Planet of the Apes (1968)

Title: Planet of the Apes (1968)
Director: Franklin J. Schaffner
Writer/s: Michael Wilson and Rod Serling

For years my brother has been trying to get me to watch Planet of the Apes (1968) , even going so far as to gift me with a portable hard drive in purple (my favourite colour) and fill it with all my favourite movies and TV series, anything else of interest that he thought I may like, and… Planet of the Apes…every single one of the sequels and remakes included.  I was of course touched and am still making my way through the content of that drive, however, the ‘films about monkeys’ had never been on my radar. His insistence that I watch the movies made me realize that I would eventually have to do it. We have been recommending films to each other for years, and none of these recommendations had ever proven to disappoint as far as I am aware. So giving my brother the benefit of the doubt seemed to be the right thing to do. It would still be a couple of years before I would be watching the films. It took an episode of the AMC TV series Mad Men actually before I was totally convinced. I think in season 6 Don Draper (Jon Hamm) takes his son to see a movie at the cinema in the middle of the afternoon, and it just happens to be Planet of the Apes. His son is so taken by the film that by the ending he immediately wants to watch it all over again. I now understand why…

This film is a masterpiece. In terms of set design, make up and overall concept this took science fiction to another level. All of a sudden we have something completely different to conceptualize in our minds. Science Fiction had generally up until that point focused on Man Versus Science and/or the idea of either Artificial Intelligence or so-called ‘alien lifeforms’. The concept of this film and the rest of the series are unique in that the human race has a very different position in (a) society. The original film, which I will be discussing here, was based  on the novel by Pierre Boulle whose French version as translated from La Planete des singes (1963) into Planet of the Apes or Monkey Planet. Rather than considering his novel to be under the genre of science fiction, Boulle referred to his work as ‘social fantasy’. It is with this in mind that we consider the social commentary within the film in terms of racism, animal rights, political discourse, environmental issues and ethics.

To start with, the basic synopsis is such:  American astronauts make a crash landing on an unknown planet. As is common knowledge in the land of space travel the humans have not aged much whilst in space, however 2000 years have gone by everywhere else. Upon landing they struggle to survive a few days before only Taylor (Charlton Heston) is left behind and is captured by some creepy looking apes on horseback. All of a sudden Taylor finds himself locked in a cage, being fed through the bars, poked with sticks and hosed down with a very powerful jet spray of water. He is surrounded by cages each holding a human being. Apes walk in, dressed in clothes and speaking perfect English. They are scientists studying man and whether man can be taught to obey and therefore be domesticated. Taylor is the only human being who is able to communicate with the apes. Whilst incarcerated he is ‘given’ a human female in which he is expected to mate with. It seems the tables have turned for human kind and throughout Taylor’s time with the apes I find it very difficult to feel any sympathy whatsoever for his plight. It is also worthy of note that Taylor is not a particularly likeable character. He is arrogant from the beginning and if Charlton Heston is our only example of what is left of the past and what humankind stood for then the film’s premise is correct. With humankind we are doomed to obliteration.

In fact the apes have a sacred scroll that reads a very disturbing prophecy involving the human race: In one of the final scenes before Taylor (and his concubine) escape aided by some of the more sympathetic and kindly scientists, he is given the very disturbing prophecy that the apes have come to believe:

“Beware the beast man for he is the Devil’s pawn. Alone among God’s primates he kills for sport, or lust, or greed. Yea he will murder his brother to possess his brother’s land. Let him not breed in great numbers for he will make a desert of his home and yours. Shun him for he is the harbinger of death.”

Upon reading this to Taylor the apes show him where they had begun excavating parts of a past settlement. A settlement that happened to have been inhabited by human beings and this confuses both Taylor and the Apes when a child’s toy, a talking doll, is discovered. How could humans possibly have invented something that spoke when they themselves did not? Needless to say it took Taylor quite a while to convince them that his ability to speak was not merely a trick he had learned through more advanced domestication. His reason for coming to this planet is revealed in the final scene where he discovers the decaying remnants of The Statue of Liberty sunken into the sand. This shocking knowledge that his crew had landed on Earth all along is all the more frightening when Taylor acknowledges that the human race did exactly what the ape’s prophecy proclaimed. The human race destroyed themselves leaving behind a desert landscape under the rule of creatures that they had previously treated as less than.

The ideas expressed in this film are scary. They are scary because collectively human beings have arrogantly assumed they are the superior race. They are scary because they highlight what we are capable of doing and that our overall sense of entitlement and ignorance will probably get us there.

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