Fifty years ago today, Planet of the Apes was released in theaters. Filmgoers were presented with an alternate future where humans were no longer the dominant species. No longer the strongest. It took audiences by storm and produced four sequels, two television series, numerous graphic novel adaptations, and a remake. Not to mention the recently popular film saga. What is it about this simple sci-fi story that has resonated with our culture for 50 years?
I had never seen the original film until this year in preparation for this article. I have seen all of the new films and have enjoyed most of them but I was honestly surprised how relevant the original still is 50 years later. I believe it worked so well because it held up a mirror to our culture and allowed us to reflect on our actions and behaviors in the light of what really matters to us as a species.
The original 1968 movie mixes political and religious satire, suspense, and action and leads us to a finale with one of the best twists in all of film history. If you don’t know what that twist is then please stop right here and let me express to you that you have an amazing gift right now. Please don’t read any further. Go find a copy of the film (but beware of some of the DVD covers that can even spoil the ending!). There is a new 50th anniversary Blu-ray edition being released this week and you can get it for $8 over at Best Buy. It has the film plus a digital copy and all of the special features that you could want. Enjoy the camp and get swept away to a time when political powers were unstable, the future was uncertain, and the threat of nuclear war was on the public’s mind daily. Even sarcastically you can see how this film still speaks its humanist message loud and clear.
This is not a perfect film. Charlton Heston has never been the greatest actor, but we see some of his best acting here because there is an extended section of the film where he is stricken mute and must act with just his bright eyes. He has the emotional subtlety of a madman, but that is almost endearing here as he plays a man who has experienced the death of everyone he has ever loved and is preparing to begin the human race again with his new Eve named Nova.
The story was crafted by an early sci-fi master, Rod Serling, and this feels like it could have been a great episode of the sci-fi television show The Twilight Zone. Consequently, the pacing of the film is a bit tedious. We spend a lot of time with fixed cameras watching the movement of our characters through beautifully bleak scenery. The core story is so simple and it has been stretched out over a feature run-time and feels very thin at times.
None of that matters because, the story is great. Imagine not being the most influential and powerful creatures on the planet. Imagine being subjugated, poked, prodded, and studied with little regard for our well-being. That is a humbling thought and it does make us think about how we treat others.
There are rich religious ideas at work in this film. Religion is presented as a narrow minded endeavor which blinds us to progress and the truth. The blind faith of the Apes in this religion of their own making has kept them from the deeper truth and leads them to hide and suppress the truth when it does show itself. However, their solution comes in the form of a man from far away who enters their ignorance and speaks the truth. He is a savior and evangelist of sorts. He has come to bring change to their society but they fight against the truth even though in our minds it should be evident to them.
My favorite part of the film is the ending, especially when I think of the time that this movie was released. We were still suffering from Cold War jitters and were in the midst of the early stages of a war which brought great uncertainty. However, none of those fears were exploited until the very last moments of the film and that gut punch resonated loudly.
The film was innovative in other ways, advancing the art of film make-up and becoming one of the first film series to tell a single complete story over several installments. However, above all, it’s a lot of fun and very entertaining. What did you think of the original Apes film? How long ago did you see it? What are your thoughts?
Do you think that humans have invented the idea of God? Are we simple minded if the don’t believe that we descended by the process of evolution from lower lifeforms over millions of years? What truth do we ignore or hide because of our love of the status quo? I’m not afraid of questions like this, and I don’t believe that asking them is a threat to my beliefs.