Friday, May 10, 2024

Chimpan-A to chimpan-Z: You who are reading me now are a different breed, I hope a better one


PLANET OF THE APES

1968
Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner
Written by Rod Serling, Michael Wilson, and John T. Kelly (based on the novel by Pierre Boulle)

Spoilers: oh, c'mon


You can tell there's something special about Planet of the Apes from the fact that it's a science fiction movie that came out in 1968, but it's still an absolute legend of cinematic sci-fi, that (outside of essays seeking to situate it in its historical context, anyway) doesn't have to be compared to 1968's other genre-redefining sci-fi film about an astronaut discovering humanity's infinite capacity for violence.  I'd say that it's funny that it and 2001: A Space Odyssey share a principal theme, but, after all, Planet of the Apes has every themeremarkably, that turns out to be one of its finer qualitiesso maybe it wasn't entirely unlikely.  The distinction might be that 2001, approaching it more obliquely than PotA approaches anything, is weirdly more sanguine about it.

We'll get to that soon enough, though for now it's better to treat with the very obvious differences.  2001 is, or is very close to, an actual art film.  When PotA's own non-trivial artsiness does come up, it's mainly in order for it to be a better B-movie with barely a B+ budget (even Jerry Goldsmith's extraordinary "alien noises and alarm klaxons" adventure score isn't a full exception, though it did get a righteous Oscar nomination), and it can be located somewhere between the world's biggest episode of The Twilight Zonea comparison that would need to be made even if Rod Serling himself weren't the primary author of its screenplayand the world's best episode of Star Trek.*  Ultimately, screwing around with its B-movie formula is even a huge part of how Serling and Michael Wilson's screenplay works, almost to the extent that subverting that formula is as much the point of PotA as any of its numerous other points.  So even if it's not the austere, perfectionist kind of film art that 2001 is, it arguably might be doing things that are more insidious with the narrative form of space-exploration sci-fi as it stood in 1968, making Kubrick and Clarke's question for the genre, "hey, but what if it were extremely serious and visually persuasive, and also you could drop acid to it?", the one that's less radical.  Yet it's tantalizing to imagine that, on top of that, it might have been just as much as 2001 a vision of how humans and technology in fact create each other.


Beginning as a much-different novel written by Pierre Boulle, the driving force behind the film was a certain Arthur P. Jacobs, a big-wheel Hollywood PR man, who by 1968 had transformed himself into an independent producer; by the end of a career that started late and concluded early (he died suddenly, only six years hence), he managed a reasonably solid track record for hits, predominantly at 20th Century Fox.  He started by raiding his client list for 1964's all-star What a Way To Go!, which confirmed him as a major player; presumably to his regret, that success led to 1967's Doctor Dolittle.**  There's something fitting about the accidental diptych that resulted, however: having inflicted a fatal injury to the film musical, essentially killing 1960s cinema in the process, Jacobs's immediate next step was to usher into existence one of the definitive genres of the decade to come, with a sci-fi film that birthed "the 1970s" as a concept in film history, at least as much as any of the previous year's "New Hollywood" standard-bearers had.

Not that it's Dolittle's fault that PotA turned out the way it did.  This is a very quick-and-dirty history of PotA's labyrinthine development process, but the important thing is that Fox's Richard Zanuck just really didn't want to ask Fox's board for the money to make an expensive movie about alien monkeys.  After months of Jacobs attempting to convince him otherwisewith a third-or-so draft of Serling's screenplay already in handZanuck made an offer, just to get Jacobs off his back: make it for $5 million, the limit of what Zanuck could authorize himself, or don't make it at all.  Jacobs decided to make it, but obviously some recalibrations had to be made to Serling's adaptation of Boulle's novel.  So: out was Boulle's near-futuristic planet, built for the pleasure of the non-human primates, and hence much like late-60s America but different enough to cost around $14 million if you tried to visualize it; in was the Star Trek set, that would only be out of Star Trek's budgetary range because it's a medium-sized backlot exterior, rather than because it's more convincing or more meticulous; indeed, also in was a huge amount of Southwestern Desert location shooting, like a black-and-white B-movie from fifteen years prior, although, canyonwise, they went Grand instead of Bronson.


Reducing the scope of Boulle's world was, it seems, Wilson's principal task, and my understanding is that Boulle's story had already been reducedrather, reshaped and streamlinedwith Serling keeping the basic world-building but abandoning the more detailed explorations, in favor of a straighter plot and his own more closely-held allegorical ideas.  And maybe it's not a twist that Serling, bringing to bear all the shocker powers that a creator of The Twilight Zone must have possessed, was responsible for the twist that concludes this film, but was not remotely contemplated by the book.

