At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Planet of the Apes “68”

MPAA Rating: G/ Genre: Sci-Fi/ Stars: Charlton Heston, Roddy McDowall, Kim Hunter, Maurice Evans, James Whitmore, James Daly, Linda Harrison, Robert Gunner, Jeff Burton/ Runtime: 112 minutes

In hindsight, it really does seem that the far-gone year of 1968 really was something of a milestone year for cinematic science fiction. The reason I say this is because it was in 1968 that we as audiences got treated to both Stanley Kubrick’s ode to space and the infinite that is 2001: A Space Odyssey and the original Planet of the Apes for the very first time. Indeed it goes without saying, but both of these films were absolute game changers in that these were, at the time, unusually big budget sci-fi fare that was actually made and developed by the major studios of MGM and 20th Century Fox respectively. You must understand dear reader that the reason this was so unusual is because up until around that time, the sci-fi genre had been very much, with few exceptions like 20,000 Leagues under the Sea at Disney 14 years prior, mostly been the bread and butter for B movie material and/or filmmakers. After the massive success of Fantastic Voyage in ’66 as well as 2001 and Planet of the Apes however, they created a seemingly awareness from the studios where they realized that not only could this genre flourish when given bigger budgets and taken more seriously, but that these movies could also be well-received by audiences and critics if made right. Of course the 2 films are quite different; this is because while both dealt with some serious themes, 2001 is by far the more intellectual and is pure hard sci-fi – Planet of the Apes, on the other hand, lay somewhere between 2001 and traditional action-adventure fare, but still with a sci-fi bent attached. Despite that however, Planet of the Apes is still, thanks to an ingenious premise, a wonderful cast, out-of-this-world make-up and effects, and one of the most shocking endings in all of cinematic history, a fantastic and worthy addition to the sci-fi label.

The plot is as follows: 3 astronauts are attempting to return back to Earth following an expedition in outer space, but instead find themselves crash landing on a strange world. Upon investigation of this new world, the 3 men quickly and horrifically discover that on this world not only are apes the dominant species and capable of intelligence and speech, but that human beings are mute and the more primitive species. However when the men are separated, it’ll be up to the group commander, who has been taken prisoner, to find a way back home, but a worse truth still lies ahead….

Now in terms of casting it goes without saying, but Charlton Heston is absolutely outstanding as the disillusioned humanity-hating Taylor who nevertheless finds himself put in the ironic position of having to be the sole representative of humanity to the apes. Indeed although I happen to love his performance very dearly in such films as Soylent Green, Ben-Hur, and The Ten Commandments, I still believe Taylor is one of the best performances he ever gave and one of the ones that was most-in synch with his acting abilities. Also worthy of note is the wonderful performances from Maurice Evans as the shrill-human-hating-at-all costs Dr. Zaius, and Roddy McDowall and Kim Hunter as chimpanzees Cornelius and Zira who ultimately wind up becoming Taylor’s biggest advocates within the ape community even it could wind up costing them everything.

The most notable aspect of Planet of the Apes however is the makeup effects by John Chambers, who deservedly so won an honorary Oscar for his pioneering work on this film. You must understand: before this movie, sci-fi make-up effects were cheesy at best and absolutely schlocky and groan-inducing at worst. Thankfully Chambers’ make-up effects within this film are neither; plain and simply these are some of the most innovative, and incredibly realistic make-up effects for the time period I have ever seen in a motion picture from this time period. I mean not only do they look convincing, but more importantly they even manage to do the incredible feat of making the apes and their behaviors/mannerisms seem more humanistic than the only “human” character in the movie.

Yet all of this still manages to pale in comparison to the film’s riveting and absolutely gut-wrenching twist of a conclusion which has been so parodied and talked in great detail about by now that everyone should either know it or know of it. Despite that however, I still do not think I will spoil it here just to preserve it in the off-chance that someone is still in the dark about just what exactly this ending entails. That being said, it is definitely one of the more shocking endings not just because of what happens, but because it really leaves you a lot to think about in regards to how the ape characters have viewed the main human star of the film throughout and if maybe, just maybe they weren’t so wrong in how they viewed him after all.

All in all Planet of the Apes has led to a franchise, a 2001 remake from Tim Burton that 85-90% of the finished project is truly NOT worth remembering, and a reboot saga started in 2011 starring Andy Serkis and boasting some truly stunning special effects that has gone on to become highly acclaimed science fiction storytelling in its own right. Yet at the end of the day it will always be the original from 1968 that will be remembered first and foremost. Not only for being an incredibly well-made movie, another terrific starring vehicle for its legendary leading man Charlton Heston, or for that heck of an ending. No Planet of the Apes will also be remembered as a defining part of a time in cinema that showed that certain genres could now be made respectably and intelligently, and in the process helped usher in a whole new age for science-fiction to begin making a legitimate footprint in the world of cinema. On a scale of 1-5 I give Planet of the Apes “68” a solid 5 out of 5.