Saturday, March 14, 2015

Planet of the Apes

Among all creatures on Earth, man is surely the species most defined by contradiction. Human beings possess the technology, intelligence, and drive to journey beyond the stars, but they can also be possessed by barbarism, greed, stupidity, and cruelty. Mankind is capable of great things but held back by petty, tribal, and primitive impulses.

And that's what so magnificent about the original Planet of the Apes (1968). It could have been a cheap, gimmicky hack job or a mindless, noisy spectacle, but the movie is more than that. Not only is it a stirring, visionary work of science fiction and adventure, it is also a barbed and pointed commentary on the human condition. By holding us up side by side with a simian counterpart, the filmmakers - director Franklin J. Schaffner and screenwriters Rod Serling and Michael Wilson (going off a novel by Pierre Boulle) - reflect some dark truths about who we are and we're headed if we don't change our ways.

Forty-plus years after its release, the story of Planet of the Apes is well known: Taylor (Charlton Heston) is a time-warped astronaut who crashes on a future planet ruled by intelligent apes while humans have descended into mute beasts that are hunted, locked in cages, experimented upon, and in all ways viewed as no more than dumb animals. At the end, Taylor discovers he's been on Earth the whole time when he finds the remains of the Statue of Liberty, rusted and half-destroyed on a beach, and as twist endings go, it remains one of the most potent and iconic.

Around that plot skeleton, Planet of the Apes builds a number of points. On its most basic level, the movie accomplishes what good sci-fi movies set out to do: take us to a far away place and convince us it's real. In the days before CGI and blue screen filming, Planet of the Apes is filmed on location in practical settings that have an other worldliness to them: the scorched desert and jagged rocks and cliffs of the Forbidden Zone, the fields where apes hunt the humans who are stealing crops, and the ape city, made up of stone buildings with such institutions as a zoo, museum, market, stadium, bridges, and other features that make it feel like a place a society actually lives in. The makeup on the apes, while dated to a degree, are still impressive and believable, and the performances, especially Kim Hunter and Roddy McDowell as sympathetic chimp scientists Zira and Cornelius, give them personalities and individuality.

It's more than thirty minutes before we see any apes. Before that, we follow Taylor and his fellow astronauts as they make their way through the desert, try to figure out how they're going to survive, and philosophize a little. The apes' first appearance is an excellent example of buildup and reveal. The sequence is fragmented. First, we hear what sounds like a roar or a horn, followed by the site of dozens of feral humans running in fear. Then, we get little visual clues: the tall sticks stretching above the high grass, the horse feet, gun barrels be fired, long shots of dark figures on horseback as the humans run past the camera in the foreground, and finally, close shots of several apes, armed and on horseback, as they ride into frame and the camera halts for them. Schaffner, who would go on to direct Patton, keeps his camera on the move constantly. There are number of chases, and the camera often follows Taylor, swept up in the urgency and rush. Schaffner also gives the film a wide, epic feel, particularly in the Forbidden Zone, where against the massive rocks, man and ape look very small.

There are memorable images that demonstrate the inverted social structure of the ape society. Ape hunters pose for photographs next to their human quarry, which is strung upside down like meat on a hook; the museum is filled with stuffed humans on display; and the surviving men and women are kept in cages on straw floors and regularly blasted with a hose. In a wince-inducing scene, Taylor, wounded in the throat, is strapped to a table and operated on with no anesthesia.

Other images and scenes are more clever and comical and help keep the movie from becoming too dark. During an attempted escape, Taylor runs into the museum where humans are on display; meanwhile, a mother ape and her child are visiting the museum and are quite aghast to run into a live human. Near the end, Taylor tells Zira he wants to kiss her goodbye, and she relents but only after noting he's "so damned ugly."

Some of it's a bit goofy or far fetched. The movie is set some 2,000 years into future, and it's rather convenient the apes speak twentieth century English. The apes also have a habit of taking common human idioms and replacing the word man with ape, such as "I never met an ape I didn't like." They also substitute man for monkey in other phrases, i.e. "Human see, human do." A key moment during a trial to decide Taylor's fate is somewhat undermined by the sight of the three orangutan judges doing the "see no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil" gestures.

But the serious points raised by the film overcome these flaws, and the character who demonstrates this the best is Dr. Zaius. Played by Maurice Evans, Zaius is an orangutan who is both Minister of Science and Defender of the Faith. Despite evidence to the contrary, he devoutly holds to his beliefs and the teachings of the "greatest ape of all, our Lawgiver," who decreed man was a beast, a pestilence that should be exterminated. Those who seek the truth or question the Ancient Scrolls are branded heretics and traitors, and evidence counter to these teachings, including Taylor, must be destroyed. The truth, Zaius argues, could destroy the future. Here, the film shows the dangers of religious fundamentalism, how devotion to dogma can blind one to the truth. At one point, Zaius utters the phrase "scientific heresy," an odd notion because science seeks truth; if something is wrong, it shouldn't be heresy to point it out or demonstrate why it's false, but Zaius claims, "There is no contradiction between faith and science." Yet, when science contradicts his faith, he resorts to arresting innocents on trumped up charges, blowing up artifacts, and cutting out men's brains.

However, it would be unwise to dismiss Zaius as just a hypocrite. He knows the truth about man and what he's capable of. The Forbidden Zone was once a paradise before man made a desert of it, he tells Taylor. Humans, according to the Ancient Scrolls, kill for lust, greed, and sport, and will "murder his brother to possess his brother's land." The final image of the Statue of Liberty, a symbol of hope and freedom, laid to waste by (presumably) nuclear war only serves as confirmation that Zaius is right to think of man as a destructive breed. And Taylor knows this from the start, even before he lands on the planet of the apes. As he records his final mission log, Taylor asks whether "man still makes war against his brother? Keeps his neighbor's children starving?" At one point, Taylor tells fellow astronaut Landon that he seeks something "better" than man. Zaius isn't the only hypocrite.

Early on in Planet of the Apes, Taylor laughs at Landon when the latter plants a tiny American flag near the lake where their ship crashes, and it's funny but also quite sobering. Everywhere he goes, man tries to stake a claim, even when he has little or nothing to back it up. How much blood has been spilled, how many wars have been waged on behalf of countries that won't be around in 2,000 years? What was worth fighting and dying for today will be erased by the flow of time, reduced to relics of a forgotten age no one will appreciate the significance of in the future. From the flag to the Statue of Liberty, Planet of the Apes is a wakeup call.

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