So, beware!  I'm going to spoil that twist, to the extent it could possibly be spoiled; of course, the only sci-fi films that have twists even as famous are the ones that close out The Empire Strikes Back and the apex of 70s sci-fi, PotA's direct descendant, Soylent Green.  I mean, you know: it was Earth all along.  The planet of these apes is the planet of our apes, having replaced their human cousins after what could only have been nuclear war.  And thus did "70s sci-fi" arrive fully-formed: there's aesthetic and conceptual commonalities defining the period, apart from PotA's precedential moodiness, but when someone says "it's like a 70s sci-fi flick" what they mean is it's fucking bleak, and extra-depressing, and morbidly consumed by the end of the world.  PotA is not the most depressing (it's why I prefer Soylent Green, which keeps the world going as a shambling corpse); in a sense, that's its twist's weakness, because it spits you out of the movie upon its revelation.  But it's damned pessimistic, anyhow: everybody is dead, because the human species is suicidal; the new order is equally horrible; our ape heroes will likely shut up and toe the line; our human hero's happiest future is breeding a moron from an obviously worse Homo subspecies; even then, they're as likely to just starve to death, because nobody knows if there actually is anything past the radiation-blighted Forbidden Zone.  Jacobs, incidentally, prided himself on making movies for "family audiences," and it says something about the freewheeling style of late-60s/early-70s doomerism that this was intentionally "for kids."


Well, we don't find this out until the end, but PotA has effectively ended the world before it's even properly started, with our man, astronaut George Taylor (Charlton Heston), musing to posterity about the state of contemporary civilization, so it's not the biggest surprise when, later on, he admits that he volunteered for this time-dilating, relativistic-speed space mission because if anyone was out here, they'd have to be better than humans.  Obviously, he's still being too optimistic.  Likewise, that spaceship will soon be destroyed, but PotA has actually rendered humanity extinct by the end of the first scene: aboard Taylor's ship is one woman (Dianne Stanley).  She doesn't die in the crash, nor even get a line of dialogue; when they wake up from cryosleep, she's already been dead for a year.

But anything can get worse: the ship malfunctions, and slams into a lake on a world they believe is somewhere in the constellation Orion.  Taylor and his subordinates, Landon (Robert Gunner) and Dodge (Jeff Burton), survive, and venture across a desert.  They do have dialogue, though they also only exist to get killedor worseleaving Taylor the final representative of true humankind.  On their journey through what Taylor will learn is called the "Forbidden Zone," however, they meet creatures who appear human.  These include the one Taylor dubs "Nova" (Linda Harrison), who doesn't get any dialogue because she, like the rest of her species, have lost the power of speech, and basically live as scavenging pests, for instance stealing our astronauts' clothes.  Hence are those astronauts closer to a state of nature themselves, and difficult to discern from their human-like antagonists, when they all find themselves caught up in a sweep made by the true dominant life forms here: evolved ape-like beings that resemble gorillas, chimpanzees, and orangutans, who have forged an interspecies confederation that operates upon a caste system dictated by their phenotype, gorillas as soldiers, chimpanzees as scientists and technicians, and as someone had to be the priests and politicians, the orangutans assumed that role, even if I'm not sure "godbothering" was a concept ever heretofore associated with orangutans.  (Still, it's not coincidental that this caste system obeys a colorist, ginger supremacist hierarchy.)  The chimpanzees and orangutans get lots of dialogue.


Taylor, for his part, has suffered an injury that's temporarily stolen his voice, but he's nursed back to healthfor malign purposes that he understands immediatelyby the amoral zoologist, chimp Dr. Zira (Kim Hunter), and, at some length, he manages to prove that her so-called "Bright Eyes" is not like the rest of her subjects.  She involves her boyfriend Dr. Cornelius (Roddy McDowall), but when Taylor speaks it threatens all that the orangutans have taught regarding ape religion, and while they would destroy him, the wisest of all orangutans, Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans), fears him the most, so would rather use him.  He understands more of this world than he lets on, though perhaps his spirit is as broken as Taylor's in the end, not that it's likely to actually matter for the apes' future any more than the truth will for Taylor's.

This is one awfully smart screenplay, particularly for a movie that needs to be accessible enough any eight year old could enjoy it; and we can throw some love Wilson's way, to the extent he helped massage Serling's initial drafts (and uncredited script doctor John T. Kelly massaged his in turn).  But it sure has Serling's touch, and even feels like a grandiose statement about what he'd learned over the course of The Twilight Zone regarding what allegorical sci-fi was capable of, so that at no point does PotA ever get stuck in the mud of a single, definitive metaphor, nor a single, definitive politics, though obviously it's broadly left and anti-establishment.  It's broadly anti every establishment, starting with white supremacy, continuing with religion, and finding substantial time for what it literally is about, species supremacy (turned upside-down, of course), but because it's allegorizing for 112 straight minutes at a Twilight Zone pace, eventually it starts getting abstract, and begins to be about cycles of history, and whether any form of humanitybe it seated in H. sapiens or P. troglodytes, or whatevercan ever manage justice, or only new forms of exploitation, as long as there remains another to exploit.  Orangutan over chimp, gorilla over maneven man over woman, again.  You could discuss how it engages with "1968" all day (there's a feminist reading I could whip up, about Taylor's dissatisfaction with the reactionary male's "perfect" woman), but fundamentally it's as nihilistic as movies get, even if it's also a fun adventure about Chuck Heston kicking gorillas amidst a cartoon version of nuclear armageddon.


