Friday, February 08, 2013

Go Ape Day: Planet of the Apes (1968)

"You who are reading me now are a different breed - I hope a better one. I leave the 20th century with no regrets. But one more thing - if anybody's listening, that is. Nothing scientific. It's purely personal. But seen from out here everything seems different. Time bends. Space is boundless. It squashes a man's ego. I feel lonely. That's about it. Tell me, though. Does man, that marvel of the universe, that glorious paradox who sent me to the stars, still make war against his brother? Keep his neighbor's children starving?"

- Taylor (Charlton Heston) in the prologue of Planet of the Apes (1968)

Franklin J. Schaffner's Planet of the Apes isn't only my all-time favorite movie.  I also happen to believe it  is the finest, most artistic work of science fiction film making produced in over one hundred years of cinema history.  

Planet of the Apes is a rousing action piece and a compelling mystery, but it's more than that. It is a detailed, convincing glimpse of an alien world never before imagined -- and on a scale never before seen --but yet it's more than that too. 

It's also a wicked satire that takes dead aim at man's self-destructive tendencies and delusions of grandeur.  Written by Rod Serling and Michael Wilson, and based on the novel by Pierre Boulle, Planet of the Apes truly concerns the world of men during the Vietnam Era.  And it's not a pretty picture. 

I realize that to state that a film (or any particular work of art) is "best" reads like silly hyperbole, or at the very least like an amusing fan boyish caricature from The Simpsons, but I hope to argue my case.  When judging if a film ranks at the apex of its genre, one must consider a number of important benchmarks or thresholds. 

First, does the film succeed on a level beyond mere entertainment?  In other words, does the production in question make you look at the world and mankind himself in a new or different way?

Secondly, and this is especially important in regards to a science fiction film, does the movie expand the boundaries of the art-form itself? And in doing so, does it reveal to the audience something never before witnessed in the history of the cinema?  Simply put, does it use an advancement in film technique or methodology to transport us to a new place?

Additionally, one can certainly measure the success of a film by its impact on the overall culture.  Has the film entered the pop culture lexicon in near-permanent fashion, extended its reach beyond one generation and one demographic, and changed, essentially, the very face of the science fiction film tradition in the process?

Lastly, and this is my own critical benchmark, based on my experience with film as a visual art form, does the form of the film's presentation deliberately and intelligently mirror the content?  Do the visuals find symbolic ways of relating an important theme or other aspect of the narrative?

On all those fronts, one can answer in the affirmative about Planet of the Apes.

In the first category (success on a plateau beyond mere entertainment), the film asks a trenchant question about mankind and then spends 111 minutes hours answering that question.  Planet of the Apes' main character, astronaut Taylor (Charlton Heston) is a self-described "seeker" who leaves Earth behind because he believes there must be "something better than man" out there...somewhere."  He wants to know as well if man has outgrown his war like ways, if he has changed.

In answering Taylor's interrogative, Planet of the Apes searches for some deep (and dark...) truths about the human species and the nature of our life here on Earth. 

Again, the film provides answers based largely on how the writers viewed man in the era of the Cold War, in the turbulent 1960s.  This was an era when the Civil Rights Movement had not yet assured equality for all, and in which there was a strong youth or counter-culture movement.  It was a time in which it seemed possible (at least following the Cuban Missile Crisis) that all human life could end in a flash.  Old ideas and pillars of American society were being overturned, even as America was building up a nuclear arsenal that could tear down much more.

In terms of the second benchmark -- technological advancement -- Planet of the Apes certainly fits the bill.  In particular, John Chambers' (1923 - 2001) expressive and unique apes make-up appliances transformed dozens of actors into convincing-looking simians using a newly designed compound consisting of foam rubber.

Chambers' unforgettable make-up design made Planet of the Apes likely "the best effects film of the pre-digital era" and won him an honorary Academy Award for his achievement.  Chambers' special make-up effects not only succeeded in making talking apes seem plausible, the expressive nature of the appliances actually permitted the actors to develop full-blown personalities, facial tics and quirks for their simian characters.  The apes weren't monolithic "monsters" in rubber suits, but rather readily identifiable as personalities and people.

