The original Planet of the Apes is considered to be a sci-fi classic with a huge impact upon the landscape of popular culture. Having spawned numerous sequels, tv shows, and reboots, it is no doubt a significant cultural touchstone. Having read Michael Crichton’s Congo, I am aware that intelligent non-human primates can be an interesting subject in a science fiction story but I still found the concept of Planet of the Apes to be somewhat mismatched with its popularity. How could one film make so many people go ape?… I apologised for nothing and made my way down to George St Cinemas for the In the House screening of this sci-fi cult classic.
This week, the MCs were Anthony Kierann and David ‘Quinny’ Quinn as Jason ‘Jabba’ Davis was off in Singapore attending to a press junket for an upcoming film premiere. The evening of monkey madness began with the hosts inviting guests up to play an impromptu game of ‘rock, paper, scissors’ to win prizes such as a DVD and jetboating tickets. After engaging in a bit of ‘Vox Populi’ with the audience to ask them for suggestions for next season of In the House Quinny and Anthony sat down to discuss various trivia about the film. A particularly interesting tidbit for me was the fact that the film won an honorary award from the Academy for its special effects make-up (the first of its kind from the academy).
The story starts off in space with a crew of astronauts travelling through space on some undisclosed mission. Due to the time dilation of their near-lightspeed journey, they age only months while millennia pass on Earth. Their space ship suffers a malfunction with one crew member (the only female) dying during deep hibernation. The ship also crash lands into a deep lake on an alien planet and the remaining crew comprised of George Taylor (Charlton Heston), Landon (Robert Gunner), and Dodge (Jeff Burton) are forced to escape from the ship as it sinks into the water. They wander around the rocky landscape of the planet until they come across lush jungle area and encounter primitive humans who steal their clothes and equipment. Before the astronauts can do much more, they are suddenly attacked by apes riding horses and using guns.
Dodge is killed in the attack while Taylor and Landon are captured. Taylor is shot in the throat during the attack and taken to a laboratory compound where humans are held captive and experimented upon. A chimpanzee scientist, Zira (Kim Hunter), takes an interest in Taylor as a specimen who is unlike the other humans that were brought in. His wound has rendered him mute but after repeated attempts to communicate with his Zira, he is finally able to show himself to be intelligent. Zira’s superior, an orangutan named Doctor Zaius (Maurice Evans) learns of Taylor’s behaviour and orders him to be castrated. Taylor escapes the compound into the city of the apes but is soon recaptured. His vocal chords, at this point, have recovered enough for him to growl the film’s famous line: “get your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!”. The plot thickens from there as Taylor struggles to survive in this alien world.
The writing in this film is pretty awesome overall with quite a few iconic lines which were sprinkled throughout. There are some lines which I felt missed the mark or were otherwise awkward but these were few and far between. Thanks to the over-the-top performances of some of the actors, a lot of these lines are delivered with gravitas that makes them stand out. Some of the lines also come across quite hammy and may at worst cause you to cringe or at best give you a deeper appreciation of the character of Troy McClure on The Simpsons. The writing and performance was largely solid but with a mix of brilliance and cringe at several moments.
Nothing exemplifies this more than the way the protagonist, Taylor, is written and how Heston portrays him. The best lines in the film go to him and I doubt anyway will fault such iconic lines as when he yells “IT’S A MADHOUSE! A MADHOUSE!”… but by the Nine Divines, he’s really got very little in his character which endears himself to me. His interactions with and about women are decidedly creepy these may be a product of the film’s time but there was a noticeable cringe in the cinema audience for this screening when he said them all the same. His lines to Lucius (Lou Wagner), Zira’s nephew, makes him come across as a bit of a tool as well. I feel Heston was attempting to make his character a charming fatalist but instead he comes as an arrogant cynic. I don’t believe every film should have a likeable protagonist, but Taylor did get on my nerves at some points.
That all being said, what brings the film out of B-movie cringe and into sci-fi classic status is the ideas which the film brings to the table. The story brings to the fore discussions of science versus religion, blissful ignorance versus dangerous knowledge, and of course questions humanity’s treatment of animals. The film largely explores these themes and discussions in a fairly straightforward manner with the character of Doctor Zaius acting as a symbol religious zealotry, animal cruelty, and general institutional inertia in the face of blatant contradiction. Although he reflects some of worst aspects of human nature, which is itself ironic, his motivations for doing so become almost understandable with the film’s final (iconic) reveal. Although the final act is somewhat contrived in setting up and delivering this payoff, I enjoyed it all the same.
As the hosts of In the House mentioned before the screening that the film won an award for special effects make-up; I was eager to see how the ape masks compared to today’s standards of special effects. I was not in any way disappointed and even after almost half a century, the ape make-up still looks awesome. The actors do their best to twitch and exaggerate their facial movements when wearing them so they move in a way which is somewhat believable. There were still times when I noticed a second set of (real) teeth in the mouth of an ape character… but I reasoned that those were probably a result of some quirk of evolution where ape DNA was crossed with shark DNA.
This film has some amazing cinematography throughout with the shot composition no doubt being ground breaking for its time. The first person view of the spaceship crashing was actually quite well done and an interesting way to raise the tension after the opening expository monologue set the scene. The visuals also create an interesting reinforcement of the ideas the film explores. From shots where we see ape hunters posing with dead humans for a picture to the protagonist running around a museum with human exhibits, the film holds up an uncanny and sometimes uncomfortable mirror to its audience.
The film’s soundtrack is pretty interesting and unusual. Composer Goldsmith wanted something avant garde for the film to go beyond what was previously done in sci-fi soundtracks. To that end he attempted to use a bunch of unorthodox methods to create unusual sounds and film legend has it that he even conducted the soundtrack while wearing an ape mask. The product is definitely something unique and discordant which helps to reinforce the uncanny images the film creates. Although my companion for the evening found it a bit grating and distracting from the film’s action at times, I overall enjoyed the strange qualities it brought to the film.
I very much enjoyed this film and I was glad to have seen it in the cinema. The story is solid with moments of both brilliance and less-than-brilliance which will both stick with you. The visuals and make-up have stood the test of time and will no doubt be enjoyed for some time yet. The soundtrack was a unique gem I was surprised to enjoy but it certainly added to positively the experience. I have no problems with recommending this film to any of my friends who don’t eat kosher as there is certainly plenty of hammy content to get through… or enjoy! Kudos to In the House for giving us a look into this madhouse.
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