Often films try to mimic what is a part of all great films, and that is the idea of the messages within, be they moral or immoral. “Planet of the Apes” is an example of a film that strives for greatness but falls just short despite the occasional scrape with said greatness that never amounts to anything beyond that. I will say that just because a film isn’t great that does not mean that it is not worth watching, or even that it’s not of genuine quality. “Planet of the Apes” is a good science fiction film that will just leave you wishing it had done a little bit more than it did, because there are the makings of a real classic here.
George Taylor (Charlton Heston) and his crew of four crash-land in the waters of a planet in the very distant future. One of his female crew members has died in cryo-sleep, something she would have later found she should be thankful for. After exploring the desert landscape the remaining three astronauts find little life in the barren wasteland. Until eventually they stumble onto a mute human tribe who are foraging for food, before getting interrupted by apes riding horses that either capture or kill all of the humans. Taylor gets shot in the throat and becomes a mute until his wounds can heal. This leads to him helplessly discovering that humans on this planet are being treated exactly as apes were on his; in cramped barred cages, experimentation and cruelty away from the public eye. Zira (Kim Hunter) and Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) are two apes that have the beginnings of the theory of evolution. They believe there was a civilisation before the apes that was potentially more advanced than they are now, and they believe that Taylor is a genuinely intelligent man who hails from this civilisation. The tyrannical Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans) promises Zira, Cornelius and Taylor that if they can find proof of this civilisation, then they will not be tried for heresy for going against the ancient texts of the ape religion (an off shoot of Christianity).
The costumes of the apes are really spectacular and are able to portray expressions on faces perfectly. There is a little problem with how the mouth and lips move and when apes occasionally share a kiss it looks a little like when you bash your curious George dolls together. The face beyond that though, especially the eyes, is all there and not hidden by a silly gorilla costume with an animatronic mouth. What this allows is for the acting prowess of those playing the apes and the intensity with which they can bring to the role to not be wasted. Charlton Heston also brings intensity to his character, who is a representation of the flawed society that he left back on earth. He disliked people, he had sex to “Make love but never for love” and looked down on others. When Charlton is trying to get his words out so that the apes can see that he does have intelligence and isn’t just another savage, it is really quite compelling. It really is as if you want him to represent you properly and show what he can do, it’s funny how a movie can genuinely make you feel as though violations have been perpetrated against your race while watching it. The role reversal of the apes and the humans is of course the biggest factor about the film and it’s very interesting to watch. When it’s apes abusing us it brings a whole new cynicism to the cruelty, perhaps it would be glossed over if people were cruel to apes on screen. Or perhaps even if it was the focus of the film, you might have your way of justifying the cruelty. You feel trapped or at least you don’t like one bit that Taylor feels trapped and are endlessly rooting for this flawed man to escape his captors.
The apes aren’t as advanced as we are now though or even as advanced as when the film was released back in 1968. It’s a primitive society of primates that have only just stumbled onto the theory of evolution and, like when Charles Darwin was doing the same, those that believe in the theory are seen as heretical. Just like people were back in the day, the apes won’t take plain and clear evidence. They believe too strongly in their God and don’t like the idea of either change or being wrong… or maybe both. The swapping causes you to look at human society’s history and even it’s modern day constructs that the movie makes look incredibly archaic and painfully resonant. I can’t say that I’m fully impressed with the role reversal. Whilst it is a relatively intelligent and definitely intriguing exercise, it misses the point of evolution. The apes shouldn’t be so close to us in terms of culture, they should have far more significant differences than just replacing the words “human” with “simian” or “ape”. Though I will admit I did chuckle when an ape looks at Taylor and remarks “You know what they say, human see human do.” The lack of innovation put into actually providing the apes with a culture that has evolved differently to ours but with still pervading similarities, makes the allegory overtly obvious and less remarkable.
Still, it does provide an unkempt and despairing look at human nature, we get to see where the society we are currently pursuing ends up and its brilliant to contemplate. Most of the thinking you will do about “Planet of the Apes” comes from things you already know, the film just provides the incentive to start thinking about them.