The believable make-up thus allowed audiences to visit a world populated entirely by believable but essentially alien characters.  By the dozen; large and small; young and adult.   In conjunction with fine costuming and production design, the make-up effects transformed Planet of the Apes into a travelogue of another alternate reality, a tangible one both meticulously conceived and executed.

In terms of impact, it's virtually impossible to question Planet of the Apes or its place in the film pantheon. It has been "aped" (if you'll excuse the pun) in films such as Hell Comes to Frogtown (1986) -- a kind of Planet of the Frogs -- and in countless other films that find a man (usually a scientist or astronaut) out-of-time, or alone dealing with a hostile world or society.  The 1970s version of The Omega Man owes a lot to Planet of the Apes, down to the casting of Charlton Heston in the lead role of the ostensibly last surviving human.

The film has also been satirized in Spaceballs (1987), in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back (2001), and on The Simpsons, and is probably the most heavily quoted Hollywood movie outside of This is Spinal Tap (1984). We all remember (with glee...) Heston utterances such as "get your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape," or "damn you all to Hell!" 

Additionally, the original film has been sequelized, adapted to television series format, animated for Saturday mornings, re-imagined, and  is now countenancing a prequel.  For over thirty years, Planet of the Apes merchandise and comics have also proven exceedingly popular items.

On the fourth front, Planet of the Apes remembers -- in ways both droll and weird -- that its form should echo its content.  One scene (pictured at the top of this post...)  physically recreates an old Chinese proverb about three "wise" monkey who see, speak and hear no evil. 

Another sequence, set by the picturesque ocean, reminds us that we are but grains of sand in time compared to the endless, never-ending, never-changing tide.  Man may live and die, but time marches on, oblivious to who is master of the universe. 

And last but never least, the film's stunning climax literalizes the specifics of man's spiritual downfall.  Lady Liberty herself -- a clarion symbol of man's self-determination and love of freedom -- lays half-buried, rusted and forgotten in the sand, right alongside those ancient ideals.  Just imagine, for a moment, witnessing this ending for the first time; in a movie theater in 1968.  That Statue of Liberty moment captured the national Zeitgeist in an important way, and still carries incredible resonance.

Of course, there are other very serious contenders for best "sci fi" film. Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey is a great film; no doubt. And the Russian version of Solaris from the 1970s is another masterwork; an unacknowledged well-spring of ideas for many American films and television programs. And there will be those folks who champion instead  Blade Runner (1982), The Matrix (1999), or even Star Wars (1977).

I don't begrudge anyone their selection, or the reasons behind that selection. But the purpose of this post is not to argue for these films, or for that matter to put them down in any way.  Rather it is to laud Planet of the Apes for what it remains over forty years after its theatrical release: a remarkable and visually-accomplished text that functions and excels on a variety of thematic and narrative levels simultaneously.

The question is not so much where we are as when we are.

An ANSA spaceship carrying four human astronauts crashes on a mysterious planet after several months in deep space.

The three surviving astronauts, Taylor (Charlton Heston), Dodge (Jeff Burton) and Landon (Robert Gunner), believe they have traveled 300 light years from Earth, to the constellation Orion.

They also check their ship's chronometer and learn that Dr. Hasslein's theory of time travel at light speed is correct. Although they left Earth in 1972, their chronometer verifies that it is now November 25, 3978.

The humans brave an arid, seemingly endless desert as they leave behind the dead lake where their ship sunk, and soon discover that primitive humans exist on this world. But the natives are mute savages...unevolved and unsophisticated.

Then comes the real kicker: the planet is ruled by intelligent, civilized apes. The astronauts lose track of one another in a ferocious hunt of the savage humans (a tense, sustained action set-piece), and Taylor ends up in Ape City as a ward of a chimpanzee scientist, Dr. Zira (Kim Hunter), an expert in human behavior.

She and her fiancee Cornelius (Roddy McDowall), a chimp archaeologist, soon learn that Taylor -- unlike all the other humans they have encountered -- can both speak and reason.

The chimpanzee duo defends this unusual human specimen (whom they name "Bright Eyes") from Dr. Zaius (Evans), a self-righteous orangutan administrator who serves as both Minister of Science and Chief Defender of the Faith in Ape City.

Zaius, as it turns out, has very good reason to despise humans, and to fear Taylor.  He knows from knowledge of the Sacred Scrolls that apes inherited their world from men.  And that men nearly destroyed...everything.

