There are a few gaps in my sci-fi knowledge, and it’s about time I filled them. OK, I’ve been browbeaten by some friends into filling them, but either way I felt it was time to finally take the plunge and watch Planet of the Apes. I can’t say that I ever felt it was a priority to watch a bunch of actors in monkey suits, but I’ve been told good things about this, so I gave it a go.
Certain aspects validated my reservations pretty quickly. I love 60s television but for some reason I often find 60s films a hard slog, and the slow pacing for the first half hour of this one didn’t help, with the astronauts wandering around a rocky landscape for what seemed like forever. I just wanted the story to get started, and that took far too long. When something did finally happen, the first sign of trouble was the macabre sight of human skins on sticks. Amusingly, one of the astronauts suggested from a distance they might be scarecrows, which made me laugh. Did he see a field of crops on the top of those rocks, because I certainly didn’t? Then, when the ape men finally made their appearance it was just as I had feared: wobbly mouths with static top lips, clearly incapable of forming the words we hear them saying. Later in the film we had not just wobbly mouths, but wobbly actors pretending to be exhibits in a museum. Maybe not a great idea for the director to place one of them right in front of the camera, if he wanted to attempt the impossible and get actors to look like inanimate objects. And then when a couple of the apes were kissing by tapping their fake, unyielding mouths together, that had me laughing out loud at the unintentional absurdity of it all.
But that’s all the nits picked, because I was rapidly drawn into the story after the first half an hour. I loved the apes’ buildings, so organic, asymmetrical and in harmony with the landscape. I loved all the shocking moments, with the lobotomised or stuffed humans, which brought to mind how animals are sometimes treated. I’m not an animal rights activist, or even a vegetarian, but when our treatment of animals is translated to human beings, it really brings home the horror of it all, even being caged up and washed from a distance with a hose. Taylor uses the word “humiliation” when he eventually turns the tables on Zaius, and that’s a very good word for what we have seen.
In fact, what I love the most about this film is the way it reflected contemporary issues through the medium of sci-fi, and that’s one of the big strengths of sci-fi. It makes us think about our own world, through the lens of another. Planet of the Apes can of course be interpreted as an examination of racism, with humans dismissed as inferior, but it also has a lot to say about religious intolerance, with facts being ignored in favour of scripture, in order to avoid uncomfortable truths. Although it’s not exactly a strongly contemporary issue, and wasn’t when the film was made either, the treatment of the theory of evolution as heresy is really at the heart of this film. Much more relevant to the 60s is the way humans have destroyed themselves to make way for the apes, which tapped into fears of the Cold War. But my favourite theme here was probably the most subtle, and that’s because I’ve long held the view that certain aspects of 60s culture was built on selfishness, much like the decadence that contributed to the fall of the Roman Empire. Taylor isn’t just sick of his life back home because of the Cold War. He was also living a life of making love but never finding love, so he was suffering from the empty-souled free love ethos of the 60s. Interestingly, when he is paired off with Nova, one of the things that leads Zora to realise that he is something very different to the other humans is how he is monogamous, so this is shown to be a key aspect of intelligent humanity. In that respect, I think the film functions as a condemnation of 60s youth culture, but it’s done with such subtlety that I suspect it tends to go unnoticed, bubbling under the surface of the bigger themes.
The twist ending wasn’t any kind of twist for me, simply because of the emphasis on the year the astronauts had arrived in, when their ship crashed. That would have been irrelevant if they were on an alien planet, so it was pretty obvious we were being shown that piece of information for a reason. Despite no prior knowledge, I watched this film with the certainty that I was watching a representation of the future of this planet, and the twist therefore failed… except I can’t call it a failure because it’s such a striking visual image, and without it the film would have been lacking a strong conclusion. All I can say is it’s a blessing Rod Serling was involved in this project, because that was apparently his idea, and I think it’s probably that one image, left in the mind of the viewer at the end of the film, that turned this from a popular film to a phenomenon that spawned an entire franchise. I must admit I’m not in a rush to watch the sequels or the television series, but I’m tempted to take a look at the remake to see how that was done. Presumably there is some improvement on the wobbly-mouthed ape costumes.
One final thought: Zaius turns out to be right about everything, and when I realised that I was stunned by the cleverness of it all. He’s supposed to be a character you can’t stand, the worst kind of closed-minded religious zealot, the “defender of the faith”, defending it by destroying any evidence that his faith is wrong. And yet, ultimately he’s trying to take a dangerous civilisation which turned the planet into a wasteland, and bury it in the past where it belongs. Depressingly, he’s actually wise to do that.
Zaius was right. Wow. RP