of the planet. Taylor is captured and caged by the ape authorities. He looks the same as the other speechless devolved humans because his vocal chords have been injured and so he can’t talk. But to a couple of kind chimp paleontologists, Cornelius (Roddy McDowell) and Zira (Kim Hunter) they can see that Taylor is different than the others.
Despite the pleading of Zira and Cornelius Taylor represents a threat to the ape establishment and he is put on trial and sentenced to be lobotomized and put to hard labour. Zira and Cornelius plot the escape of Taylor into the forbidden zone where the three will soon discover there is more to the planet than meets the eye.
“Planet of the Apes” was based on a Pierre Boulle novel (the same man who wrote “Bridge on the River Kwai” – go figure) but penned for the screen by Michael Wilson and Rod “Twilight Zone” Serling. The writing features the not-so-deft metaphorical touch of Serling, who famously wrote about current social and political issues into his “Twilight Zone” episodes. Much of the same allegories are present in “Apes” – religion, racism, nuclear arms, war, etc are all on trial in the film. Though the subtext is not subtle it certainly is effective and moves the film beyond what would have been a substandard action film today (evidence: the Tim Burton remake was all action – no brains).
Franklin J. Schaffner who would win an Oscar for “Patton” a couple years later is in top form. His filmmaking skills are tremendous. Just watch the opening act and how he plans his key reveals in time with the important beats in the film. The film is told from the point of view of the protagonists, and so the audience knows only has much as Taylor knows. Suspense is built up by cleverly obscuring the apes from Taylor and the audience, therefore the entire first act, the new world is a complete mystery. The reveal of the first apes is a terrific moment. Midway through the second act, the next key moment is when the apes discover that Taylor can talk. Taylor, when his vocal chords have finally healed loudly shouts, “get your damn hands off me you damned dirty ape!” Schaffner could have had Heston spewing his dialogue earlier in the film, but wisely holds this moment for the midway point in the film. The film then takes a different turn once the apes realize Taylor is not just another nasty homosapien.
Schaffner also uses his wide-angle aspect ratio effectively. In the exterior scenes he frames the landscapes in extremely long wide shots. This technique pays off with the final big reveal when the camera slowly moves to left from a wideshot revealing the Statue of Liberty in the foreground. Though now we all know its coming, but like the great twist endings (“Empire Strikes Back,” “Sixth Sense”) it still packs an emotional punch.
“Planet of the Apes” has much in common with the TV series “Lost” and the M. Night Shymylan films. The common thread is their point of view. By keeping the audience with the characters, each of these films becomes a journey of discovery – it’s not about the twists in the plot but about the emotional reaction of the characters to the unfolding events.
So don’t be distracted by the pop culture aspects of the film. “Planet of the Apes” is fine storytelling and fine filmmaking and a great piece of entertainment. Enjoy.
Buy it here: Planet of the Apes
Here’s the hunt sequence. Watch how Shaffner effectively reveals the apes for the first time (with a wicked crash zoom) :
And for fun, here’s the classic Simpsons parody: