Disenfranchised – The Planet of the Apes

Disenfranchised is a new series. Each installment will be a series of articles wherein I take a deep dive into a franchise film by film. My sanity will only stick around because I’m not going anywhere near Marvel as no one’s got time for that. My first franchise will be Planet of the Apes, and this week we’ll tackle the first film.

I’ve got a deep love for science fiction, and a lot of that was born with my viewing of Planet of the Apes as a young boy in front of a tiny television. Raise them up in the way that they should go, and they will not depart from it.

Planet of the Apes is a 1968 science fiction film depicting a group of astronauts landing on an unknown planet, discovering a society in which humans are nigh-on cattle and apes have a militaristic, jingoist society entrapped by faith and desperate to cling to the reality they’ve chosen. Taylor (Charleton Heston) is trapped with under the supervision of Cornelius (Roddy McDowell) and Zira (Kim Hunter) as they struggle to protect him from Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans), the Chief Defender of the Faith in Ape Society.

I’ve loved this franchise as long as I can remember, putting it up there alongside other titans as one of the most important film series we’ve ever had. America bought into Ape-mania as well, with toys seemingly flying off the shelves and two television spinoffs, one live-action and one animated. The first film, however, is a bleak and nihilistic look at humanity that suggests a lot of conflicting ideas all at once and has become so ingrained into the culture that it’s nearing self-parody every time they rerelease the films. It’s gone so far as to be part of the cultural memory palace, with everyone just knowing the beats of the film from childhood.

And why wouldn’t this permeate the culture so deeply? Pierre Boulle’s original novel, which was licensed for a film before publication, is also an aggressive take on humanity’s self-destructive tendencies. The novel shows the apes as advanced, cultured, and nearing the level humanity was at before they canonically destroyed themselves but it is, in fact, a different world. The book was popular enough (for a book about apes in a spaceship that literally find a ship in a bottle), but the film was put into the hands of Rod Serling and it became something else entirely. Serling, he who created The Twilight Zone, would pen the finale that is now something we just instinctively know at birth. That final shot, and all the implications that come with it, has been on VHS box art and in animated parodies for decades now. It’s the single biggest contribution to the film the man made, but it’s perhaps the most important of any writer in the process.

Writer Michael Wilson was brought on to rewrite the ape society in order to bring cost down. Serling envisioned their world in a similar fashion to Boulle, with the apes living in a technologically advanced world (think planes and cars and such), but the studio was nervous about the expense this would cause and wanted a more primitive environment to keep cost down. Funny thing is that Ape City is still standing, sitting there for fans to make pilgrimages to. Anyway, so the cost was kept down and this brought on the way the apes are portrayed onscreen, but Wilson also brought some different humors to the project. His scripted jokes, alongside director Franklin J. Shaffer’s sensibilities, lend this otherwise dreary film some well-deserved color.

Outside of its iconic ending and wildly horny performance from Charleton Heston, the film accomplished a lot with makeup effects as well. While some of the performers aren’t able to figure out the prosthetics, Hunter and McDowell bring life to their characters by working with the makeup to figure out how to emote through it. You don’t move your face the same way, your mouth, your eyebrows. Kim Hunter perhaps understands it best, and uses it to her advantage with clearly practiced and exaggerated movements. What came of the imagery was a world of cosplay and makeup effects that, if rendered properly, take hours to apply and maintain. We’ve made significant leaps forward in technology and have begun using motion capture instead of any makeup, but I’ll always have a soft spot for the classic way of doing things.

Outside of the fascinating history and technical achievements, the first film is just a banger. Part of the appeal is the socio-political implications of the storyline, but most of it was just sheer entertainment. It looks good, it sounds good, and the charisma in each of the four principle characters seems incredible. Heston is basically playing his standard attitude of cheeky sarcasm, bombastic anger, and cynical nihilism that shows up in all of his sci-fi roles. Hunter and McDowell, however, are accomplishing an impossible task by being sweet, adorable, and endearing while caked in makeup. Maurice Evans is frustrating due to his role as the unlikely hero of the film, protecting Ape City from progress because he knows humans used it to destroy themselves. There’s no real good guy, with Taylor playing the hateful cynic that ends up knowing exactly why the world changed and Zaius desperately trying to keep it from happening again. Cornelius and Zira are cute, but their lack of understanding is holding them back. It’s so interesting to behold.

Can we talk, at least briefly, about the Jerry Goldsmith score? It’s unnerving and filled with non-traditional noises that I’d love to see performed live. He had his musicians bang pots and pans together, scrape things against one another, and blow old-fashioned horns to sound as primitive and jangly as possible. It’s malevolent and mean, one of the strangest I’ve ever heard, and I desperately want to hear it live.

It was unpredictable just how thrilling this film wound up being for audiences in 1968. One film, written by the guy doing The Twilight Zone and adapted from a French novelist that thought it a lesser work, went on to become a national sensation and spawned sequels and reboots that are still going to this day. Somehow more shocking is the weird-ass sequel, with it’s mutants and hallucinations and a finale that just…holy shit. We’ll talk about Beneath the Planet of the Apes next week, but for now just blissfully bask in the glory of Charleton Heston’s 60s dad-bod and three actors drowning in makeup having conversations about the nature of scientific truth in the face of religious zealotry. That’s surely going to be a break from your day-to-day life…

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