Planet of the Apes (1968)
Written by Michael Wilson and Rod Serling
Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner
Based on the 1963 novel by Pierre Boulle, Planet of the Apes, the movie goes in a very different direction while holding to some of the same basic themes & ideas. In the book, the story is told through the framing device of a couple vacationing in their space yacht coming across a transmission from a human soul who claims to have landed on a planet of apes. The film’s screenplay was penned by Rod Serling, the mind behind The Twilight Zone; however, he portrayed the apes as advanced in technology beyond modern-day humans. That was going to be cost-prohibitive. The script was rewritten by Michael Wilson, with the apes being framed in a smaller, more rustic society.
George Taylor (Charlton Heston) is an astronaut taking part in an ambitious space travel mission. His crew departed Earth in 1972 while using cryonics to survive the light-speed voyage. A malfunction occurs, and their ship crashes on a desolate planet. The team eventually encounters a group of human-like natives that are incapable of speech and behave like animals. This is made even more bizarre when humanoid apes show up, corralling and capturing these humans. Taylor discovers in this world apes, like Chimpanzees, Orangutans, and Gorillas, have achieved remarkable intelligence while humans have existed in primitive squalor. An injury during his capture keeps Taylor from speaking, but eventually, he finds means to communicate with scientists Kira (Kim Hunter) and Cornelius (Roddy McDowell), who immediately advocate for him. However, Dr. Zaius, an academic and religious leader in the community, is determined to silence Taylor at any cost.
Planet of the Apes has gained such a powerful presence in popular culture with frequent references to its most iconic moments. “Get your paws off me,” and the final scene are so embedded in our collective consciousness. With pieces of media like this, it can be very easy to lose touch with the original intent and concept behind it. I learned a lot about Rod Serling during my look at the Best of The Twilight Zone, and so his personal political views are certainly at work in this film. This is a movie about the threat humanity poses to itself and a reminder that we are not the only important living things on the planet.
Serling was a very talented writer who walked the line between entertainment and social critique. Planet of the Apes is a powerful commentary on religion and the fervor to drown out contradictory ideas that challenge the status quo. But it’s not as simple as that; Serling would never let it be that way. When the audience is hit with the sledgehammer of the ending, it suddenly makes the antagonism of Dr. Zaius not quite as harsh. We suddenly understand what the elder ape was trying to do by keeping Taylor and the other silent. His comment that he knew one day they would come hints that he possibly had more knowledge of the old world than we realize. It’s also a bleak finale that doesn’t leave the audience feeling good, something I’m not sure studio execs would let through now.
Helping set the eerie tone of the film is the musical score by Jerry Goldsmith. The music is avant-garde with lots of percussion and violins delivering a sense that the world is upside down. I think the best science fiction films are haunting and give a sense of isolation. I think of 2001 and the crew of the Discovery One floating in the deep void of space, so empty and lonely. The first act of Planet of the Apes evokes that same expanse, a journey through a wasteland. Even when Taylor is among the apes and primitive humans, he is just as alone. Those he could speak with are terrified that he has the ability, and those most like him cannot understand his words. For me, this has always given space and glimpses of the future a sense of loneliness.
Planet of the Apes was the film that saved 20th Century Fox. In 1968 they had some of their biggest box office flops to date, and it was this strange low budget science fiction feature became their biggest moneymaker. Planet of the Apes is seen as the first significant film genre franchise, spawning four sequels, an animated series, and a live-action series for this iteration of the concept. The current cinematic universe trend owes quite a bit to the foundations laid by Planet of the Apes.