The Paragon of Animals
'Somewhere in the universe, there has to be something better than man.'
Two science fiction movies came out in 1968 that both, in their own way, had a huge effect on the genre. The received wisdom appears to be that Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey gave the genre brains and artistic integrity, and that Franklin J Schaffner's Planet of the Apes gave it box-office clout and mainstream appeal - with the obvious addendum that 2001 is by far the superior and more significant picture.
Well, I'm not so sure about that, and so I would like to take this opportunity to say a few words in praise of Planet of the Apes, a film whose image has inevitably suffered from association with the far from dazzling later sequels and remake it ultimately spawned. Based on a novel by Pierre Boulle, this was in some ways a highly significant movie, simply because it was the first big-budget SF production for over a decade, and arguably the first ever to feature a major star in the lead role.
The star of Planet of the Apes is, of course, Charlton Heston, at very near the apogee of his fame and abilities. He plays Taylor, the cynical and pessimistic commander of a deep space mission. After a long period of travel at near-lightspeed velocities, Taylor and his companions crash-land on an apparently barren world. They are cut off from home by millions of miles and two thousand years (a side-effect of travel at such enormous velocities), and start searching for food and water.
They find them, along with primitive, feral humans. But there is another civilisation here as well. The humans are raiding the crops of this world's masters, several species of intelligent apes, and they respond by ruthlessly hunting down and killing these pests (as this is only two thousand years in the future, the government's ban on hunting has still not quite come into effect). Taylor finds himself captured, and about to be treated like an experimental specimen by the ape scientists...
Taylor eventually manages to convince two of his captors, veterinarian chimpanzee Zira (Kim Hunter) and her fiance, archaeologist Cornelius (Roddy McDowell), that he is an intelligent being - but this only serves to worsen his predicament. The Minister for Science, Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans) seems to have a pathological terror and hatred of even the idea of an intelligent human, and an equal determination to destroy Taylor and the threat he represents. It seems the ape civilisation has a dark secret at its heart...
The most impressive thing about Planet of the Apes is not its production values and make-up effects, striking though they both are, but the way in which it succeeds in operating on many different levels. First and foremost, you can watch it as an adventure-thriller, with Heston put into personal jeopardy on a regular basis and a number of big set piece action sequences along the way. The story's various revelations are skilfully handled, as are the grisly revelations of the diverse but uniformly horrible fates met by the other members of Taylor's crew. The eerie score by Jerry Goldsmith is another significant asset.
But beyond this, and setting the movie apart from nearly all modern SF movies, is the way in which it quite casually touches upon a large number of different ideas and issues. To be sure, it doesn't explore most of them in any great depth, but at least they're there for the perceptive viewer to pick up on. And most of them are topics which mainstream non-SF movies would probably shy away from - most obviously is the film's commentary on animal rights, achieved through a simple reversal of the status quo. But equally central to the story is a startlingly incisive critique of religious fundamentalism: the ape ruling caste sneer at the theory of evolution which some of the younger chimps are proposing. By implication, the villains of the film are creationists: something you almost certainly won't find in many mainstream films these days. Admittedly some of the satire in the film is clumsy and obvious, but this is limited to minor elements of the script.
Even so, what gives Planet of the Apes its' memorably grim quality is the fact that, at its heart, this is a very simple story about one man's journey. It's somehow blackly comic that Taylor begins the film by turning his back on human civilisation, convinced that there must be something superior out there - but as the film goes on he finds himself an advocate for his own species, determined to prove man can be more than just the destructive animal Zaius insists is the case. This is what gives the movie's famous ending its power: Taylor, having rediscovered his belief in the worth of his own kind, suddenly has it snatched away from him again, and is left a howling wreck in the surf.
Heston's performance is equal to the task, both physically (one suspects he found the shoot every bit as demanding as his more heavily made-up co-stars) and emotionally - he even manages to make some of scriptwriter Rod Serling's more peculiar dialogue sound quite natural. But the rest of the principle cast are equally impressive, even if Hunter and McDowell wouldn't really get a chance to shine until a couple of sequels later.
And I do think that in its own way this is every bit as impressive a movie as 2001. Admittedly, it is frequently clumsy and unsubtle, some of the humour is laboured, and in places it's rather implausible. But it's involving in a way the Kubrick movie rarely is and, while not wholly immune to portentousness, neither is it overwhelmed by its own profundity. The first three sequels are really rather good, too. I think this is a genuine classic of the cinema, and a landmark movie of the SF genre.
Well, everyone, after three years, 135 columns, 180 reviews, and 27 various pieces of self-important waffle, I've decided to make this the last edition of 24 Lies A Second for the foreseeable future. However, I hope to still make regular appearances in the Post doing one thing or another, so it's not all good/bad news (delete according to personal taste).
So, if you'll forgive me a small indulgence, I would just like to make like Gwyneth and thank a few people. Utmost thanks to Shazz and Greebo for letting me write in their newspaper for so long and for their occasional moral support when seeing too many British Film Council-funded comedies just got too much for me. Thanks to Swiv and Spook for the guest reviews they were kind enough to contribute along the way. Thanks to DrMO for the lovely 24LAS logo, which - who knows? - I may yet find a use for at some point in the future. And, of course, thanks to everyone who's bothered to read my silly film reviews, and especially those who took the time to agree or argue with me. I hope you've enjoyed reading the column as much I've enjoyed writing it. Adieu, adieu, to you and you and you...