Planet of the Apes (1968) [50 Films Older Than Me #16]

Over six months ago, it was my birthday! And to add to all the real life goals and challenges that that brings, I’ve created at least one as it relates to movies and this blog–watch a film I’ve never seen before which came out in each year of the fifty years before I was born, and then write a bit about it.  This is Post #16. So, that’s 16 movies out of 50 in just over 50% of the year, which just goes to show how far behind I am with all this.

Spoilers ahead.  

Planet of the Apes

Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner

Release Year:  1968 (2 years before I was born).

What it is about:  Astronaut Taylor and his comrades crash land after centuries in deep space, discovering they are on a world dominated by apes, in which humans are considered to be dumb animals. Taylor’s comrades are killed or lobotomized, but his appearance amongst the apes upsets the delicate social order, as some “progressive” apes believe he is evidence that their species evolved from humans, which is considered heresy by many. Taylor and a human female he has become attached to, Nova, escape and ride into a forbidden zone, where Taylor discovers the world he is on is indeed a post-apocalyptic earth.

Starring Charlton Heston as Taylor, Maurice Evans as the conservative ape Dr. Zaius, Roddy McDowall and Kim Hunter as the more progressive apes Cornelius and Zira, and Linda Harrison as Nova. With Robert Gunner and Jeff Burton as the two astronauts Taylor originally lands with, Lou Wagner as Zira’s nephew, and James Whitmore and James Daly as other apes.

The screenplay is co-written by Rod Serling, creator of The Twilight Zone.

My impressions of this movie before I watched it:  I knew most of what I wrote in the “What is it about” section already, including some of the movies more famous lines of dialogue, but I’d never actually seen it so I didn’t know the precise flow the plot. I guess I had the impression that it was a bit slow, quite depressing, and took itself very seriously.

Reality: Maybe more than any other film on this list, I thought I knew this movie pretty well. And I did–there weren’t any major plot twists to take me off guard–but knowing about a film is just not the same as actually seeing it, a fact which I suppose should be obvious.

Planet of the Apes is a bit slow, and does take itself extremely seriously, and is quite depressing. But it’s also very good, and punctuated every once in a while by sort of gritty action scenes that one associated with this era. The movie was made with a moderate budget ($5.8 million, which as best as I can calculate is less than $50 million today) thanks to setting everything in a reasonably primitive society. But it makes up for it thanks to strong use of the local landscapes, including lots of wide shots showing us expansive vistas. It gives the impression that the story is painted on a vast epic canvas, even there aren’t all that many actors, sets or special effects involved.

What there is of course is lots and lots of make-up work, by Oscar-winning John Chambers. It’s a little dated now thanks to the fact that the actors can’t really move their mouths all that much, but for the most part it is quite impressive. This is helped by the fact that all three of the actors playing the lead apes–Roddy McDowall, Kim Hunter and especially Maurice Evans–are all excellent. Considering how buried they are by the make-up, each one is able to bring a lot of character to their roles.

Charlton Heston’s Taylor is a certainly an effective physical presence as the movie’s leads. He runs around that Ape city, hopping over walls fighting back against gorillas in a very convincing manner. He is, unfortunately, not particularly likable–he’s generally unpleasant especially to his fellow astronaut Landon, constantly taunting him with the fact that all his loved ones are long dead, since their near-light speed time dilation has meant they have missed thousands of years on earth.

But I didn’t realize until watching this that this was on purpose and not, as I’ve assumed, an accident, which makes even rambling on even less sympathetic.

There is dynamic quality to the filmmaking of Planet of the Apes. The action sequences have got a gritty and visceral feel, just as one would expect from a movie of this era. The camerawork is kinetic and agitated, but always clear. And though the story involves a lot of people (or apes, really) standing around debating philosophy and science, there is an urgency to the conversation and to the movie’s pacing that keeps things interesting.

So…when you get down to it, what did I think? There are a lot of sequels and reboots for Planet of the Apes–some of them I’ve seen and some I haven’t. This movie isn’t going to make me revisit any of them, I don’t think, but I kind of understand why people kept coming back to this well. It’s a good movie with the right amount of sci-fi social commentary layered in with its action, philosophy and genuine high concept.

See here for the Master List.

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