Taylor and a savage human consort, Nova (Linda Harrison), flee Ape City with the aid of Zira and Cornelius, who have been accused of heresy for defending the human and advancing the "insidious" theory known as evolution. Together, they head back to the Forbidden Zone to seek the truth of Taylor's heritage.

 Finally, as the ocean tides endlessly beat against a rocky shore, Taylor comes face to face with mankind's legacy and destiny. A strange rusted statue jutting out of rock and sand is mankind's ultimate epitaph and Taylor's evidence that he has at last returned home. In the sand he sees...The Statue of Liberty.

"You finally did it!" He exclaims, pounding the sand at his feet. "You blew it up! You maniacs...God damn you all to Hell!"

I'm a seeker too. But my dreams aren't like yours. I can't help thinking that somewhere in the universe there has to be something better than man.

Many of the reasons I admire Planet of the Apes concern the nature and disposition of the film's protagonist, George Taylor.

In particular, this astronaut is an avowed cynic and misanthrope. Taylor boasts no love for mankind when he leaves Earth for outer space.

"Tell me," he rhetorically asks in the equivalent of a Captain's log, "does man - that marvel of the universe, that glorious paradox who sent me to the stars - still make war against his brothers? Keep his neighbor's children starving?"

Then, after landing in the wasteland of the Forbidden Zone, Landon and Taylor bicker about their predicament. Taylor pokes fun at his companion for displaying an American flag on the shore line of the dead lake. The absurdity of patriotism and hence jingoism -- a reflection of Taylor's earlier comments about man making war on his brothers -- in this far flung place and time is not lost on a bitter Taylor.

Angry, Landon asks him what makes him tick then, if not patriotism or nationalism. "You're negative; you despise people," Landon accurately summarizes his skipper's attitude. Taylor doesn't disagree. His reply is: "I just can't help thinking in the universe there has to be something better than man..."

As you can guess from the film's title, Taylor's quest for something in the universe better than man will soon turn into a cosmic joke.  His quest will be turned against him.

These early scenes establish Taylor's character in a clever way. He's a cynic and critic of man, and suddenly, he finds himself the only intelligent human on a planet of apes. The man who hates mankind is thus forced into the position of being the defender of the species. This is an incredibly ironic development. 

Taylor knows all of mankind's flaws too well.  He calls our culture one in which there is "plenty of love-making but precious little love..." He has searched the stars for something better, but now must be man's advocate and champion on a world in which man has fallen low. What a rich set-up for the film's central debate, and one which fits the production's overriding conceit: that of a world turned upside down; of somebody who boasts one rigid agenda, yet is forced by circumstance to countenance another.  Heston is perfect for the role, as critic Pauline Kael wrote, a kind of ideal "strong" American figure.

Importantly, Taylor -- despite his feelings about man -- is also representative of the culture he hates.  He is arrogant, noting of the primitive humans that if they are "the best" the planet's got, he and his cohorts will be running the planet in "six months."  He is also cruel, showing no compassion or sympathy for Landon.  In fact, he takes great pleasure in Landon's discomfort and unease.  As much as Taylor hates what man has become, he is that man he hates.  And it's fascinating to watch a self-loathing human being put in the position of defending himself and his species.

Taylor's fascinating journey - from hater of mankind to last defender of the species - would mean little were he not faced with a powerful, worthy nemesis. Fortunately, the screenplay for Planet of the Apes provides him a terrific opponent in Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans). Zaius, like Taylor, is a man divided by two thoughts. On one hand, he is honor bound and professionally responsible for the advancement of science.  And science by nature, is impartial.

On the other hand, Zaius also serves as Chief Defender of the Faith, which means he must rigorously maintain the apes' belief in their own superiority, transmitted through the auspices of organized religion. "There is no contradiction between faith and science," he asserts to Taylor at one point in the film; but clearly...there is.

Although Ape Culture is rife with commentary that asserts the simian as the supreme creature of the land ("The Almighty created the ape in his own image," is one very telling ape proverb), Zaius knows the dark truth: that apes rose because man fell; that the return of intelligent, technological man would inevitably spell the end of the ape dominion.

