March 03, 2013

A Long Delayed Journey To THE PLANET OF THE APES

-Where will you go?
-To sart with I'll follow the shoreline and my nose...
I decided to start with a classic film that, by all rights, I should have seen decades ago.  Planet Of The Apes felt like a natural fit, especially since I had purchased the boxed set on blu-ray months ago but hadn't actually gotten around to watching any of them.  Some of you must be thinking, "How is it possible that you're such a big movie fan and you got all the way to thirty without having seen Planet Of The Apes?"

Here's my upfront attempt to explain all the gaps in my movie watching history.  The easiest way to sum it up is that my parents aren't big movie people, or at least they never collected movies the way I do.  Granted a large part of that tendency is a product of the times we live in: when I was a kid, VHS wasn't quite as all pervasive or cheap as DVD is today.  While we had a VCR and a decent shelf of movies, my recollection is that they were mostly movies for me and my younger brother and sister, i.e. Disney cartoons.  In fact, the only movies I recall being in the house that really belonged to my parents were Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves and Dirty Dancing.  Sure, we frequented our local Blockbuster, but to be honest I was always so focused on whatever movies had just come out that I rarely had time to go back and watch older movies.  My folks never really sat me down and said, "You like movies?  This is a great movie.  Sit down because you have to watch this."  (Well, to be fair, that did happen a few times, specifically with Slap Shot, *batteries not included and I think Raiders Of The Lost Ark.)

Without any older siblings to pick up the slack, my movie discovery bell curve was generally limited to new releases and whatever movies my friends would expose me to.  As I got older, I quickly discovered the folly of trying to watch a movie (especially an R rated movie) on broadcast television.  (As I'm typing this, my wife is watching a movie on TV where they are literally cutting to commercial at the climax of a scene for the third time.)  I therefore became somewhat of a viewing purist, not wanting to watch movies that were hamstrung by awkward TV editing, dubbed over profanity and the dreaded pan-and-scan.  This meant there were piles of movies that, by the time I was old enough to realize I needed to watch them, I wasn't willing to watch unless I could sit and watch them properly.  And until Netflix (and Netflix Instant) came around, that meant that I was once again limited to whatever movies I could borrow from friends and roommates.

To be fair, my only laziness also comes into play here.  As I said in my prologue, the problem of access hasn't really been a credible factor for the last five years or so.  My Netflix queue has been filled with piles of old flicks I should have watched long ago, but I tend to get distracted by shiny new things and the classics often fall by the wayside.  That's part of the reason I started this project.


I fucking loved Planet Of The Apes.  It's far from perfect and obviously the iconic final image was spoiled for me years ago, but it was hard for me not to fall in love with this late 60s gem.  Yes, Charlton Heston is kind of an unrepentant dick and yes, there are a myriad of production issues, but it's got just the right combination of far-out sci-fi, intellectualism, and hokey charm to fall right in my wheel house. (For the record, I saw both Tim Burton's remake and Rupert Wyatt's prequel in theaters and found them to be misguided and inspired, respectively.)

Kicking off the movie in the cockpit of a spacecraft immediately puts it in my good graces, and the quasi-first-person POV of the Icarus crashing into the water is actually fairly well executed.  Taylor (Charlton Heston) and his crew (minus female member Stewart, who died in cryo-sleep) actually make a pretty decent scientific effort to make sure that the planet is habitable before they evacuate the ship (more so than I imagine many of their cinematic peers did in 1968) and then the SLOW BURN begins.  We're treated to long sequences of the three astronauts floating down the river in their inflatable raft, hiking along the canyons and skinny-dipping in a pond.  Much of this happens in silence, although when there is dialogue it's mostly Taylor being a total asshat and insulting his fellow crew members.  He also tells them that they've landed a few hundred light years from Earth on a planet in the constellation Orion which, since he doesn't consult any charts or readouts before abandoning the Icarus, seems to be an outright and baseless lie.

