Science-fiction is arguably among the more malleable genres in cinema, capable of telling thrilling stories abundant in eye-catching or frightfully cheesy special effects as much as it can question and provoke with regards to human behaviour, be it on a societal or individual level. When the two ingredients are handsomely combined, a movie can be on the cusp of science-fiction cinematic greatness: intelligently told, thematically rich, and visually memorable. Time travel, robotics, the origins of man, communication (violent or docile) with otherworldly civilizations, the tapestry is endless. One such subgenre is our relation to the animal kingdom. Oh, there have been plenty of films involving oversized insects trampling on towns, but what of mankind’s links to the thousands of species it considers, on several levels, ‘beneath it’?
French author Pierre Boulle, still probably more widely recognized for Bridge on the River Kwai, is at the core of one of Hollywood’s most fascinating, successful, and long standing franchises: Planet of the Apes. While the writer thought little of his 1963 novel La planète des singes, Arthur P. Jacobs, a press agent with high connections, begged to differ, and with the timely assistance of creative minds such as Rod Serling (of Twilight Zone fame), Edward G. Robinson (who played an ape in test makeup to impress studio big shots), and director Franklin J. Schaffner, he convinced 20th Century Fox chief Richard D. Zanuck to fund the most incredible, delirious of science-fiction premises in 1967. Critical and financial success followed, as did an impressive number of sequels, as well as not one but two reboot attempts. Let us embark on a wild journey through the Planet of the Apes films, a franchise that tells of a world undeniably similar to our own in more ways than one.
Planet of the Apes (1968)
Lest it be overlooked, 20th Century Fox’s acquiescence to funding Arthur P. Jacobs’ dream adaptation of Boulle’s novel was not his first kick at the can. Nay, several studios balked at the thought of an Apes picture, either because of budgetary worries or rather because, up until then, actors dressed up as animals or monsters of various sorts in B-pictures often produced laughter from the audience rather than shrieks. It wasn’t until a few big names were potentially attached to the product when Fox agreed to take a sniff, one of them being Charlton Heston. To put it bluntly, this was a gamble, but following impressive screen tests, the studio nevertheless awarded Jacobs and director Schaffner $5 million for their project.
The film opens as astronaut George Taylor (Heston), one of four crewmembers flying an intergalactic exploration mission, records a flight log in which he anticipates what other worlds they will discover. Evidently enough, Taylor agreed to embark on the trek out of severe disillusionment with humanity. After entering hibernation, the vessel inexplicably experiences turbulence and crash lands on a mysterious world, killing one passenger in the process (the only woman, as it turns out). The survivors, Taylor, Landon (Robert Gunner), and Dodge (Jeff Burton) are simultaneously shocked and impressed to learn that they have gone from the Earth of 1972 to, according to the ship’s dying computer, 3978.
Following a fatiguing stroll in what looks to be a wasteland, the trio eventually come across two stunning revelations. First, that humans seem in inhabit this world. Second, humans are not the dominant species, but rather apes! Chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans govern society, whereas dumb, mute humans are held in captivity, some even studied by sympathetic chimp scientists Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) and his wife Zira (Kim Hunter). Taylor, the last remaining crewmember not to die or be lobotomized, proves a disruptive presence in the ape community, especially for Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans), acting as Minister of Science and Defender of the Faith.
Although Franklin J. Schaffner’s picture shows its age in certain respects, its initial success and longevity come as no surprise. Planet of the Apes (POTA, henceforth) is what can happen when a smart set-up, dedicated actors, cunning script, and strong visual effects come together in the realm of science-fiction. The picture’s iconicity is the stuff of legend, the many sequels and attempted reboots being the primary testament to the chord it struck back in 1968 and still does today. Even people that yet to give the film a chance can instantly recognize the makeup work courtesy of John Chambers. The images of Cornelius and Zira have been plastered in countless mediums throughout the decades since, even though many might not know the characters by name. The makeup effects work wonderfully by balancing the warmth of physical familiarity and the creepiness of talking apes.
While unforgettable, the visuals alone cannot attest to the film’s unsullied place in film history. POTA is an example of so much coming together to make a thrilling, engaging, tension-filled experience. The protagonist Taylor, played with characteristic vim and verve by Heston, is a fascinating role, as is his interaction with the dumbfounding society he not so delicately interacts with. Where once was a devoutly cynical man who embraced the thought of discovering something different and better than humans, suddenly stands a man that must vouch for the many qualities humans can display, from creativity to reason and compassion. The apes think him a freak of nature, a defect, a stain on the Faith the ape society abides by. After all, Ape came from Man, so how could Man display the same intelligence? The very notion! Heresy!