What I love about Dr. Zaius is this fact: by some point of view - perhaps another "upside down" or "inverted" one, in fact - he is the film's unlikely hero. Yes, he hates man and is ruthless to mankind. He performs lobotomies on man, and wants to see the species exterminated. Yet as we learn at the end of the film, he has valid reasons for his fear and loathing of humanity.

After all, It was the humans, not the apes, who turned their cities into deserts in a nuclear war. The 29th Scroll - part of the ape dogma thus warns: "beware the beast man. For he is the devil's pawn." Zaius understands the meaning behind the flowery prose and tells Taylor. "The Forbidden Zone was once a paradise. Your breed made a desert of it ages ago."

In some sense, by preventing a new ascendancy of man, Zaius believes he is saving the planet Earth for future generations, just as he informs young Lucius. A great movie villain is one who believes in his cause; who believes that he is righteous.  And that's Zaius. He believes he carries all of ape civilization upon his shoulders.

Thus Planet of the Apes offers two very strong characters in dynamic opposition. It sends each of them on a journey in which their faith is tested by each other, and ultimately their prejudices are reinforced. Zaius believes man is a primitive destroyer of all things, and after dealing with Taylor, believes that more strongly than ever.

Taylor leaves Earth believing man is a war-like barbarian who would destroy his brother for his brother's land, and -- when faced with the Statue of Liberty -- realizes that he was absolutely right. Man's hunger for territory, for war, did ultimately destroy him. It made the apes supreme and turned the world "upside down."

It's a mad house! A mad house!

The ape culture as depicted so well in the film is a twisted reflection of our own; a mirror held up to our primate faces.  In fact, the film invites us to laugh at the apes' homilies and ridiculous, self-centered beliefs. 

For instance, the belief that only apes possess a soul, or that the ape was created in God's image.   I mean, that's just silly right?

Of course, it is not the apes being lampooned is us, and our belief system.  When spoken by apes, the self-centeredness of such grandiose beliefs become plain...and laughable.  And Planet of the Apes is gutsy as hell for pointing it out; that mankind has constructed an egotistical mythology about his Godliness that doesn't necessarily fit the facts.  If we're so Godly, why do we let children starve?  If we are the only creatures on God's green Earth with souls, why don't we make better use of them?  Why don't we help the poor, or the weak?

Specifically, Planet of the Apes looks at our culture in terms of religious fanaticism.  The apes -- like most 2012 Republican presidential candidates, apparently -- believe that "evolution is an insidious theory."   Instead of answering questions with science or facts, Zaius constantly falls back on quoting Ape Scripture from the Sacred Scrolls.  The Ape Culture is clearly a theocracy, one that maintains the power of the few at the expense of the many.  As long as the Lawgiver's precepts of ape superiority -- really self-glorification -- are not challenged; this will not change.

The film also gazes at affirmative action and race relations, noting that "a quota system" had been established and then abolished.  "All men look alike to most apes," Zira notes at one point, touching on the sin of racism and thus furthering and deepening the film's social commentary.

Basically, the ape society is structured in Planet of the Apes to make us realize the insanity and "upside down" quality of our own religious and ethnic precepts. As long as we cling to such arrogant and egotistical notions - such irrational notions that the world is ours to do with as we please because we're God's "select" -- we are at risk of destroying ourselves.  Hubris precedes a great fall...

In witnessing the ape culture, we get a pretty good idea of how humanity could destroy himself.  The apes are capricious, combative, judgmental and essentially unfair because power rests with the few (the orangutans) and not the average ape.  It's a case of "monkey see, monkey do."  The ape culture functions this way because the human culture it is based on functioned this way too.  We see the apes in us, and us in the apes, to spell out the dynamic.

Planet of the Apes is also fervently anti-war, which is important since the film was released at the height of the Vietnam "police action." Here, the screenwriters imagine a world wherein man's predilection to "kill his neighbors for his neighbor's land" is taken to its logical conclusion: the destruction of civilization altogether.

The barren Forbidden Zone is what remains of New York after a deadly nuclear war. The film's final image, of the Statue of Liberty half-buried in the sand tells us everything we need to know. Mankind has forsaken his spoken ideals of peace and love for wars of conquest. He has destroyed himself and his world over petty, transitory, ideology (capitalism vs. communism, we assume...).