Things start to get interesting when they encounter a group of native humans who awesomely stalk them, site unseen, atop a canyon and then steal their clothes while they're swimming.  (My wife had a similar experience with monkeys in Malaysia.)  That leads to an incredible awkward shot where all three men stand naked looking at footprints in the mud, (Not to be too sophomoric, but it absolutely looks like they're all staring at each other's dongs.) and then a naked safari to find their stolen supplies.  Upon seeing the mute natives gathering food, Taylor remarks that, "If this is the best this world has to offer, in six months we'll be running this planet," articulating the classic conquering European mindset and further cementing him as one of the most unsympathetic protagonists of all time.

It's at this point that the apes make their first appearance, over 30 minutes into the movie, riding in on horseback and brandishing rifles.  Talk about an iconic moment!  They don't even speak for another five minutes or so (when the apes are having their picture taken standing over the bodies of slain humans like big game hunters) but that imagery is simply stunning and it's no wonder that makeup artist John Chambers (portrayed by John Goodman in last year's Argo) would go on to win an honorary Academy Award, presented by Walter Matthau and a chimp in a tuxedo.  In a thrilling hunt sequence, the apes (who seem to love using extremely ineffective nets) capture a number of the humans, including Taylor and his fellow crewmember Landon while Dodge, the black guy, is unsurprisingly killed.  ("I've seen this movie, the black dude dies first.")

Taylor actually gets shot in the neck before being captured, which renders him unable to talk for the about the next 25 minutes of the movie.  This serves two functions: first off, Taylor becomes INFINITELY more likable when he's not constantly spouting off conceited macho bullshit.  Secondly, we get a great sense of how the apes treat humans when they don't yet realize the extent of Taylor's intelligence.  This clever role reversal, with apes treating humans like savage animals who are barely intelligent and utterly disposable, probably struck a particularly resonant chord in 1968, when the animal rights movement and indignation over animal testing first started to enter the public zeitgeist.  Taylor meets Zira, (Kim Hunter) an animal psychologist who is intent on proving that the mute humans have the capability for thought and speech.  She quickly discovers that Taylor, who she calls Bright Eyes, is not like the other natives.  He proves that he can write and communicates thusly with Zira and her fiance Cornelius (Roddy McDowell), an archeologist who has been pursuing a heretical theory that there was some sort of ape civilization that predates their own history.

At this point I'd like to discuss the historical progression of this ape culture.   Considering only the information made available in this movie, some things doesn't quite add up.  The apes ride horses, but don't yet have any sort of automotive transportation.  They wear clothes of crafted leather and fabric and they reside in simple stone (and perhaps clay?) structures, but they also brandish automatic rifles and keep humans in cages, which implies an understanding of metallurgy.  They clearly exist in a pre-industrial society, and yet when they encounter mass manufactured objects later on in the movie like the human doll, no one seems surprised or impressed.  And when Cornelius displays a map of the area, it's of a shockingly small area of land.  This is a civilization that has existed for approximately 1200 years.  It seems strange that they would have been around for so long without exploring and expanding beyond what amounts to a few days traveling time.  Moreover, it feels as if this culture is bizarrely advanced in some ways but stagnated in others.

Back to the story.  Taylor, who's been paired with a native female he's dubbed Nova, attempts to break out of his prison when he overhears the guards saying that he's been ordered to be neutered by Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans), who serves as head of both the scientific and religious order in the ape city.  Taylor's escape attempt proves both fruitless and somewhat boring, with Heston essentially running in circles around the ape village, crashing a funeral and hiding in a museum filled with taxidermied humans, including the corpse of Dodge.  The chase culminates in Taylor, strung up in a net, stunning a crowd of apes by shouting out the now infamous line, "Take your stinking paws off me you damn dirty apes!"

Here is where the film shifts gears once again.  First of all, once Taylor regains his speech he immediately turns back into an asshole.  He tells Nova about his doomed space mission, referring to the deceased Stewart as their "most precious cargo," saying that she was to be their "new Eve, with [their] hot and eager help." While the particulars of their deep space mission are left purposefully vague, it strikes me as a bit of a logical flaw if they were intending to populate some sort of space colony with three guys and one woman, all Taylor's sexist attitudes aside.  His ape handlers quickly split him and Nova into separate cages and turn the hose on him, culminating in Heston famously screaming, "It's a maaaaadhouse!"

