(1968, SciFi/Postapocalyptic/Political, color)
When animals attack! With rifles!
In a Nutshell:
Charleton Heston is imprisoned by intelligent apes.
Astronaut George Taylor (Charleton Heston) narrates a lot of portentous nonsense to the stars and then joins his crew in suspended animation for the rest of his year-long journey home. He and two of his three crew members wake up with beards, having crash-landed in a lake on an unknown planet. The survivors stumble around groggily, making it outside to a life raft with supplies before their ship slips to the bottom.
They swap more pretentious, long-winded speeches while they cross a nearly interminable desert, during which we learn that the time dilation/relativity shenanigans inherent in traveling at the speed of light have caused more than two thousand years to pass on Earth since their departure. Finally they arrive at a lush waterfall to strip and bathe. Upon returning to shore, they find that their supplies and clothing have been stolen. They don the scraps of fabric the thieves left behind and follow the trail, eventually finding a group of mute, primitive humans stealing produce from a cultivated field.
Gorillas on horseback arrive to break up the mass crop theft with nets and rifles. One astronaut dies, another is captured, and finally Taylor himself is brought down with a nasty throat wound. This prevents him from speaking to his captors, chimpanzee scientists Zira and Cornelius (Roddy McDowell), but he eventually proves his intelligence with his ability to read and write. An orangutan scientist/priest named Dr. Zaius finds out as well. He attempts to have Taylor castrated and lobotomized, but Taylor overhears the guards’ plans for him and makes a run for it. He’s eventually captured, but not before his throat has finally healed enough for him speak to the soldiers in public as they arrest him.
Taylor, Cornelius and Zira are summoned before a high council of orangutans for a hearing. Despite a mountain of evidence to the contrary, they accuse Zira and Cornelius of creating Taylor by surgically granting him the gift of speech. (During the proceedings, Zaius produces Taylor’s only surviving astronaut cohort, lobotomized of course). Afterwards, Zaius summons Taylor to his office. Taylor is still up for castration and lobotomy, but Zaius will spare him if he reveals the secret location of his intelligent human tribe. Taylor repeats his story about arriving from another planet, which Zaius dismisses as absurd.
Later, a young chimp named Julius rescues him from his cell. Taylor rescues a primitive human female named Nova on his way out. They meet up with Zira and Cornelius and travel into the Forbidden Zone (the desert from the beginning) to search for evidence to clear their names. Basically, they need proof that humans were intelligent in this plant’s distant past. Zaius and a small army of gorilla thugs catch up with them just as they reach an archaeological dig near the ocean. Taylor holds Zaius at gunpoint and demands that he consider Cornelius’s evidence. They discover ancient human remains next to bits of eyeglasses, artificial heart valves, and a human doll that squeaks “mama”.
Zaius eventually admits that intelligent humans predate intelligent apes. He also admits that he knew this all along, and has been following the instructions in secret scripture to keep this evidence hidden. (His reasoning is vague and flowery; something about humans being too violent to be trusted). Taylor takes food, water and a weapon and rides off along the beach with Nova. Zaius lets him go, but orders the cave with the evidence in it to be dynamited shut.
A short ways along the beach, Taylor discovers the shocking twist ending. (A twist you already knew about if you’ve seen any science fiction movie parody ever, or if you looked at the picture on your DVD cover). The ruined Statue of Liberty proves that he’s been on the Earth of the distant future all along.
Planet of the Apes has a Very Important Message to impart, but I defy the viewer to figure it out. Not that it’s ambiguous; the moralizing in this film is about as subtle as a skillet to the head. The problem is that it’s approximately as helpful. Humanity is overly violent by nature, it says, so... Information suppression and a degree of strictly enforced primitivism are necessary for the good of the state? Or is that meant to be a bad thing too? They keep saying it’s a good thing, but the supposedly utopian society it protects has a rigid caste system with an administration that combines the bureaucracy of communist China with the zealotry of the Spanish Inquisition and the racism of South African apartheid. So yeah, the movie’s overall intent is a bit hard to read.
That said, there are two things that make this movie great:
1) The Rod Serling script. The lines might clank from time to time, but Serling’s television experience is very much in evidence, with the same fusion of horror, science fiction, philosophy and film noir that made The Twilight Zone a classic.
2) Mr. Heston’s, er... Well, for lack of a better term, I’ll call it a “performance”. Was there a bigger ham ever in the history of science fiction films? Not even Shatner comes close.
It works though. Mr. Serling’s lines are sometimes pithy and always memorable, but they don’t sound anything like something a reasonable, normal person might say. Fortunately for him, Heston doesn’t sound anything like a reasonable, normal person. Put these two together and you’ve got a happy, cosmic accident that turns what should have been self-righteous dreck into some of the most delicious camp Hollywood has ever produced. Usually entertaining, always fascinating and certainly memorable, Planet of the Apes is well-known even to people who haven’t seen it. Go ahead. Intone, “A planet where apes evolved from men?” at someone you know. You’re likely to get, “It’s a mmmaaaadhhhoooouuuusse!” or “Damn you all to hell!” or even (if the respondent is confused) “Soylent Green is made of people!” in reply.
Matthew Elliott takes on a highly quotable film with a commentary filled with highly quotable lines. A few examples: Shortly after their arrival, “There’s a very persuasive theory that NASA faked the landing on the Planet of the Apes.” When gorilla hunters net Nova, “If her name was Annette, I’d have something to work with here.” After at least a dozen condescending speeches from Taylor, “I’m starting to suspect he was bitten by a radioactive asshole as a teenager.” As is always the case with Mr. Elliott’s riffs, Mystery Science Theater 3000 references abound. He’s even got some prior Rifftrax references mixed in there. When the endless “marching across the desert” scene gets him really bored he starts riffing Casino Royale out of the blue, just to pass the time. As a whole riff/movie experience, I didn’t like it quite as much as his last commentary (for Die Hard), but it’s very close in quality and still well worth seeing.
(1968, SciFi/Postapocalyptic/Political, color)