Get your stinking paws on this DVD….
I’m not the kind of critic that likes to give away too much, but for once I’m not going to worry about it. In fact, I’ll go out of my way to type SPOILER WARNING in extra small type, just to mock the concept. The PLANET OF THE APES Charleton Heston finds himself on is really EARTH in the far future! He finds the Statue of Liberty!
This has become one of the most well known “surprise” endings in the history of cinema – so much so that even people who have never seen the film know the ending, and can even recite dialogue from it. Hey, don’t take my word for it, just take a look at the video packaging. Fox has put the ending right there on the cover! And just to make sure no one misses it – if it, say, happens to be shelved the wrong way by a sloppy video store clerk – they put the ending scene on the back, too!
For those of you that like to read synopses just for exercise: here goes. Heston stars as an astronaut taking an exploratory one-way voyage far into interstellar space. His team slips into their little suspended-animation bunks, requesting a wake up call should their ship land on any inhabitable planet. It’s not spelled out in any great detail, but if you think about it, this is about as desperate a plan as you could think up. Imagine how bad things must have become on Earth if they decided to spend billions to send four people into space on the slim chance that they’ll be able to start anew on another world. And look at the ratio they pick to start their new order: three men and one woman. Makes you wonder if their all impotent, just to ensure failure.
Making matters worse for everyone aboard is Col. George Taylor (Heston), a thoroughly unpleasant and cynical bastard that goes out of his way to point out how stupid and awful his fellow human beings are. It makes you think perhaps the real purpose of the mission is to get Taylor off the planet. The good ship Pointless crashes upon reaching its destination, and the only woman on board is found dead on arrival. The surviving trio wanders off into the barren wasteland, each one casting shifty glances at the others, wondering who will be first to make a pass.
Before any new romances can bloom, the film’s real monkey business begins. They succeed in finding other humans living in the wild, but are immediately attacked by the planets dominant species. I’ll try not to ruin the surprise revelation, but for a clue, try checking the title, which is also on the package. Right above the ending. And yes, it’s on the back, too.
Since a gorilla’s bullet nicked his throat during the attack, it takes George quite a while to convince his captors that he’s not a stupid brute like his fellow humans. Once he can talk again, it becomes even harder. The only apes who believe his story are kindhearted zoologists Zira (Kim Hunter) and Cornelius (Roddy MacDowall). However, high ranking orangutan Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans) does his best to do away with the talking hu-man and suppress all knowledge of his existence. You see, he too has seen the cover graphics, and fears that someday apes will lose the upper hand.
All the main ape characters wear award winning make-ups designed by John Chambers which are still effective, and the same concepts invented for the film are still being used today (though digital post-effects are already starting to be used). Producer Arthur P. Jacobs deserves kudos for having the courage to embark on the project, since no one knew how to make it all happen beforehand. Due to it’s mature handling of a potentially campy subject, the film became a gigantic smash. However, in retrospect, it all seems a little shabby. Despite the much-acclaimed sets, ape civilization is represented by what looks like a small village of odd concrete structures. Their houses look more suitable for the Flintstones, and there aren’t all that many apes around to run things. Where do they get their rifles, bullets, tools and clothing? Is there an immense ape industrial park somewhere just over a hill?
The answers to some of these questions would have to wait for the sequel. As for Taylor, he seems to be awfully surprised and upset to be back on post-apocalyptic Earth. He spent the first quarter of the movie predicting just such a disaster, and seemed resolved to the fact that “everyone he ever knew” would be long gone.
And here’s a tip: if you’re an astronaut, the next time you happen to land on a planet that has similar human beings, apes, horses, plants, and stars in the sky as dear old Earth, perhaps your first assumption should not be that it’s all the most colossal freakin’ coincidence.
The fact that the film was made so cheaply goes unnoticed, mainly because of the stately air given the production by its script, stars, and director. Though the film itself quickly attained the status of a pop culture classic, surprisingly, time has not been so kind to director Franklyn Schaffner. APES fans rarely remember his name. This is a shame, because Schaffner actually had an impressive resume at one time, and deserves much of the credit for making the film credible. He got his start working on some of the great dramatic series of early television, such as Playhouse 90 and Tales of Tomorrow. The success of Apes led him to an Oscar for Patton, and acclaim for Papillon, but for some reason his career declined, and he was found at the helm of camp disasters like The Boys from Brazil and the odious Pavarotti vehicle Yes, Giorgio.
Fox has made all the films in the series available on simply gorgeous THX mastered widescreen DVDs as part of a limited edition box set. Thus far, only the first film is available separately. Those that pick up the discs shouldn’t expect the kind of lavish extras on each disc that accompanied Fox’s Alien discs. That kind of deluxe treatment has been relegated to a 2-hour documentary Behind the Planet of the Apes on an extra sixth disc included in the box set.