Planet of the Apes (1968, Franklin J Schaffner)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Where, when and what: The story begins in space. Four astronauts are six months out of Cape Kennedy and know it’s a one-way journey. The date from the crew’s perspective is 14 July 1972, but because of the time displacement caused by travelling at such high speeds, back on Earth it’ll now be March 2673. The astronauts go into hibernation, but a year later the ship crash-lands on a planet. According to the ship’s controls, ‘Earth time’ is now 25 November 3978. From this point, the film makes big efforts to disguise the planet’s identity. Not only does lead astronaut Taylor (Charlton Heston) assert that they’re 320 light years from home, but the world has no moon and abnormal weather patterns (a storm in a desert, for example). Famously, the story’s climax confirms that Taylor is actually on Earth – within a horse ride of New York City, in fact.

Humans: Taylor is the point-of-view character and is in virtually every scene. Rugged, hirsute, very often near or actually naked, and sometimes seen smoking a cigar, he’s masculinity squared – and Charlton Heston is decent casting. When the character finds himself in Ape City, however, he’s locked up, can’t speak due to a throat injury, and his captors even threaten to geld him. At first, Taylor has three crewmates. One is killed in the crash; another dies when they encounter the apes; and the third, Landon (Robert Gunner), goes missing. He later returns to the story when we discover the apes have lobotomised him. The only other human character of note is Nova (Linda Harrison), a sexy, mute savage woman who attaches herself to Taylor in captivity.

Apes: They first appear after half an hour in an action scene – and they’re on horseback, which is a good way of immediately telling us they’re not normal apes. They have a medieval culture (well, mostly: they use modern guns and have cameras) and, notably, can talk. “Smile!” is the first word we hear, when a soldier takes a photo of some colleagues. All the apes are actors in masks, of course, and while they masks are not especially articulate the performances still pop through. The fact you can see the actors’ eyes is very important. The two chimpanzees we get to know best – scientist Zira (Kim Hunter) and her archaeologist fiancé, Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) – are likeable and decent characters. They nickname Taylor ‘Bright Eyes’ and help him escape. Their superior Dr Zaius (Maurice Evans) isn’t quite so liberal. There’s also talk of the Forbidden Zone, a nearby region of desert where relics from an age-old culture have been found.

Review: Based on the 1963 novel La Planète des Singes (Monkey Planet) by Pierre Boulle, this film was co-written by Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling. And like a lot of good science fiction, it’s deceptively full of meaning and subtext. The story of a human outsider encountering a society run by apes can be read as a number of different metaphors. It could be a satire of the class system, a discussion of science versus superstition, a look at feminism (the chimps represent women while the other apes are the male establishment), a parody of religion, war or the legal system… or simply a comedic role-reversal plot. But it never feels bogged down with dogma. This is an engaging movie that’s very often a lot of fun. And it’s solidly directed: well paced, inventively filmed, with good action and jokes that hit home. There’s also good use of wide-open, ‘alien’ locations and a terrific score by Jerry Goldsmith, which is mysterious and dramatic. But it’s such a shame that the two biggest shocks are so famous. That the society is ruled by intelligent apes is kind of given away by the film’s title. The twist that the planet is actually Earth has been revealed so often over the years it’s one of cinema’s best-known endings. (The film’s spoilertastic final image is on both the DVD cover and menu screen of the copy I used for this review.) Excellent, nevertheless.

Nine stinking paws out of 10

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