Franklin J. Schaffner may not be any sort of household name now or make lists of the greatest directors in cinema history, but when the respected stage and television director turned permanently to film in 1968, he went on a run of critical and commercial success to rival anyone this side of Woody Allen, going from Planet of the Apes to Patton (USA 1970) to Nicholas and Alexandria (USA 1971) to Papillon (USA/France 1973) to The Boys from Brazil (UK/USA 1978), with just one unmemorable dud mixed in. It began with one of the two absolute classics of true science fiction film (the other being 2001: A Space Odyssey [Stanley Kubrick, USA/UK 1968]). It’s a film that filtered so strongly into the popular zeitgeist that it’s impossible to watch through uninfluenced eyes, but I had somehow still never actually watched it until now.
The point of the film is pretty clear even for anyone who only knows about its extraordinarily famous ending–that humanity’s level of violence is ultimately self-destructive. However, unsurprisingly for a film co-written by Rod Serling (indeed, he of The Twilight Zone fame), the film keeps its focus remarkably well even as it weaves its way through his typical liberal political points. Serling legendarily went through many, many drafts of the screenplay before co-writer Michael Wilson arrived and then Wilson made so many changes to the script that Serling claimed that Wilson deserved sole credit for what Schaffner got to work with, but there are elements of the film that are so obviously a match for Serling’s other work (the ending, the interweaving of liberal politics including sexual and racial equality and anti-nuclear feelings throughout the narrative, and the depictions of humanity as frightened, violent animals) that it’s difficult to accept the idea that there is nothing remaining of his.
Throughout, Schaffner and Serling/Wilson keep the film focused on the violence of mankind, showing us the callous disregard with which the astronauts (especially Taylor) treat the death of their female comrade, consistently showing us that Taylor’s response to the treatment he receives from the apes–often understandably–is violence, and of course that in the end man destroyed himself through nuclear annihilation. Nothing in the film is extraneous explanation of the plot or of the history of the future earth on which it takes place. There are some places where the film veers into socio-political satire that is only somewhat, if at all, related. An example is Taylor’s trial, which is filled with commentary about religion-based science denial, specifically evolution denial, but they are relatively few and short, keeping the film on firm footing.
Visually, Schaffner and cinematographer Leon Shamroy take some interesting chances. The film’s color and lighting are nothing interesting, but instead the film is filled with unusual, off-center, off-kilter camera angles. The angles emphasize the “other”-ness of the world where Taylor and his companions find themselves and the confusion and bewilderment that Taylor experiences during his captivity. It’s a simple and interesting trick that keeps the film from being alienating but allows it to be unusual and even slightly disorienting. It’s quite similar to what Terry Gilliam and Roger Pratt did with Twelve Monkeys (Terry Gilliam, USA 1995) and works just as well in this case as it did there. Indeed, it makes up for lead actor Charlton Heston’s clear weaknesses, turning Taylor into an empathetic figure as we understand the feelings that Heston is incapable of showing us.
Notably, while the makeup is at times problematic and hides too much of the performances, it is a science fiction film that does not include any other dated effects, because Schaffner was smart enough not to do things that required effects that were beyond the capabilities of then-current technology. This film is a good example of why CGI is an issue–if it were using the closest thing there was to CGI at the time everywhere, it would look terrible and campy beyond words now, but instead it only looks a bit dated here and there, not like a schlockfest.
Acting-wise, there isn’t much to say. Most of the actors are so hidden under makeup that it’s difficult to get much of a handle on their performances. The few human characters have almost nothing to show except for Taylor. However, Taylor is played by the always-execrable Charlton Heston, and he of course does what he always does: nothing in particular. It’s a part with ample room for interesting work, but Heston simply isn’t up to it, just like every other lead part he’s taken. Heston is another actor like Clint Eastwood who is respected because of his age and the fact that he has performed in a number of iconic films even though he completely lacks talent.
Jerry Goldsmith, one of the great and most prolific film composers in history, handles the extremely unusual but very effective atonal score for the film, and it emphasizes the strangeness and emptiness of the world in which the astronauts find themselves.
Overall, Planet of the Apes is a sci-fi classic that lives up to its reputation. Indeed, it probably surpasses it, as its reputation has been watered down almost entirely to its admittedly brilliant ending. The only problem the film has is its poor lead actor, and there is enough going on otherwise that the film still works. It’s definitely a recommended view, even this many years later.