Monday, March 28, 2016

Must-Watch Sci Fi Movies: Plant of the Apes (1968)

Directed By: Franklin J. Schaffner
Produced By: Arthur P. Jacobs
Written By: Michael Wilson, Rod Serling
Starring: Charlton Heston, Roddy McDowall, Maurice Evans, Kim Hunter, Linda Harrison
Original Release: 1968

Rating: 4 ½ out of 5 Stars

Synopsis: A deep space mission from Earth traveling at near light speed crashes on a distant planet and three of the four crew members manage to escape before the ship sinks into the sea. The survivors, led by George Taylor (Charlton Heston), begin to explore what looks like a barren, desolate planet, but they eventually discover plentiful forests and a lower order of humans who do not have the ability to speak. But then the astronauts find that these are not the dominate species on the planet as they come face to face with intelligent, talking apes. Taylor is captured and at first studied by the chimpanzee Zira (Kim Hunter), but the orangutan Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans) considers this talking human to be an abomination and wants to have him destroyed. Taylor, on the other hand, has plans to show them who the dominant species should be, but first he must face the truth of an unexpected secret this planet of apes holds.

Why It’s a Must-Watch Movie: This film provided another step in the maturation of science fiction cinema as it offered an engaging tale of evolution apparently gone awry that had high production values and that also offered some biting social commentary.

Review/Commentary: 1968’s Planet of the Apes is an important milestone for science fiction movies for several reasons. For one, the producers (much like Kubrick did with 2001: A Space Odyssey) approached the movie with the intent of making a serious film with broad appeal unlike the exploitive B-Movie cheapies typical of the genre at that time. It also had high production values (for its day) and succeeded in creating believable human-like apes that never looked like just actors in gorilla suits. Because of this, the movie proved a huge success at the Box Office, giving sci fi one of its highest grossing films up to that point. In addition, it laid the groundwork for the blockbuster franchise as it would have four sequels, spin-off two TV series, and go through two reboots in the 21st century.

Jaded movie-goers of today--over-gorged on the CGI-bloated outpouring from the big studios--may find Planet of the Apes a bit quaint, but the fact is that movie was very much the science fiction blockbuster of its time. It may not have relied heavily on sfx scenes, but it’s production values were first rate for the 60’s and it manages to seamlessly bring to life its world run by the apes. That’s partly attributed to the magnificent sets of “ape city” (really more of a village), but mostly to the first class make-up work on the apes. True, the CGI of the recent/y rebooted Planet of the Apes films delivers simians that look more ape-like, but personally I much prefer the ones from the original movie series. They represented more of a cross between humans and apes and a logical next evolutionary step. And the makeup was perfectly executed and has since become iconic among movie creatures. Give me the real thing over CGI any day.

The movie itself has worked its way into our popular culture, and that’s because it managed to hit a nerve at the time it came out, and its message still resonates today. The movie didn’t just give us a simplistic “apes vs. humans” scenario, it used its premise to explore some driving social issues of its day (that still remain relevant today). Not only do we get the fall of humans as another species leap-frogs us on the evolutionary scale, the script uses the conflicts within the ape society to address issues that we ourselves struggle with. It looks at the conflicts between religion and science and the attempts of society’s leaders to manipulate the truth to maintain the status quo. Planet of the Apes does what the best examples of science fiction do by using its fantastic elements to offer a mirror to our own world and struggles. Not surprisingly (especially considered that gut-wrenching twist ending), the original script was penned by Rod Serling. The final version made many changes to what he originally wrote, but mostly to keep costs down (he had the apes living in a technological society similar to Pierre Boulle’s original novel). But most importantly, the ending from Serling’s script (which hearkened back to the Twilight Zone style twist-endings) still survived into the final version that was filmed.

Planet of the Apes also benefitted from outstanding performances from its rather talented cast of actors. Performing through that makeup would be difficult for any actor, but the main ape characters all came alive with first-rate acting from the likes of Roddy McDowell, Kim Hunter, and Maurice Evans. It’s almost as if the makeup liberated them and energized their performances. And then there’s Charlton Heston with the lead delivering his usual bravado. His Taylor displays a palpable arrogance and almost dismissive attitude toward the apes whom he considers an example of evolution gone wrong. But this makes the ending of the film all the more poignant as he is faced with a grim reality that delivers an Earth-shattering wakeup call (literally).

I should note, though, that this movie has one glaring flaw to it that some may not be able to overlook and that could impact how highly they rank it compared to other sci fi films: How is it that Taylor never questions the fact that these apes speak English, even though--from his perspective--they are living on a planet allegedly light years from Earth? The fact that they could speak alone was definitely shock enough, but shouldn’t he have made some connection when they were speaking the same language as him with practically no variation in dialect? Perhaps we can extend some artistic license here and just appreciate that Hollywood produced an otherwise well-made science fiction film at that time. But it would have been nice if they had addressed that better (in the novel, the human character learns the language of the apes), and I’m guessing there are some fans out there that dock this movie one or two stars on that fact alone.

Despite this flaw, Planet of the Apes is an important science fiction movie and one of the absolute best examples of the genre on film. Its production values were top-notch at the time it came out and still stand up pretty well today. And its story is timeless and will continue to resonate with coming generations for its many messages and its shocking ending.

So many science fiction and fantasy movies and so little time. Metropolis, King Kong, War of the Worlds, Fantastic Voyage, Star Wars, The Terminator, The Matrix, Lord of the Rings, Inception . . . Plan 9 From Outer Space . . . and so many, many more. Where to start and which ones to watch? Well that's what this book is here to help you with. It may not cover all science fiction movies, and not even all of those mentioned above, but it gives you a heck of a good start starting point. This book begins with 1927’s Metropolis and then treks through 24 more genre films ending with 2009's Moon to give you an extensive look at some of the best of the best of science fiction and fantasy cinema. Each entry includes a synopsis, review/commentary, cast and crew information, as well as a few nuggets of tidbits and trivia relating to the films. Whether you are new to the genre and trying to figure out where to get started or a grizzled veteran who has logged many hours in the cinema watching sci fi, 25 Must Watch Science Fiction and Fantasy Movies is sure to entertain. And even if you have already seen the movies covered in the book, there's a good chance you could walk away knowing a little bit (or maybe even a lot) more about these films than you did previously.

A great primer for science fiction and fantasy cinema and a fun read as well!

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