Planet of the Apes: Movie Review

Today’s guest post was submitted by MovieFanFare reader Dan Slaten. In this piece, he discusses the sci-fi classic Planet of the Apes:

Science fiction movies don’t have to be mindless, effects-laden spectaculars with little substance to them. It’s easy to think of them that way now, as movie-goers are bombarded with bigger, louder, and flashier films every summer. Most of these films entertain for a couple of hours but are easily forgotten not long after. At its best, though, sci-fi can be entertaining, smart, and it can resonate long after its release. When the right combination of story, acting, effects, and vision come together a sci-fi film can become a classic. One of the best and most enduring examples of a science fiction movie that earned its stripes as a legit movie classic beyond its genre trappings is 1968′s Planet of the Apes.

Set within a far-future society of evolved simians, Planet of the Apes serves as a social satire of America in the late 1960s. The story revolves around Taylor (Charlton Heston), a 20th-century astronaut who is disillusioned with the world he lives in and the men who inhabit it. Taylor takes to the stars looking for something better than man. He and his crew of three set off into the cosmos, headed for far away planets and future adventures, but their ship crash lands on a strange and seemingly desolate world in the year 3978. What they find there is something a whole lot like man, only hairier. They’ve landed on a planet where apes talk, and where humans are wild and mute.

The ape culture in the film serves as a stand-in for our own. There are racial and class issues within the ape society between orangutans, gorillas, and chimpanzees. There are clashes between politics and religion, as church and state have not exactly separated here yet, and there’s even a bit of a military-industrial complex developing (although that wouldn’t be explored in much detail until the 1970 sequel, Beneath the Planet of the Apes.)

Taylor’s arrival in this world is an event that has the potential to unravel the very fragile and carefully-maintained fabric of the ape society. His existence could destroy the idea that apes are superior beings to man, as well as shatter the religion the orangutans are selling to their fellow monkeys. Naturally, one orangutan, Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans), takes it upon himself to see that none of this happens. He knows the truth, more so than any other character in the film, and he’s willing to do just about anything he can to hide that truth from everyone else.

Luckily, Taylor is aided in his quest for survival by two sympathetic chimpanzee scientists, Zira (Kim Hunter) and Cornelius (Roddy McDowall). Both are reluctant to believe Taylor’s story at first, particularly Cornelius, but they are interested in the pursuit of the truth, even if that means finding out that the world they live in is vastly different than they were lead to believe.

It’s ironic that Taylor, someone so disillusioned by his fellow man that he literally leaves the planet, is forced to defend mankind in the end. It seems that, having been faced with an alien culture just as nasty, petty, and intolerant as his own, Taylor comes to some sort of inner awakening. Near the end of the film, as he leaves the excavation site that proves humans evolved before apes, you get the feeling that Taylor has a newfound sense of optimism, as if he and his beautiful mute companion Nova (Linda Harrison) can somehow rebuild a better society from scratch, that maybe mankind wasn’t so bad after all. Despite all he’s been through, Taylor is still searching for something better. Perhaps more importantly, he still believes he’s going to find whatever it is he’s searching for.

This momentary lapse into optimism lasts for all of about 30 seconds, until Taylor finds the remnants of the Statue of Liberty emerging from the beach. Then the reality of his situation hits him, that he isn’t on an alien planet at all, that he’s back on Earth and that man has done the unthinkable and destroyed the planet with nuclear weapons. The movie ends with Taylor pounding the sand while the camera pans back to reveal the ruins of Lady Liberty. It’s one of the iconic moments in ’60s cinema, and it fails to lose its power, no matter how many times you see it.

Ultimately, Planet of the Apes is a bleak satire of America at a certain point in time. Still, it’s a thought-provoking film, and it’s interesting to look back almost 45 years later and see how much certain things have changed and how little other things have. The Cold War eventually came to an end without man obliterating the planet, as we all know, but many of the other problems that plagued the ape society are issues we still struggle with on some level to this day.

And if all of that seems a bit too heavy-handed for a casual movie viewing experience, Planet of the Apes remains an entertaining film on its surface. It’s full of action and adventure and despite being released almost 45 years ago, the film holds up surprisingly well. A lot of science fiction films don’t age well, thanks to either the science behind the stories, or more often, due to the outdated look of the costumes, props, and special effects. Planet of the Apes obviously pre-dated CGI, but the apes in the movie look plausible enough within the context of the film.

The movie’s ending is a bit of a downer, but it certainly reflected the fears of the time in which it was made. Of course, not every story has a happy resolution, and as nice as it is to escape into the typical Hollywood fantasy from time to time, it’s also important to see that sometimes things don’t always turn out the way you want them to. Sometimes bad decisions are made, sometimes man blows up the planet, and sometimes you find yourself trapped on a planet of talking apes.