There are problems that stack up, unfortunately.  Starting with the piddly, the film really oughtn't have included that insert shot of the chronometer that tells Taylor what year it is, and allowed us to only hazily guess how much time has passed, without getting antsy over "plausible evolution"; moving up to medium-sized, while leaving Harrison in a leather minidress is an acceptable concession to "it's a movie," her makeup and hairstyling is a film-long distraction (as noted, however, I very much like her underappreciated character's function, the way Taylor's own humanity is weakly propped up by how openly sarcastic he gets to be, right to her face, about what a sub-par girlfriend she'll make, though Heston manages to thread some condescending affection into the relationship anyhow).  But I'm honestly baffled that the middle act was allowed to sag the way it does: Taylor is never dumb-dumb before or after this, but it takes him fucking ages to get Zira's attention, and you'll figure out a dozen ways he could have proved his sapience by the time he, finally, gets his hands on a writing utensil.  (Whistle a song.  Tap out a number series.  Man, I've got more.)

The most persistent problem is down to PotA's combination of budget and screenwriting convenience: "Ape City" is a wonderful piece of art direction pointing at how apes might invent an inhuman architecture that suits their new obligate bipedalism and less-arboreal existence, while remaining nostalgic for the jungle; but it doesn't convince as the locus of a sprawling, sophisticated civilization, and at all points the apes feel like a small community unaccountably crammed onto the border of the zone that Ape Law forbids them to enter, with the script refusing to let you to pretend that this is just some rural outpost, thanks to the high density of important personages and cultural opportunities it seems to host.  There's also the matter of ape technology, which feels like a grab-bag of a solid millennium, though I think the idea is "19th century," something made clear by the very first spoken line of ape dialogue, "Smile!"an instruction from a photographer, speaking to his fellow gorillas behind a pile of humans, as if they were hunters out on a jaunt, though it's even more queasily akin to the records of colonial genocidewhich has become my second-favorite moment in the film after the ending.  It establishes PotA's pattern of never going very long without punching you in the face with something that's all the more horrifying because of how abnormally "normal" it is, not infrequently delivering its punch by way of jagged editing, or a proto-70s crash zoom.


We're getting back to what it does great, then, but there's the gorilla in the corner: they speak English.  And I am so conflicted about this: Serling is toyingI believe purposefully, indeed satiricallywith the unchallenged supremacy of the "do you want a story or not, dipshit?" Space Aliens Speak English trope, because thanks to his twist, it's possible that his apes would, in fact, have adopted English.  Taylor of course doesn't notice this unsubtle foreshadowing, so the movie's intelligence on this one subject tops out only at calling other movies stupid: there's something a little airlessly metaeven doing injury to Taylor's emotional journeyabout it, even if, on balance, it's obviously very clever that Serling worked such a bone-dry gag into the foundations of his movie's structure.

But everything else is great, from the initial gut-punch of Stewart's death to the mysterious, disaggregated presentation of the Statue of Liberty that lets us sit with Taylor's cosmic horror for nearly a minute before we're allowed to share it.  Patience is, indeed, a virtue of much of the film: for someone whose filmography doesn't seem to go much for artsy abstraction, director Franklin J. Schaffner is shockingly willing to stretch out an opening where the only "apes" we get are Heston, Burton, and Gunner, and all they're doing is dying in a desert.  But Schaffner finds immense strangeness in what ought to be a familiar landscape, punched up with a modest amount of low-budget effects, and mostly just what his great cinematographer Leon Shamroy can do with Panavision lenses and daylight horror, and with the angles they've selected to present it.  (Heston et al's willingness to scrape their knees and show their butts helps, too.)  Sometimes this patience gets flipped on its head, and shit happens very suddenly: the brusque, barely-obscuring editing on the advent of a gorilla dragoon squadron that gives you glimpses of something being wrong, before catapulting you directly into the first good look at John Chambers's world-shaking effects makeup.  (It is, of course, not "realistic recreation," but it does evoke "what if apes were people" well; the technique is incredible, allowing the actors an unheard-of expressivity behind the prosthetics.)


