An ingenious, thought-provoking science-fiction film that holds up over 40 years after its initial release, Planet of the Apes is a cinematic experience like none other in film before it. Spurred from the mind of producer Arthur Jacobs with a script by Rod Serling, it’s a classic “new kid in town” story where the “new kid” just so happens to be played by Charlton Heston and the “town” is an alien world controlled by super-intelligent apes.
Heston plays Taylor, an American astronaut who crash lands on an Earth-like planet after years of hibernation during his crew’s journey through space. Joined in the early parts of the film by two fellow astronauts, they eventually come upon some primitive human beings who behave more like cavemen than anything else. Soon they become hunted by several gorilla warriors and Heston is taken captive and held prisoner in Ape City.
Heston gives a particularly interesting performance considering his Hollywood stature at the time. Used to playing capable hero types, this time around he’s treated more or less like an animal in captivity and ends up giving one of his more memorable turns as an actor, marred only by a few “over the top” moments. As good as Heston is, even better are Roddy McDowall and Kim Hunter as Cornelius and Zira, the chimpanzee scientists who take Taylor under their wing when they find he’s far more advanced than any human they’ve encountered. McDowall and Hunter have a great chemistry together, you really believe that they’ve known and worked together for the longest time, mostly evident during the trial/inquisition scene.
Maurice Evans plays a perfect villain in the form of orangutan scholar Dr. Zaius, bringing a menace to the role that's unsettling at times. Dr. Zaius and his beliefs are also where a lot of the real world issues come in to play, issues that are still relevant in 2014. From separation of church and state, racial and sexual equality, unfair trials and overreaching/controlling governments, all are just as relatable as they were in 1968. I was pleasantly surprised with the realization while watching the film, that I came to sympathize with Hunter’s Zira the most, her being the scientist under religious duress by Zaius.
Modern audiences might be turned off by the lack of action or computer generated effects, but those with a love for the old-school will find a lot to appreciate here. The Oscar winning makeup effects by John Chambers are a sight to behold and are still very effective to the point of having to do a double-take every now and then to make sure that those are really people underneath all that latex. Later make-up artists owe a lot to Chambers’ work on this film and it’s great to see makeup from over 40 years ago still look so damn convincing. On the action side, the few scenes that contain it, specifically the early hunting sequence, are impressively staged and edited together and add quite the amount of thrills to the film.
Planet of the Apes is a definite classic of science-fiction and had it not been for the release of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey a few months later, would have been the crowning achievement for the genre in the 1960’s. For fans, it more than warrants a revisit, if however, you’ve never seen this masterpiece, I urge you to track it down as being disappointed is a hefty challenge.