Sunday, August 14, 2016

Before I Die #576: Planet of the Apes (1968)

This is the 576th movie I've watched from the "Before You Die" list that I'm gradually working my way through.

Director: Franklin J. Schaffner

A "classic" that lived down to my modest expectations.

The original Planet of the Apes is a great example of why most "good" science fiction movies just don't hold up well over time. There are some solid ideas for speculative fiction and even the well-known plot twist at the end, but an awful lot of this movie is simply hard to watch now.

The basic plot is probably familiar to even the young and most casual fans of sci-fi movies. A spacecraft begins its final return approach to Earth, having lifted off in the early 1970s. Following rules of astrophysical spacetime, the crew will be returning many centuries after they departed. To be exact, they expect to be landing on their home planet in the 27th century. The four cosmonauts employ the autopilot and all enter hibernation chambers, where they will rest for the final years of their return journey.

When they awake, however, they find themselves crashed on an unknown planet. Not only that, but far more time has elapsed than they had planned. Instead of waking up 800 Earth years later, they find that nearly two-thousand years have passed. To make matters worse, one of their crew has died due to her hibernation chamber malfunctioning. When the remaining three members disembark and begin to explore the planet, they are soon met by a band of wild, inarticulate humans who are hunted down and either captured or killed by intelligent, sophisticated humanoids resembling highly evolved chimpanzees, orangutans, and other primates. The captain, George Taylor (Charlton Heston), is taken captive and put in a zoo to be studied. Taylor desperately tries to convince his ape captors that he is an intelligent creature, as opposed to the simple beast which they see him as. After a few attempts, he manages to escape and help some of the apes to understand that humans are more than mindless animals, thanks to some archaeological evidence. After being granted his freedom, Taylor soon comes across a horrifying discovery - the battered remnants of the fallen Statue of Liberty. This reveals to Taylor that, rather than having been on some distant planet this entire time, he has been on his home planet of Earth.

The basic ideas and general framework of Planet of the Apes are solid science fiction. So much so that I would be interested in reading the original novel. The movie even uses some then-novel theories about spacetime to allow accelerated time rates to play a major role in the plot. The mystery behind the ascension of the apes at the expense of humans also carries a certain curious suspense to it. And the use of the ape/human dynamic to explore racism, social injustice, and dogmatic belief systems is commendable as a creative tool.

Taylor (right, obviously), with two of the apes sympathetic
and understanding that he is an intelligent creature. Roddy
McDowall, on the far left, ironically and unsurprisingly
outperforms the bombastic Chuck Heston.
However, like many science-fiction movies and TV shows, the creators did not mind enough of the details or avoid the trappings of speculative aesthetic. The costumes simply reek of late-1960s and early 1970s fashion sensibilities. And the sets, probably through budget constraints, are on par with the cheap environments seen on the original Star Trek TV series. But these are merely shallow visuals. For me the deeper issues lie in what makes a good film, regardless of genre. Planet of the Apes simply does not address enough of the specific details in the plot, or it addresses them in laughably cursory fashion. Taylor is literally shot in the neck for the convenience of robbing him of speech but without killing him. This is supposed to be the reason that he can't prove himself a cogent, intelligent being rather than a savage animal. Yet days and days go by in the plot before he thinks to try writing as a method of communication. Related to that is the entire use of the English language. Even if it is still Taylor's Earth, there is simply no way that the apes speak exactly the same language that Taylor spoke when he left the planet nearly two-thousand years previously. These are just two of many examples of weak plotting and details littered throughout the movie. Even the best sci-fi movies ask us to look the other way on a few occasions, but I couldn't watch Planet of the Apes
for more than five minutes straight without spotting something that spoke to weak writing.

Yes, this scene is as uncomfortable to watch as I assume it was
for Heston and Kim Hunter to shoot it.
When it comes to the arguments surrounding what makes a living creature worthy of dignity and respect, the movie approaches the mark at times, but falls short of a full analysis that the subject requires. In the courtroom scene, there is a heated back-and-forth between Taylor's advocates and the tribunal of judges. While these scenes do touch on some worthy social commentary, there are once again many unanswered questions and unexplored arguments. The movie uses an admittedly funny but ultimately hokey cop-out visual of having the tribunal of apes displaying the "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil" image, but simply leaves it at that. I felt that there was probably an even more clever and intellectually satisfying method of addressing such refusal of new ideas on the parts of fundamentalists. In what is meant to be the grand revelation at the archaeology site, a talking human doll is presented to the apes and us as the ultimate argument against humans as primal animals. It is hardly the most convincing piece of evidence possible, and yet it seems to completely alter the opinion of Taylor's strong-willed nemesis, Doctor Zaius. At nearly every turn in this movie, when a critical point is raised and examined, I was unsatisfied with the analysis and conclusions - two things that put the "science" in science fiction.

And then there's Charles Heston. Oh boy. Ol' Chuck is a legendary figure as a classic leading man and a notorious over-actor. His performance in Planet of the Apes might serve as exhibit A in the case for the latter. His bombastic, teeth-gritting, bare-chested turn as the misanthropic Taylor is astoundingly over-the-top. I find it ironic that the performance itself shows all of the forceful brutality that his character is trying to prove that he does not represent. Even when the script had some decent lines for him, he often spoiled it with his strange and distinctively heavy intonation. This was yet another distraction.

I can certainly understand why this movie garnered so much attention and acclaim back in 1968. It was a novel story that tackled serious social issues that were even more relevent then than now (and they are relevant now). But sci-fi movie-making has evolved far too much in so many aspects that Planet of the Apes has aged as poorly as any "classic" movie I've seen.

That's 576 movies down, only 601 to go before I can die.