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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It's a mad house! A mad house!
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.
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 mankind. Perhaps 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 2001 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). Fifty 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 formalist 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.