Running time: 1h 52min
Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner
Written by Michael Wilson (screenplay by), Rod Serling (screenplay by)
Starring Charlton Heston, Roddy McDowall, Kim Hunter
Planet of the Apes is one of the most iconic and successful sci-fi films ever made. It started a franchise that is still going strong, currently as a rebooted movie series, starring Andy Serkis (Gollum from Lord of the Rings). But let us not talk about the sequels and reboots at length here – I have never been that into the franchise itself, and this review is about the original ape film. For having been made in 1968, Planet of the Apes is still remarkably effective at what it attempts to do. Granted, I do have some nostalgia for it – while I (somewhat obviously) did not see it in the theatre in the 60s, I did first see the film as a child, loved it, and have seen it multiple times now. Rewatching it now as an adult, the experience is not quite as superlative as on that first viewing as a wee lad, of course. But it is still a great, entertaining movie after all these years.
I will not relay much of the story here, as that is not that important, and most people reading this might already know it, but I will give a very brief overview of it: things go badly for a group of astronauts who get stranded on an unknown planet inhabited by intelligent apes and mute, wild humans. George Taylor, played by Charlton Heston, gets captured by the apes, and must find a way to survive and possibly escape while learning what he can of the planet and his captors. The story is quite good and engaging, but what truly makes the movie special and a classic, in my opinion, is the ending, which I am pretty sure is widely known even among those who have not seen the film. I will note that a great ending is also what makes Brazil (1985), which I reviewed earlier, stand out, but PotA is much more consistent throughout, and lighter viewing.
Planet of the Apes has aged well. Obviously, it is an old film, and it shows, but, for me at least, the whole thing still works. Compared to a modern sci-fi/adventure film, PotA is slow and almost philosophical at times. The effects and the music, for example, are in stark contrast to today’s Hollywood. While there are things you could nitpick about the story or the premise, the faults are not nearly as offensive as in something that is supposedly “hard” sci-fi, such as Ridley Scott’s Prometheus (2012). PotA is primarily aimed at young boys, having an adventurous feel to it and not much violence or profanity. There are frequent bleak moments, though, so it is not altogether light-hearted by any means. The point is, that because it is aimed at younger audiences and is not truly hard sci-fi, it cannot be held to the same standards as something like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). But even so, I think PotA succeeds in pulling you in to the world it creates without much of a loss of suspension of disbelief, which is often an issue when viewing stuff like this as an adult.
Not everything is explained, but that is not necessary for the film and the story to work, and it is most certainly better than giving some half-ass, barely plausible mumbo-jumbo reasoning for it, as in something like Stargate (1994). On that note, every aspect of PotA is done much better than Stargate and feels like quality filmmaking. While the story, dialogue, and acting feels a tad theatrical at times (which is not negative in itself), the world of PotA feels real enough. Now, having said all this, it should be noted again that I am not a neutral judge, having a prior liking and nostalgia for the film. I suppose, if you wanted to test if Planet of the Apes still “works” as intended, you should show it to kids (of ages of around 10 to 15) and gauge their reactions. This is not something I will spend my time on, but perhaps someone might be inclined to put this to the test.
I think the effects look fine even today, especially the ape costumes; they are clearly real, and that alone gives them an edge over CGI, which is easily recognizable, and ages so rapidly compared to practically ageless practical effects. This, by the way, is a major reason why older special-effect heavy films, such as John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) or John McTiernan’s Predator (1987) have aged so gracefully, and it is a shame that the movie industry usually takes the easy route with CGI these days. It is a very rare case when CGI looks good 10, 20 years later, let alone 50+ years. There are, of course, things you cannot do with just practical effects alone, but leaving something to the imagination and showing what looks good on screen, while actually showing very little, can be a strength instead of a weakness, as in Jaws (1975) or Alien (1979), where the “monster” is only glimpsed briefly. But let us not get too side-tracked here. Back to PotA, there are a couple of parts which annoy me: Taylor’s gunshot wound to the neck looks fake as hell, and Landon could not quite hold still for his scene as a mannequin. These are very small issues in the grand scale of things, however, exacerbated by high-resolution, large screen sizes, and the ability to pause of current year. The most obvious thing that one might find stupid or ridiculous about Planet of the Apes – communication being not only possible but easy between Taylor and the apes – is given a somewhat reasonable explanation at the end. Though it is a tad ludicrous that he never questions the state of things – but then, perhaps he was too busy surviving to worry about such trifling matters. And maybe the audience is too captivated to wonder about it and thus letting it become a problem. There are surely other things one could nitpick about the movie, but they are not big issues, or at least I think so.
The acting is good, overall. Charlton Heston is a bit over the top, but it fits the film perfectly. Maurice Evans is fantastic as Dr. Zaius, Minister of Science and chief Defender of the Faith, and Roddy McDowall and Kim Hunter are good as the scientist chimpanzee couple. Linda Harrison’s character as Nova is a bit dated (not that I fully subscribe to modern ideas about political correctness), but that is not the fault of the actress, and not really a fault in the film either. It is just something that probably would not happen these days, which is another way in which PotA differs from modern Hollywood. The cinematography and music/sound design are good, and while the film is slow, like I stated earlier, it is not a problem as I was engaged with the material throughout. The locations are not as fantastic or imaginative as one might hope or be expecting, having seen more modern sci-fi, but that is not necessarily a clear weakness of the film. The smaller scale of the story makes it, perhaps, more relatable, at least when compared to some overblown CGI-fests, such as the dreadful sequels to the excellent Pitch Black (2000) – which is also, by the way, going to gradually lose some of its effectiveness as it ages due to the heavy use of CGI.
This review has been a bit all over the place so let us sum it up before it gets more bloated. Planet of the Apes is a classic for a reason. If you have not seen it and are interested in adventurous science fiction with a little dash of philosophy and thought to it, give it a chance: it still holds up. It is not like the modern ape films, so do not go into it expecting that. I do not know if it still works for kids, however – they might find it too slow and too boring, or too weird compared to their usual Marvel or DC fare. Or perhaps, I would hope, it can win them over and I am not just an out of touch old man. While PotA suffers from what I have inflicted upon myself – watching it too many times and thus knowing it by heart – I will still likely revisit it in the future.
Rating: 8.0 / 10
Times I had seen this film prior to this viewing: 5ish
Would I want to rewatch this film? After a while, yes
Bonus: The Simpsons has parodied PotA a number of times, check out the hilarious musical version (after you have seen the film) Planet of the Apes musical on Youtube