Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 52 minutes
MPAA Rating: G
Directed by: Franklin J. Schaffner
Written by: Michael Wilson & Rod Serling
(based on the novel PLANET OF THE APES by Pierre Boulle)
Starring: Charlton Heston, Roddy McDowall, Kim Hunter, Maurice Evans, James Whitmore, James Daly & Linda Harrison
Based on a French novel by Pierre Boulle, 1968’s PLANET OF THE APES floored audiences and critics alike. The film featured revolutionary make-up, concluded in one of the best twist endings of all-time, and spawned a franchise that has continued to this day. This unforgettable science-fiction film plays out like a feature-length TWILIGHT ZONE episode. This seems appropriate when you consider that Rod Serling wrote the original screenplay. Serling’s vision was for a much bigger, grander film…but was significantly reduced due to budget constraints. With significant rewrites by Michael Wilson, 1968’s PLANET OF THE APES became one of the most iconic films of its era and still holds up remarkably well today.
In the year 3978, a trio of intergalactic astronauts awaken from hyper-sleep on a strange planet. With dwindling supplies and harsh conditions, it seems like the end may be near…until the three survivors stumble upon primitive humans. Soon enough, they discover the horrifying truth: a society of intelligent apes rules this planet. Men and women are kept in cages, experimented upon, and “tamed.” Though chimpanzee couple Zira (Kim Hunter) and Galen (Wright King) take an interest in the astronaut-turned-captive Taylor (Charlton Heston), the human prisoner also sparks the ire of high-class orangutan Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans). If Taylor wishes to escape the paws of these damn dirty apes, he must venture into the mysterious “Forbidden Zone.”
Let me address the elephant in the room. PLANET OF THE APES had cool effects for its time. The make-up work was special in that actors could still express many facial features through it. From many camera angles, these practical effects still hold up. However, there are scenes where the dialogue doesn’t quite match up with the actors’ mouths. Worse yet, some shots reveal the actors’ lips beneath their prosthetic ape mouths. These problems can be slightly forgiven when you consider how good everything else looks in this movie, especially the crash-landing scene that has a dizzying first-person view of the ship making impact and 80% of the cast being in literal monkey suits.
PLANET’s screenplay packs plenty of fun into the ridiculous-sounding premise. Instead of playing everything seriously, lots of small details and dialogue provide solid laughs. Phrases like “human see, human do,” and one hilarious visual joke in a courtroom show that the filmmakers clearly wanted to bring light-hearted creativity to the screen, along with a sinister vibe inherent in this dark material. The film’s horrifying elements are given through snippets of dialogue and brief powerful visuals that remain deeply impactful. The idea of humans being gilded so they won’t mate and an ape history museum with one particularly gruesome exhibit stick out as the film’s more disturbing moments.
Like any great TWILIGHT ZONE episode, PLANET OF THE APES packs social commentary into its absurd plot that remains frighteningly relevant. Antagonist Dr. Zaius is in charge of both science and faith, meaning that he doesn’t want to weigh one over the other and goes to insane lengths to preserve the idea that apes are sacred. There are even arguments about evolution that were likely happening among humans in 1968 and still occur (to a far lesser extent) today. Those expecting tons of action, will likely be surprised by the film’s deliberate pace and profound moments. Of course, this all capped off by the famous cautionary twist ending that has gone down as one of the most shocking conclusions in movie history.
PLANET OF THE APES has flaws that can’t be ignored. A few shots of the make-up effects haven’t aged well and Charlton Heston is a tad too over-the-top. In spite of those negatives, this science-fiction classic still holds up remarkably well. The humor still works. The creativity still shines (a simian funeral, anyone?). The story is just as compelling today as it was back then. The twist ending only adds to the darker social commentary at work. If you already know how this film ends before you’ve even seen it, keep an eye out for clues that are set up well in advance. 1968’s PLANET OF THE APES is an entertaining, fun and dark ride through a world gone mad and a natural order turned upside down!