“Planet of the Apes” (1968): A Mirror to Humanity’s Flaws and Follies – Film Review

Planet of the Apes Review 1968

Franklin J. Schaffner’s “Planet of the Apes” is a landmark in science fiction, a genre-defining film that has intrigued and entertained audiences since its release in 1968. Based on Pierre Boulle’s novel “La Planète des Singes,” the film stands as a poignant critique of humanity’s worst impulses, cloaked in the guise of a thrilling adventure of discovery and survival. Its narrative depth, combined with groundbreaking production techniques, makes it a cinematic experience that resonates with audiences even decades after its release.

Unveiling the Simian World: Behind the Scenes of a Sci-Fi Classic

One of the most compelling aspects of “Planet of the Apes” is its immersive world-building, achieved through a combination of innovative makeup, pioneering set designs, and clever cinematography. The film’s makeup artist, John Chambers, created prosthetic makeup so sophisticated that it allowed actors to deliver nuanced performances despite heavy latex appliances. This groundbreaking work earned Chambers an honorary Academy Award, as the category for Best Makeup did not yet exist.

The filming locations, primarily in Arizona and California, were chosen for their otherworldly landscapes, contributing to the believability of an Earth-like planet dominated by apes. The production’s use of the Lake Powell area and the Malibu Creek State Park, among others, provided a stark, desolate backdrop that effectively conveyed the film’s themes of desolation and the reversal of civilization’s progress.

A Tale of Power and Prejudice

At its core, “Planet of the Apes” is a profound allegory about power dynamics, prejudice, and the potential for humanity’s self-destruction. The role reversal, with apes as the dominant species, serves as a stark commentary on human society’s own hierarchies and injustices. The film’s exploration of these themes, through the experiences of astronaut George Taylor (Charlton Heston), offers a critical reflection on the nature of civilization and what it means to be human.

The screenplay, co-written by Michael Wilson and Rod Serling, is laden with social and political undertones, reflecting the turbulent era of its creation. The film’s climactic revelation—that this seemingly alien planet is Earth, ravaged by nuclear war—is a powerful indictment of the Cold War era’s brinkmanship and the existential threat of nuclear annihilation.

Portrayal of Race and Colonialism

One of the most discussed issues is the allegorical representation of race and colonialism. The original films were produced during a period of significant racial tensions in the United States, including the Civil Rights Movement. Some critics and scholars interpret the depiction of the apes’ dominance over humans as an allegory for racial oppression, with the subjugated human population representing African Americans or other colonized peoples. This interpretation is complicated by the fact that the apes, who could be seen as stand-ins for racial minorities asserting their power, are often portrayed as tyrannical or misguided, thus potentially reinforcing negative stereotypes about those fighting for civil rights.

The visual dichotomy between the “civilized” apes and the “savage” humans can also be read as a reflection of colonial narratives, where the colonizer categorizes the colonized as “less than” or “other” to justify their oppression and exploitation. This problematic aspect is further compounded by the fact that the apes, despite being the oppressors in the narrative, are the ones with whom the audience is meant to sympathize, as they exhibit human-like qualities and societal structures.

Gender Representation

The series has also faced criticism for its portrayal of gender roles, particularly in the early films. Female characters, both human and ape, are often relegated to secondary roles, with their contributions to the narrative being limited or defined by their relationships to male characters. This reflects broader issues within the film industry regarding the representation of women, perpetuating traditional gender norms and sidelining women’s voices and agency.

Depiction of Animal Rights

While “Planet of the Apes” can be seen as a precursor to discussions about animal rights and the ethics of animal testing, its treatment of animals, including the apes, is not without issues. The apes are anthropomorphized to such an extent that they adopt the very human behaviors (including violence and oppression) that the series seems to critique. This raises questions about the message being conveyed regarding the treatment of animals and the nature of humanity’s relationship with other species.

Evolutionary Implications

The series’ portrayal of evolution has also been a point of contention. By suggesting a linear progression where apes evolve to replace humans, the narrative simplifies and misrepresents the complexity of evolutionary science. This can reinforce misunderstandings about how evolution works, inadvertently supporting the notion of a “hierarchy” in the natural world that mirrors societal hierarchies.

Performances and Character Dynamics

Charlton Heston’s portrayal of Taylor is both heroic and cynical, embodying the disillusionment of a man who has lost faith in humanity’s capacity for good. The performances of Kim Hunter as Zira and Roddy McDowall as Cornelius are pivotal in bridging the emotional and intellectual gap between humans and apes, providing the narrative with its moral compass.

The character of Dr. Zaius, played by Maurice Evans, serves as a fascinating antagonist; his actions, driven by a desire to protect ape society from the dangers of human knowledge, highlight the complexities of leadership and the often-destructive nature of fear and ignorance.

Legacy and Reflections

“Planet of the Apes” spawned a successful franchise, including sequels, a television series, and a modern reboot series, attesting to its enduring appeal and the universality of its themes. The film’s iconic final scene, revealing the ruins of the Statue of Liberty, remains one of the most memorable in cinema history, a haunting image that encapsulates the film’s critique of humanity’s self-destructive tendencies.

In retrospect, “Planet of the Apes” is more than a science fiction film; it is a reflection on humanity’s place in the universe and a cautionary tale about the consequences of our worst impulses. Its synthesis of thrilling adventure, profound thematic exploration, and technical innovation solidifies its status as a classic of the genre, a film that challenges, entertains, and provokes thought in equal measure.

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