Film, TV and the Arts

Film, TV and the Arts

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Juror's Film Festival: Planet of the Apes (Franklin J. Schaffner, 1968)

One of the greatest science-fiction films ever made has been ruined by the mother of all spoilers. If you, by some frankly inexplicable stroke of good fortune, do not know the ending of the original Planet of the Apes, I implore you to go and watch it and stop reading this review forthwith. I envy those who have been able to watch this film unspoilt.

Given that the distributors of the DVD have taken the frankly abominable decision to put the famous picture of the Statue of Liberty on the cover of the collection, there is little hope of anyone ever being able to watch this film again without it being ruined beforehand. As such, there is no way I can talk about the film’s intrigue and suspense, as I knew exactly where it was heading all along. Because of this, it is a film which had a shot at being timeless, but that chance has been snatched away from it.

Despite the fact that the film is severely hampered by this issue, it remains a really interesting piece of work. There is something about the basic idea of this upside-down world, where apes treat men as nothing more than beasts to be toyed with, which is fundamentally clever and challenging. It still draws audiences, as the $402mn worldwide box office of this year’s reboot, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, demonstrates.

There are obvious themes which arise from this idea such as tolerance and animal rights. As Charlton Heston’s Taylor is treated terribly by his simian captors, moral questions of vivisection become quite unavoidable and attuned audients may find their opinions severely challenged. However it is a film which is stuffed with other issues, most overtly science and religion. Viewed simply within those parameters, the truth of science versus blind and ignorant faith of religion motif is very bland in this film, the blind ignorance of not just the religious classes but many others being frankly unbelievable. However, there is a bit more to this strand. Writer Michael Wilson also had in mind the McCarthy hearings, under which he suffered.

The film also zips along. Though it’s not as much fun as a modern day blockbuster may have to (in fact, the makers were worried it was too serious), it is certainly good entertainment, brilliantly accompanied by Jerry Goldsmith's ingenious atonal score. An opening spacecraft-crash sequence is brilliantly assembled, and the mystery of the planet they find themselves on (if you briefly allow yourself to forget the twist) is pretty intriguing. Much of this is down to the excellent performances, many in stupendous make-up. Of the apes, Kim Hunter (Dr Zira) and Maurice Evans (Dr Zaius) are particularly effective, but this is Heston’s film. His Taylor is a sardonic yet oddly charming man, whose strength of character and courage makes him quite uniquely gripping.

The main reason why Taylor is so interesting is his world-weariness. Both he and the film are incredibly stark statements against the state of the world. His opening lines which, due to his deep space travel, arrive on Earth millennia after he left, he asks “Does man, that marvel of the universe, that glorious paradox who sent me to the stars, still make war against his brother? Keep his neighbour's children starving?” He has no love for mankind or the world he left behind, and, of course, in the end, neither does the film. Its view of where humanity was headed was bleak indeed.

The level of pessimism in the film remains striking. The world of 2011 still has a dispiriting outlook, though in a very different way and there is distance between this film’s worldview and ours.  Nevertheless, the intelligence of the film is now an interesting sign of Cold War anxieties and anger. But, it is hard not to think that it really has lost something of its entertainment value by being so spoilt, and because of this, classic though it is, it will never again pack the punch it should do.

No comments:

Post a Comment