And I should mention somewhere that, bleak as it is, PotA's no humorless slog; besides the cornier jokes ("don't trust anybody under 30" sez Charlton Heston, and I still enjoy the "three wise apes" tableau even though it's obviously pushing it), Hunter and McDowall are allowed to pursue a rare kind of comedy, as the dark joke is how selectively sociopathic they are, from our human perspectivemuch like how humans usually are to our own "others"and Taylor's omnidirectional misanthropy is often laugh-out-loud funny in Heston's rendition of curdled nihilism, notably his mocking laughter at Landon for setting up a small American flag as claim to a barren wasteland and/or memorial that no one will ever see.  PotA is, after all, miraculously blessed with a corps of actors willing to take "talking apes" this seriously, McDowall and Hunter in particular working out a very non-human physicality, both individually and between themselves, that also never becomes stereotyped, but reflects each one's personality: Cornelius's prim slapped-down conformist against Zira's increasing rebelliousness, which itself feels more like naivete (and which also has to be navigated against a moral awakening that Hunter decides to play more blithely and selfishly than should work for a such a thoughtless butcher).  But obviously, Heston is the big show, his years of epic cinema honing his native ability to shirtlessly convey an ever-escalating series of states of emotional devastation by way of Baroque poses and screams (as well as straining at his own face in furious silence).  Maybe he wasn't Jacobs's first choice, but he's the perfectly-cast Last Man, and the perfect casting for this particular Last Man, Heston's intermittent sarcastic snarls and barks of instinctive human defiance becoming iconically-pitiful howls into a literal void by the end.  They tie together the contradictions of this Taylor: the man who had hated humanity, then championed it, then at last realized he was right the first time.

Score: 9/10

*Cf. "The Omega Glory," airing one month after PotA came out.
**Though I am one of those weirdos who likes Doctor Dolittle.

7 comments:

  1. I've been looking forward to this one, thanks!

    You touched on it at several points and I have to concur it really is something how the movie's final twist works almost entirely by taking advantage of long-standing sci-fi tropes, though I think I may be more totally on-board with it as an unequivocal good thing. When you think about it, the fact that there are humans *at all* really ought to give the whole game away. They don't even have pointy ears or anything, they're just full-blown humans!

    On that note, I read the original book about a year ago, and I recall the moment when the protagonist first tries to speak to his ape captors, who respond with laughter and regard him as an animal doing a crude and hilarious imitation of ape behavior. I was baffled why the human didn't just *keep talking* in response, and it took me an embarrassingly long time to realize the apes spoke a different language! I was just that used to the whole "the apes just speak english, ok?" conceit (or in this case it would've been French via the book's English translation)!

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    1. I forget if it was in the book* or in one of the unused screenplay ideas for this or Beneath the Planet of the Apes--I think one of the screenplays--but at some point Dr. Zaius propounds a hoax conspiracy that Merou/Taylor is actually a fancy mechanical toy that's been merely programmed to speak. (This obviously works better when the apes are hi-tech and not roughly Victorian.)

      I did find out after publication that Serling's original draft or drafts actually did include a language barrier.

      *Which I tried to get a copy of a few days ago and failed, annoyingly, because I couldn't put this off.

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    2. To add: I am still really struck by the similarities to Star Trek's "Omega Glory" (which I should say I'm about to spoil, to be on the safe side), which fully embodies the formula that PotA messes with: spaceman (Capt. Kirk) comes to planet, solves all their problems (including ones caused by his spaceman colleague) because he's awesome; everybody speaks English, iirc including the Kohms; twist ending with relevance for the audience, almost like a parody of PotA except I don't see how that could be possible, when it turns out the "aliens'" religious text is a straight-up copy of the freaking U.S. Constitution. And I do love that episode though it's very much the dumb version of this.

      Of course, that's only one of like five "convergent evolution," alternate Earth episodes in Trek's original series. At least TNG pretended it wasn't exactly like, e.g., the Irish Troubles, when they did stuff like that. But then, that's kind of the fun of TOS.

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  2. The Village was a village all along!

    Rod Serling had already written The Twilight Zone's "Eye of the Beholder" and "Third From the Sun" (the latter with Richard Mattheson), which are both basically just the opposite of this; throw in the misanthropy and gut-punch of "Time Enough At Last" (with Lynn Venable), plus chimps and such, and you've basically got Planet of the Apes.

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  3. Hey my comment disappeared! It's been kind of glitchy the past couple days.

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    1. I checked on my end and it's not there either, which is totally bogus. I don't think I accidentally deleted it, as I don't know how I could have done so without at least realizing I accidentally deleted it, though if I did so, profuse apologies. And that might be preferable to the platform just randomly eating comments. Hell.

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    2. It's alright, I think it has something to do with my nom de plumme matching the screenname of a Blogger account I didn't know I had and I guess was automatically logged in to (seemingly tied to my google account?), and then I deleted that Blogger account. Though afterwards half the time I try to comment it says "failed, try again later" because it still wants to post under that account that I didn't want that no longer exists.

      So it's buggy but at least not "completely random" buggy.

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