Sunday, July 31, 2011

Zaki's Retro Review: Planet of the Apes (1968)

Note: Two summers ago I walked down memory lane and re-watched the entire catalogue of Star Trek features and offered my thoughts and reflections. With Rise of the Planet of the Apes hitting theaters this Friday, and my oft-stated love of the Apes franchise a part of the record in these parts, I've decided to do something similar here, hopefully lending some context to the experience of watching the new flick for you and me both.
When Planet of the Apes was first being pitched to wary cinema-goers in 1968, it was billed as "an unusual and important motion picture event." And while I doubt very much that anyone involved knew at the time how much of a half-life the dystopic fable of evolution turned upside down would end up enjoying, as far as descriptors go, "unusual and important" pretty nicely encompasses its place in movie history. "Unusual" for how it managed to wrap so many discussions of so many heady topics into such an ostensibly populist package, and "important" for how it redefined forever going forward the notion of film-as-franchise that's so commonplace today.

Although the plot outline of this most definitive of post-apocalyptic parables is likely familiar even to those who've never seen it, let's reconnoiter very quickly before we get to the analysis proper: Crash-landing on what they believe is a distant planet after spending two thousand years in suspended animation on their spacecraft, a team of astronauts led by the misanthropic George Taylor (Charlton Heston, in one of his most definitive roles -- and that's really saying something!) soon learns that the planet's human population is a subjugated race of animals that are used for sport by a race of intelligent apes.

Following a harrowing hunt sequence -- the first act's unquestionable action highlight -- that sees Taylor shot in the throat and unable to speak, with his team whittled down to just him, he manages to communicate with sympathetic chimpanzee intellectuals (symp chimps?) Cornelius and Zira (Roddy McDowall and Kim Hunter, conveying remarkable emotion and empathy even through their elaborate ape makeup -- and don't worry, we'll talk about them some more soon enough). They then help him escape the clutches of Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans), the orangutan bureaucrat who oversees both science and religion (figure that one out), harboring a deep, dark secret of his own, who's intent on lobotomizing and/or gelding Taylor.

After journeying into the vast desert expanse the apes have labeled "The Forbidden Zone" to discover secret of the ape planet, and following the requisite shoot-out with the gorilla army, Taylor rides off to his fated encounter with the movie's final shot, which I hesitate to spoil here even though everyone knows it already. But just in case you don't, you should probably put your hand over the picture to the right. Suffice it to say, he figures out that he is where the heart is.

While it would only be a very slight exaggeration to say that Planet of the Apes changed the face of cinema, it wouldn't be an exaggeration at all to say that the way it skillfully wove together suspense, action, and those "big" ideas that Hollywood usually shies away from changed completely my conception of what movies are capable of. If there's a "tinderbox moment" that lit the match in earnest on my lifelong love affair with the cinema of the fantastic, it may well be when I saw the first Apes as a ten-year-old in Saudi Arabia (in a version no less powerful for how heavily-edited it turned out to be -- something I remained blissfully unaware of until several years later).

That it was successful enough to spawn a franchise is surprising enough, but the bigger surprise still may well be that more than four decades removed from its debut, Planet of the Apes has taken up permanent residence in our collective unconscious -- even among those who know nothing about it other than the name. But let's talk monkey, here. What is the immortal appeal of the property that's kept the lights on through seven features, two TV series and a veritable bananarama of merchandise? How is it that forty-plus years later, it's still quoted, cited, and referenced in culture both popular and otherwise in way that I doubt very much French novelist Pierre Boulle remotely anticipated when writing Monkey Planet, the 1963 tome whose movie rights were quickly snapped up by producer Arthur Jacobs, and which serves as the lodestone for the entire magilla (gorilla).

For starters, there are the high-end production values, which still retain their timelessness today. What's apparent from frame one is that this was always intended, by both Jacobs and the studio, as a prestige picture and not just a quickie exploitation vehicle with guys in store-bought monkey suits. To that end, a sterling roster of respected stage and screen actors were recruited to fill out the simian parts. And a huge part of cementing that prestigious image was the man on top of the bill, star Charlton Heston. This many years later, it's difficult to properly valuate the immediate, sustained credibility the actor brought to the table, which in turn allowed the film to play to audiences that would otherwise have turned tail the minute they heard the title.

The Ben-Hur Oscar winner completely grounds the proceedings from open to close, with his character's arc resting on the irony of a man who detests humankind so much so that he abandoned Earth in hopes of finding, as he says, "something better," having to become its last defender. That irony is only compounded, of course, by the final image, with Taylor crumpled on the beach in front of the decayed remains of what once was a symbol of man's glory, but has since metamorphosed into a symbol of man's folly.

