Movie Review: “Planet of the Apes” (Franklin J. Schaffner, USA 1968)

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.

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Movie Review: “Soylent Green” (Richard Fleischer, USA 1973)

Soylent Green (Richard Fleischer, USA 1973) is one of those rare films that became so much a part of popular culture that the film itself disappeared under its own mythology, like The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, USA 1939). People who not only have never watched the film but never would do so can quote, “Soylent green is people!” So, the question is, is there anything to the film underneath that mythos?

Unfortunately, the answer is that there really isn’t. The film is promoting a conservationist worldview, presenting a future where overpopulation and global warming have removed essentially all semblance of nature. Foods like beef and even lettuce are so rare as to be obtainable only by the very rich, replaced by plastic-looking, tasteless, mass-produced foodstuffs. Usable farmland has become so rare that farms are guarded “like fortresses.” There are so many people crowded into the cities that the film’s hero, Detective Thorn (Charlton Heston), literally walks on top of sleeping homeless people on his way into and out of his home. Faced with this problem, cannibalism eventually became the only remaining answer to feed the populace, leading to the climactic discovery that the latest superfood, Soylent Green, is made of the dead bodies of retired old people. The point is about as obvious as possible, which is often the case with futuristic science fiction.

It’s a frightening vision of the future, especially as presented in the frankly brilliant opening montage by Chuck Braverman of still photography taking us from the “good old days” through a couple hundred years of human “history” perfectly, emphasizing the theme of advancing technology leading to pollution and overpopulation. However, the film’s vision is also one so over the top as to be unbelievable to the point of satire. If, say, Glenn Beck or some similar global warming denialist were to make a film to make fun of the future that they see environmentalists predicting, this is what it would look like. Twenty-nine years later, there are also some odd issues with the vision that are rather funny, as with most futuristic films years later. The film is set sometime after 2022 (the novel was actually set in 1999), which is announced as when Soylent Green, which is being described as “new,” was invented. Obviously, the dooms it foresees have not come to pass and do not appear too close to coming to pass even as we near its date. The funniest problem is one from the novel that I came across that’s not in the film: this dangerously overpopulated United States has a population of 344 million. The population is just shy of 315 million now in the real world.

However, the problem is that the entire film is relying on the shock value of the discovery that Soylent Green is made of people, which of course everyone knows going in now. Most of the plot is a whodunit mystery as Thorn investigates the death of a wealthy, powerful man whose death appears to others to be an accident but he suspects (rightly) was a murder. Even this mystery is uninteresting, as the film is so busy setting up its subplots that it doesn’t bother to add any interesting intrigue or create any connection with the investigation or the related characters. Those subplots are also generally uninteresting. In a development that has nothing to do with the rest of the film’s vision and seems quite bizarre, women are now employed as “furniture,” which is to say live-in prostitutes who belong to the apartments where they live, offering their services to any man who enters. One of the major subplots is a romance developing between Thorn and one of these prostitutes, and the only point of this subplot is to tell us about this development. Another subplot is explaining a close personal relationship between Thorn and his live-in research assistant, Sol Roth (Edward G. Robinson). The only purpose of this subplot is to give us a way to see how Soylent Green is made at the end, and it spends far too much time for how small of a plot device it really is.. Altogether, we get an awful lot of time spent on things that add little to the experience.

Visually, there really isn’t anything notable about the film. To its credit, it doesn’t overuse special effects to augment its vision of the future, which keeps it from looking as hokey as it could. However, Fleischer and cinematographer Richard H. Kline don’t do anything particularly interesting in use of color, editing, lighting, etc. It’s not terrible in this manner, but it’s also not interesting.

The film does actually give a couple of actors the chance to do something: Charlton Heston and Edward G. Robinson. Mostly through their relationship with each other, they get the opportunity to show emotions of deep love, appreciation, and sadness. However, unsurprisingly, only Robinson proves up to the task. There are some bizarre moments where his performance breaks the rhythm of scenes, probably owing to his well-known near-deafness that led to constant new takes as he learned the timing of his co-stars by rote, since he could not actually hear them speaking, but otherwise he is his usual brilliant self. Sol Roth is an ill-defined character, but it’s impossible not to like him because of Robinson’s performance, which also encapsulates just how much the world has lost and how strongly the two men feel for one another, even though his counterpart is a brick wall. Heston, for his part, does attempt to show some emotions, even tearing up in one scene, but his attempts are laughable.

Fred Myrow’s score deserves a note, because it’s quite an excellent score that heightens tension again and again where the film otherwise doesn’t quite deliver. It doesn’t draw attention to itself often, but it works excellently.

All told, it’s not a very good film. It’s generally competent, but not interesting. It was probably worth a watch once upon a time, before its ending became common knowledge, but it’s not really worth the trouble anymore.