We're then thrust into what's probably the best part of the film, Taylor's trial and subsequent prosecution by an ape tribunal.  Had I discovered this movie when I was thirteen or fourteen it would have become a regular staple of my cinematic diet, mostly because of the last half hour of the movie.  Here is where we discover that the real heart of the ape civilization is built around a fanatical devotion to the "Articles Of Faith" and anything that doesn't conform to that faith is deemed heretical.  So even though Taylor can plainly speak and reason just as well as any ape, Dr. Zaius and his ilk refuse to acknowledge the facts that are plainly presented to them because they don't fit in with the apes' pre-established worldview.  (At one point the ape tribunal literally adopts the "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil" pose as Zira argues in Taylor's defense.)  The ape prosecutor even rails against the "perverted and insidious theory of evolution."  Again, had I seen this movie in middle school, as I was just shaking off the yoke of my Catholic elementary education in favor of the logical embrace of science, I would have eaten this shit up.  In many ways, it reminds me of some of my favorite episodes of Star Trek, using some alien civilization to demonstrate an important point about our own humanity.

Once the tribunal rules against Taylor and threatens to charge Cornelius and Zira with heresy, the group stages a prison break and flees to the caves of the Forbidden Zone where Taylor first crashed and where Cornelius first uncovered evidence of an ancient civilization.  (Again, to drive home Taylor's asshole sexism, he insists on bringing Nova along solely in order for him to get laid.  If there's any doubt, Dr. Zaius even remarks that he didn't think humans could be monogamous, to which Talor replies, "On this planet, it's easy.")  After Cornelius presents Dr. Zaius with clear evidence of an intelligent human civilization, Zaius refuses to admit the truth.  After Taylor and Nova depart on horseback to "follow the coastline and [his] nose," Zaius goes back on his word let Zira and Cornelius off the hook for heresy and actually blows up the cave to keep others from discovering its contents and threatening their ape culture.  Taylor and Nova then stumble upon the ruins of the Statue Of Liberty, showing that it was, of course, Earth all along.

I mentioned some issues with production quality and they are indeed hard to ignore.  First of all, while the ape makeup looks fantastic and is certainly memorable, the actors have serious trouble with some of the prosthetics.  Often times their mouths barely move at all when speaking.  There are also great swaths of time that pass off camera, which you'd never know if the characters didn't explicitly say it out loud.  Seriously, one scene cuts to another and I'm thinking it's a few hours later, or maybe the next morning, and then suddenly Taylor says, "It's been weeks."  WEEKS?  If you're not paying close attention, you'd think the story takes place over the course of a few days, when in reality it's probably more like a month or two.  Most egregiously, there's a tremendous amount of shooting day for night.  In fact, there's not a single night time scene that was actually shot in darkness, forcing me to wonder if there was some kind of strange production scheduling issue that necessitated this decision.

I'm SERIOUSLY looking forward to watching the rest of this series.  Heston doesn't appear again in any of the other movies and honestly I'm not surprised.  Perhaps I'm unduly influenced by viewing the movie nearly half a century after it was made, but Taylor comes across as an incredibly unlikeable hero, the kind of lead character that would never survive today's prescreening focus groups. At the end, when Taylor tells Zira he wants to kiss her, (because he's a MAN dammit!) she practically laughs in his face and says, "Okay, but you're so damn ugly." I literally cheered out loud just to hear a woman take him down a peg.  I have no desire to see the further adventures of Taylor and Nova riding across the Forbidden Zone, but I'm TOTALLY down to explore new corners of ape civilization.  It's little wonder to me that audiences gravitated to the endearing ape makeup and wanted to see more of Roddy McDowell and Kim Hunter.  I certainly do, but rather than blow my wad all at once, my plan is to watch an Ape film every Friday night for the next few weeks.

One down, 364 to go.

Title: The Planet Of The Apes
Director: Franklin J. Shaffner
Starring: Charlton Heston, Roddy McDowell, Kim Hunter, Maurice Evans
Year Of Release: 1968
Viewing Method: Digital Copy (On TV)

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