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.