Just as a brief aside, it really tells you something about how effectively the film is constructed that the twist ending -- which originated not in Boulle's text but rather with co-writer (and Twilight Zone impresario) Rod Serling and director Blake Edwards (who was attached to helm the project early on) -- still packs a wallop for new audiences even after this many years. This despite the fact that all the characters speak English and utilize Earth idioms, which you'd think would be a pretty big giveaway considering how the use of language is made such a central plot point. Chalk one up for the willing suspension of disbelief, I guess.

I also need to make special mention of Schaffner, who went on to win a Best Director Oscar for Patton in 1970, and whose stylistic and tonal approach to this material is a big reason why it comes off as effectively as it does. By devoting nearly twenty minutes of the early goings to the astronauts' arduous trek -- from the lake wherein they execute a daring escape from their downed craft to the green belts on the other side of the barren desert -- it not only allows us to get a firm grasp on Taylor's dyed-in-the-wool cynicism ("We are here and it is now. You'd better get ahold of that and hang onto it, or you may as well be dead," he says, berating one of his fellow spacemen), but it also provides a proper frame for the utter desolation that surrounds them on all sides, making the lead-up to and payoff of the iconic hunt sequence even more powerful.

And it had to be powerful. In an enterprise that hinges entirely on believably playing off walking, talking monkeys, if we didn't fully buy into the elaborate ape makeup appliances crafted by artist John Chambers (who received an honorary Academy Award for his troubles), then that was the whole ballgame right there. But thanks to Schaffner's masterful execution (helped along by composer Jerry Goldsmith's Oscar-nominated score -- which manages to be both wildly dissonant and weirdly melodic all at the same time), we buy it fully.

Tracking on Heston as he barrels through the forest with heretofore-unseen horse riders chasing after him and firing their shotguns, he ducks, the camera whips around, and finally we see the titular apes in all their glory, cutting back to Heston's look of horror coupled with disbelief just long enough to cement for us what we're supposed to feel. It's a brilliant piece of filmcraft that stands even today as one of the most potent examples of how editing, framing, and staging can function together and either make or break a scene.

Another effective scene that underscores Schaffner's directorial skills occurs about halfway through, with Taylor escaping from the cage in which he's being held and taking off through Ape City in search of escape, encountering along the way various facets of ape life (a funeral, the market, their museum -- with stuffed and mounted human specimens). The nearly six-minute scene culminates in Taylor being surrounded on all sides by various simians hurling rocks, fruits, and epithets as he's netted and strung above the crowd. It's both gripping and unsettling, highlighting the futility of his situation while also asking the audience what we would do in similarly dire straits.

Beyond the production's well-polished execution, it's the dark, cynical, ultimately truthful read of humanity that's allowed it to resonate through the decades. Envisioning this story for the screen, scenarists Serling and Michael Wilson (building on the work of Boulle before them, of course) zeroed in on the inherent contradiction that seemingly typifies the human experience. As Zaius says in describing man, "his wisdom must walk hand-in-hand with his idiocy." The notion, implied throughout and explicated by the ending, that we would bring our society to collapse through our own hubris and inability to come together is horrifying on a visceral level, but sadly is underscored for us every time we turn on the news.

This fundamental conceit, in addition to making our protagonist's arc so deliciously ironic, also makes the primary antagonist, the dogmatic Zaius, oddly sympathetic in his own way. As the only ape with knowledge of the planet's distant past and man's role as its steward, and armed with full awareness of how that all ended up for us, one can certainly make the case for his acting in the best interests of his people (even when those actions leave one of Taylor's poor colleagues the drooling victim of a pre-frontal lobotomy).

Near film's end, after orchestrating a cover-up to preserve the secret of man's downfall, Zaius is asked, "Why must knowledge stand still? What about the future?" to which he responds, "I may just have saved it for you." Narrative ironies notwithstanding, he was also right in that the film's out-of-nowhere success, both critically and commercially, immediately handed a fiscal lifeline to the financially-strapped Twentieth Century Fox, saving the future for the studio and quickly putting a sequel on the development fast-track. All this even though it was clearly intended from the beginning as a one-off.

But Hollywood being Hollywood, they weren't about to let a good thing go. And with Planet of the Apes, boy howdy, they'd found a good thing. As to what that future Zaius alluded to would entail, and whether he did, in fact, save it, those were question to which expectant audiences would learn all the answers in just two short years. And they'd be a surprising ones.

To Be Continued...

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