Dan Slaten is a movie enthusiast from Montgomery, Alabama.

  • John George

    Thank you for a very interesting and well-written review, Dan. The film and its message are still both powerful and relevant, and deserve the recognition and status it has enjoyed for the past 45 years. It’s unfortunate, however, that the powers that be found it necessary to produce three sequels (for obvious financial gain) which (IMHO) only detract and lessen the impact of the original. C’est la vie!

  • rnbw

    One interesting thing to me was that the book, from which the movie was taken, was written by Pierre Boulle, the same author that wrote “Bridge Over the River Kwai.” Such different genre’s. I saw the movie at a drive-in theater in 1968 with 2 friends. When it got to the end, we all freaked. None of us expected that.
    As for the movie itself, the first was very good, the sequel was o.k, but after that, the following three films went off the deep-end.
    I did sit down in a theather one Saturday in the mid 70′s and watch all 5 movies in one day. It was advertised as “Go Ape for a day.” I had a headache by the time it was over, but I did it.

  • Blair Kramer

    Forgetting the painfully dated social/political commentary of the film,  the production design always disappointed me. The primitive setting just didn’t make sense. Forgetting the fact that Pierre Boulle’s novel placed the apes on a planet other than Earth within a “modern” 60′s setting, I always thought humanized Earthbound apes would likely find the ancient civilization the humans left behind. They would have developed more than simple rifles. They would have had motorized vehicles, high rise apartments, motion pictures, radio, television, etc.,  etc., etc., etc…  Basically, just like human beings, their intelligence would have fired their curiosity.  Nothing, not even superstition, would have prevented the scientists of the ape world from entering all the so-called “forbidden zones.’ The primitive society of the film just doesn’t ring true if one were to assume that the apes populated most of the planet…

    • Tim

      I read somwhere that the director, Franklin Schaffner, made the decision to set the film in a slightly less technologically advanced time (departing from the book)…more akin to our own 18th or 19th century horse and buggy days.  That period, he believed, would make for more drama in dealing with the same controversial issues with sience and society. 
      However, I agree…some things (homes particularly) were primitive even by those standards.

  • rick

    I must agree with Blair below – although the movie is entertaining, it just never made sense – the apes live in primitive houses and have bamboo enclosures and ride horses.  But they also have advanced machining (such as lathes, etc) to produce semi-automatic weapons using brass cartridges – items it took the Industrial Revolution to produce.  The bottom line is that a primitive societ such as we see in the movie simply would not have the ability to produce the guns they used against the ‘savage humans.’  And if they did have the capabilty, why would they use it to produce weapons and nothing else?  It just doesn’t hold up.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/PODTFFPVEUXYHXVGNS5G5FWKGI DIRK

    Okay guys, if you pull at a thread of course its all gonna unravel; yeah there were some incongruities, but you have to agree that in 1968 that End Reveal was the biggest shocker!!!

  • Daisy

    That Rod Serling touch at the end is still the most memorable scene in the whole film.

    • Aldanoli

      It is a great and memorable movie, though it’s hard to say how much credit Serling deserves for the ending . . . I recall that in a video biography of Serling, one of the people being interviewed claimed that the final version was extensively re-written by the once-blacklisted Michael Wilson (who is credited for the screenplay along with Serling), and the interviewee characterized Serling’s original version as “My Dinner with Andre the Chimp” — i.e., a lot of dialogue and not so much action.  Still, though Serling never hit the home runs in his big-screen career that he had accomplished in his television writing, the ending of “Planet of the Apes” is both powerful and unforgettable — very much in keeping with at least the spirit of the best of Serling’s “Twilight Zone” scripts.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/7P37EWZFBEPQFBKBNXVFNRKZYE yahoo-7P37EWZFBEPQFBKBNXVFNRKZYE

    To those complaining about the apes living in primitive conditions and not having developed a more modern society, yet still have the ability to make automatic weapons, that is explained toward the end. Dr.Zaius and the few other apes that know the truth about mankind make sure the ape culture never advances far enough to be able to destroy itself as the humans did. I don’t recall his exact words, but he tells Taylor this when they’re in the cave.

  • smoky

    My favorite scene in the film was when Taylor was captured during his attempted escape, and suddenly blurts out, “Get your paws off me, you damn dirty ape!”  Before the movie ended, I sensed that Taylor would run into something of humankind that would reveal to him what really had happened.  I had read enough apocolyptic sci fi stories and novels, especially “A Canticle for Liebowitz”, which told stories of what emerged following the destruction of human civilization.  We make actually get there yet!