Together with Cornelius and Zira (beautifully three-dimensional via touching performances from Roddy McDowall and Kim Hunter), Taylor’s experience is one that asks viewers to hold up a mirror to themselves and consider how people in the real world treat ‘sub species’, or even members of the human race of different colors or creeds. For all its technical proficiency and confident storytelling, POTA is the very best of what science-fiction filmmaking has to offer.
In a grand, final gesture on the filmmakers’ part to visualize our frightening, collective capacity for destruction, Taylor, once freed from slavery along with the mute Nova (Linda Harrison), ventures outside Ape City towards the Forbidden Zone on horseback, only to discover he was right to be cynical. The planet was Earth all along, and his ancestors blew it up to high heaven. Damn them all to hell.
Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970)
The gamble had paid off. POTA was very well received and made more than its fair share of change. As the old adage goes, give the people what they want! It wasn’t long after the success of the first film that 20th Century Fox contemplated the possibility of a sequel. While early script ideas from Rod Serling and source material author Pierre Boulle left most unimpressed, Paul Dhen scribed a draft that was deemed viable. The first film had shock value in abundance, encouraging the studio to deliver more twists and turns. Keep the audiences on their toes, so to speak. Sadly, prior commitments for actor Roddy McDowell and director Franklin J. Schaffner prevented them returning. Enter director Ted Post, fresh off of the Clint Eastwood western Hang ‘Em High.
Taylor and Nova continue their journey into the feared Forbidden Zone, but their partnership is cut short when the astronaut, in an attempt to investigate a bizarre optical illusion, vanishes without a trace before Nova’s very eyes. The panic-stricken woman rides back to the only two individuals she knows might be able to help: scientists Cornelius (David Watson, replacing McDowall) and Zira, but not before stumbling upon, amazingly enough, another astronaut: Brent (James Franciscus). Brent is part of an expedition sent from Earth’s past (unbeknownst to him) to find out what happened to Taylor’s crew. With assistance from the chimp scientists, Brent and Nova escape Ape City, avoiding detection from Dr. Ziaus and war hungry General Ursus (James Gregory), only to find what exactly is hidden in the Forbidden Zone: an underground lair where atomically mutated humans, last survivors of a nuclear war, worship an active atom bomb while preparing for the looming war with the apes.
Who could blame a studio for wanting to make a sequel to a film like POTA? Gifted such a brilliant concept, ripe with ideas, both political and cultural, resting on a fascinating tapestry of a world in which Man has succumbed to its own hubris and selfishness, now subservient to simians. To argue that Beneath is a disappointment feels simultaneously unjust and fair. Capturing the magic of the original was always going to be a tall order, and the second entry does not, sadly, reach said lofty goal. In fact, several elements reek of desperation and, dare it be said, lack of creativity. For one, Brent is both not as engaging as the first film’s protagonist, nor is his journey in the first half the least bit original. Curiously, the filmmakers ensure that James Franciscus looks like a Heston clone, complete with the scruffy, unshaven face, prompting viewers to immediately compare him with his predecessor, which was never going to favour him over superstar Heston.
More importantly, the picture’s entire first half is a tired retelling of the first film, but because Beneath has some surprises to get to, it essentially boils down to the ’68 film told at lighting speed. By now the audience knows exactly what Ape City and its inhabitants are like, yet must spend 30-45 minutes with Brent looking wide-eyed in amazement. Inexplicably, multiple attempts are required for Brent and Nova to flee their potential captors, thus only padding the run time. It’s all rather clumsily handled.
That being said, the film is not without merit, said praise stemming predominantly from the wild, unorthodox second half. While not perfect, it is almost impossible not give Ted Post and his team a level of credit for the bizarre concoction they have in store for viewers once Brent and Nova locate a mysterious entrance into a cave to hide from a squadron of Ape soldiers. Even though this portion of the film takes the spotlight away from the animals that fascinated audiences so much in the original movie, the whole concept of humanity’s last survivors, gifted with telepathic powers (similar to what Professor Xavier from X-Men is gifted with) and looking ugly as all hell, biding their time until the apes finally make their move, is pretty nifty. What’s more, Heston makes a brief return for the finale, thus restoring some gusto to the side of the ‘normal’ humans in the movie.
Then there is of course the climax: a bloody, merciless confrontation in the underground lair between the trio of regular humans, the mutants, and the apes. With literally everyone around him getting shot, crushed or sliced to death, Taylor desperately activates the A-Bomb, destroying the entire planet as a result.
For all its faults, the movie deserves some props for that alone.
End of series… or is it?