Consequently, the beliefs we hold now about freedom, liberty and God's Will shall ultimately prove nothing but ruined artifacts for future archaeologists to puzzle over.  They are but grains of sand on the beach of eternity. The waves just keep rolling in from the ocean. Rolling in and washing away everything...even mankindPerhaps the ocean represents an impartial God, unchangeable in the face of a changing Earth.

The ocean and the waves of the Forbidden Zone are cleansing on one hand, and also, strangely, impartial on the other. No matter what man (or ape) does, the tides just keep coming, and the ages pass. Civilizations rise and fall unmourned, and the tides take no notice.   In the end, the only way we can be truly immortal is to be remembered.  And how do we want to be remembered?  As destroyers of a world?  As mute, dumb savages?  Planet of the Apes seriously takes man of the nuclear age to task for his crazy dance up to the precipice of self-destruction and global annihilation.

Or as Zaius notes, "I have always known about man. From the evidence, I believe his wisdom must walk hand and hand with his idiocy. His emotions must rule his brain. He must be a warlike creature who gives battle to everything around him, even himself."  This comment is both true and hypocritical.  It is true of man, but is also true of Zaius's Ape culture. 

In terms of its structure, Planet of the Apes is beautifully realized and perfectly paced.  The film opens with Taylor's question in the prologue (about the nature of man, and whether it has changed), and then descends into chaotic madness as his spaceship crashes. 

Created in the days before CGI, the film's opening crash sequence is downright stunning. There are no conventional modern special effects to speak of here. Instead, the film adopts dizzying P.O.V. camerawork, as if we're riding the nose of the rocket ourselves. The footage has been tweaked to make it more dramatic - sped up and turned upside down at points - to register the speed and angle of the crash. Even without contemporary visuals, however, the sequence is edited brilliantly. The terror of the crash is palpable.

After the crash, for nearly a half hour, the three lost astronauts explore the Forbidden Zone, and the location work is nothing short of stunning. So much of the movie's mood is "sold" to us here  in dramatic, alien-seeming long shots: utilizing the odd rock outcroppings of Death Valley and "big sky" of Arizona to represent the otherworldly Forbidden Zone.  But also, in these long outdoor sections of the film, something else important occurs.  We get to know who Taylor is.  We start to understand him. 

This is something the re-imagination of Planet of the Apes totally missed.  There, it took approximately fifteen short minutes to get Mark Wahlberg into contact with the apes, and consequently there was no time to develop his character; to make the audience like or sympathize with him.  When Ari (Helena Bonham) notes in that film that there is something special about Leo, her comment doesn't ring true to our viewing experience.  We simply don't know the guy, or detect anything particularly special or intriguing about him.  In the original film, when Zira befriends Taylor, we're already invested in his story and his personality.  He is established before we meet the apes at all.

Another great, and incredibly elaborate scene depicts the hunt in the corn-field.  This sequence gives the audience the first stunning look at the apes (armed, and on horseback).  Forty years later, this action scene remains powerful and even a bit terrifying, because of the exquisite use of sound effects, quick cutting, and some very dangerous-looking stunt work.  Although it is a product of 1960s-1970s cinema techniques, Planet of the Apes endlessly impresses with such formalistic flourishes.

In closing, Planet of the Apes is, in some senses, a ruthless and brutal film.  It doesn't monkey around. It reveals to us a new world where man - because of his arrogance and hypocrisy - has been brought low before a new master race. The humor, seen in many ape proverbs, is absolutely chilling.  And the ending is unceasingly startling: the ultimate statement about mankind's predilection to destroy himself.

Far from being "upside-down" or crazy, Planet of the Apes makes a surfeit of common sense in its observations about human nature.  And by visualizing and speaking meaningfully of that "evil,"  the film proves endlessly stimulating.  Science fiction cinema has never been better.   It has never been stranger, sharper, nor more imaginative than here, in the realm of the talking apes.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous10:48 AM

    John, I agree with you that the Planet Of The Apes(1968) is the greatest and most perfectly executed science-fiction film. I will never forget as a young boy seeing this film with my family in 1971 at the local drive-in. We were all shocked by the ending. Rod Serling's involvement in writing the screenplay is apparent. Six years later, I read the Pierre Boulle novel it was based upon for a school book report and concluded that the 1968 film screenplay was far superior to the novel.