    • Aldanoli

      Well, as Heston later pointed out in his N.R.A. years — if guns are outlawed, only the damn dirty apes will have guns . . . .

  • LindsayL

    I mostly liked it, except they never explain how the Statue of Liberty got onto the planet of the apes.

    • Wayne P.

      the book was much changed for the movie…they never left earth in the film, so lady liberty was always there too…just a tad bit worse for the wear from the past-is-future destruction, however primitively depicted by ape (or maybe human;) regeneration!

    • Richwoot

       The story takes place on earth in the future. That’s why the Statue of Liberty is there.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/SR4MVSKQ3RADHCZ5CZRD672CMQ rigs-in-gear

    This is also the first mainstream movie we saw with nudity.  After PoA, the floodgates were open and every flick you saw had someone running around starkers.  Thanks, Chuck!

  • Juanita123516

    Very enjoyable review of Planet of the Apes. When I was younger I really admired Charlton Heston and saw all his films.I think this film has stood the test of time because it didn’t just rely on special effects – its entertaining as well as thought provoking and has an excellent support cast in Kim Hunter and Roddy McDowall. 

  • NatHil

    As someone whose early childhood  was in the late Sixties-early seventies I found this movie to be dismal and disheartening. If it weren’t for Star Wars, no Sci-Fi movie following it would be bearable
    to watch. The makers of this wretched movie can take their social/political commentary and shove it
    up their a**holes!

    • Demisotc

      don’t like the vinegar?

    • Robrt Seth Vorisek

      Of course it’s “dismal and disheartening”. We’re talking about social commentary! Remember the decade in which it was made. Riots. War, Murders galore. I am always unhappy when a movie is tied up in a nice , pretty pink bow and it all works out in the end. The dare is to have an unfinished ending, or an apocalyptic end where there is no hope and /or no one survives. THAT’S a hard and SHOCKING ending that very few movies of any stripe have ever tried, or ever accomplished successfully. It’s not a downer when this happens – in very competent hands – but it leaves you with something to think about. AND thinking that everything won’t all turn out rosy in the end is a good thing, because we all know it doesn’t…always.

  • ClaudeBedell

    To me, this is one of the best science fiction movies ever. I bought the video tape set, when it was released, for $300. Later, I bought the DVD set. It is much better watched on successive nights instead of a year apart as it was done originally.
     

  • GeraldRR

    Why show the end picture scene without issuing a “Spoiler Alert” in the title of the article, lots of kids haven’t seen all the great science fiction movies yet… 

  • Rebel Ed

    “Planet of the Apes” and “2001: A Space Odyssey” were released at the same time, and they both nearly have the same message. Unlike “Star Wars (parts one through infinity),” this is a true piece of Science Fiction, and after later seeing Charlton Heston in “Soylent Green,” I’m suprised that Taylor didn’t shout “The apes are made out of PEEEEEEOPLE!!!” I also argee with John George, there’s a very good reason that the original “Planet of the Apes” told the entire story; it’s so THEY wouldn’t have to re-tell it three more times, plus two TV series and “Planet of the Two Re-makes.”

  • Cinemaniac

    Unfortunately, the ending of the film—though immensely powerful–was not an original idea by Rod Serling. He had “borrowed” the image from a story he read in an issue of Astounding Fiction (November, 1941) in which two figures, in loin clothes, come across the ruins of the Statue of Liberty. For more information, look for The Science in Science Fiction by Peter Nicholls.

  • greg browne

    a great review , dan . what a film it is . no-one told me the ending ,when i first saw it back in 1969 . so i was absolutely shocked when the ” statue of liberty ” came up on the big screen . i seem to remember zaius saying when asked ” what will he find out there ?” hes destiny cheers …. greg browne :)

  • Wild Bill

    Two items regarding the original “Planet”…They must have done a great job in convincing me and everyone else that the sci fi scenario actually took place somewhere other than earth because when the last scene was shown, I was completely surprised by the ending never even considering that it was Earth all along. The second item was Nova as she was the sexiest, most shapely, gorgeous female creature I had seen in a very, very long time…and she never gave any backtalk.

  • fbusch

    POA did what it needed to do. As to primitive living, we’re looking at another species ways through human eyes. Unfortunatly, the accountants thought to compete with Rocky 23. My personal opinion about sequels is that Starwars 4,5,and 6 told all the story needed. Even the great special effects of 1,2,3 didn’t make them relevent. Heston has always been a great presence. whatever he’s doing.