“A planet where apes evolved from men? There’s got to be an answer.”
What Planet of the Apes Means to Us
I loved Planet of the Apes when I was a little kid, man. Not the movie, but the TV show. I had an Alan action figure that was pretty decent, and a Cornelius figure that was basically a flat, rubber bendy thing. And I remember Gibby Rossignal threw both of them onto the school roof and I never saw them again. (Screw you, Gibby.) Anyway, when I finally saw the film, I forgot all about the short-lived TV series. It’s something that you wouldn’t think could exist outside of a 1960s French sci-fi novel — “a planet where apes evolved from men?!” — or maybe an episode of The Twilight Zone (the first draft of the screenplay was written by Rod Serling but was rejected as being too expensive, with a more advanced ape society than what we ended up with). Yet with its post-apocalyptic adventure trappings and likable protagonists, human AND ape, it struck a nerve. Roddy McDowall ended up being the face of the franchise, and I honestly can’t think of what it would look like without him. (I’m still annoyed that the Cornelius toy didn’t have better production values.) And that ending – it’s all cliche now, but damn if that didn’t take my breath away when I first saw it. It’s got power, even now.
My father was a huge sci-fi nerd; as long as it wasn’t Star Wars (which he considered fantasy), he’d watch it. I remember watching shows I never would have simply because I was in the room with him while he was watching them. OG Star Trek, Andromeda, Farscape, Babylon 5, the list goes on and on. Since I barely paid attention to them and since he had already rewatched them multiple times, they acted as white noise while we talked about this or that. It would take something action-packed, weird and/or interesting to stop the conversation and actually hold my attention. For some reason, one of the series that would always pull me out of our long-winded conversations was Planet of the Apes. Not the TV show (I didn’t know that existed until years later), but the film series of the late ’60s and early ’70s. I was captivated by the premise, the cyclical nature of the timeline, and the entire mythology. I can’t remember which film I watched first or how impactful the twist was (I doubt it did anything since every home video release spoils it right on the cover) but I do remember that I did watch them, which doesn’t mean much to those with great memories who can recall every damn thing they did when they were younger but for those of us with shit brains that can’t remember two weeks ago, anything that has stuck with us that long, might as well be a core memory. Honestly, it might as well be because it’s probably the thing that made me fall in love with dystopian sci-fi, which is one of my favorite subgenres. I distinctly remember creating fanfiction that put Mad Max in the world of the Apes. I revisited the films years later to see if my opinions about them were legit or merely rose-tinted due to nostalgia and they held up remarkably well. The sequels are most definitely closer to the latter but the first one deserves its reputation as one of the great sci-fi movies. Heston is chewing the scenery like a dog, the makeup is great, and the score is phenomenal. It really delivers everything you want in a movie. Besides a badass mowing down monkeys in a leather jacket and a V8 Interceptor, that is.
Going in Spoiled
Planet of the Apes, much like The Empire Strikes Back, is a film that viewers around the world know the twist to whether they’ve seen it or not. When I finally watched Planet of the Apes for the first time, I was well aware that Taylor was on a future version of Earth and not on an entirely different planet ruled by apes. Yet, in some way, that made the viewing more enjoyable. I knew something the protagonist didn’t. Granted, I’m not quite sure why Taylor and his fellow astronauts immediately ruled out that they were on Earth after crash-landing. I mean, they know they’re in the year 3978, who is to say that the entire world hasn’t drastically changed since they left it in 1972?
Well, I guess their world did exactly that. See, I’m now waiting for Taylor and his pals to realize they’re on Earth. Of course, after the apes attack and capture them, Taylor temporarily loses the ability to speak. Now, the only thing I knew about the 1968 original was the final scene. So, while watching, I begin to wonder if Taylor will be mute until he utters those famous words, “Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell!” However, I completely forgot about the other iconic quote from this film — “Take your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape!” — which Taylor shouts to the apes, who are shocked at the supposed intelligence of the common man. Like Sailor already mentioned, Charlton Heston is chewing scenery in this film, but his performance is also what elevates Planet of the Apes from a simple sci-fi B-movie to a goddamn classic.
I would be remiss if I did not mention and praise John Chambers, who created the prosthetic makeup look that brought the titular species to life. The apes in the film may not fool anybody on the street, but the prosthetic makeup accomplished what it needed to which was to show audiences that these were apes who had evolved into basically being furry humans.
For his work on Planet of the Apes, Chambers was awarded an honorary Oscar at the 41st Academy Awards, which is damn impressive since the Academy Award for Best Makeup wasn’t established until 1981. Way to be the Walt Disney of Makeup, Chambers!
The Lost Pregnancy
While the main focus of Planet of the Apes is Taylor’s struggle to escape the tyrant apes (and rightfully so), the film also finds time to introduce a love interest to Taylor: Nova, played by Linda Harrison. Although mute and from 3978, she is far more intelligent than the other women of her generation. Harrison isn’t given much to do in this film (perhaps she has a larger role in the sequel I have not yet watched), but that reportedly wasn’t always the plan. While researching for this article, I learned that the original ending for Planet of the Apes had Taylor shot and killed by an ape sniper, with Nova running off into the Forbidden Zone… pregnant with Taylor’s child.
While I’m not opposed to the idea of Taylor starting a family with Nova, I do agree with one of the reasons the storyline was eventually cut — it takes away from that iconic ending. The reveal, of the Statue of Liberty buried in the sand, as well as Taylor’s dialogue, strongly suggests that humans destroyed one another, leading to the rise of the apes. Taylor’s mourning of the loss of humanity is far stronger without the added weight of bringing new life into this unfamiliar world.
Planet of the Apes was a critical and commercial success, launching a franchise that originally consisted of four sequels — Beneath the Planet of the Apes, Escape from the Planet of the Apes, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, and Battle for the Planet of the Apes — a live-action television series, and an animated series. The sequels, as well as Tim Burton’s 2001 remake, didn’t exactly match the esteem of the original, and it wasn’t until a decade later in 2011 that the franchise was really given new life.
That’s right, I’m talking about Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a prequel set before the collapse of mankind. Now, there’s a lot of discourse online about unnecessary origin stories for beloved characters, but I think we can agree that Rise, as well as its sequels Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) and War for the Planet of the Apes (2017), are one of the best trilogies to come out of the 2010s. These are the films that got me into the Planet of the Apes franchise in the first place. Andy Serkis’ performance as Caesar? I mean, c’mon, if anyone deserves an honorary Oscar it’s Serkis for giving us back-to-back-to-back-to-back motion-capture performances that are simply brilliant.
A fourth film in the rebooted timeline, Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes, is currently in post-production and will be released in 2024. I’m excited to see where the creative team and 20th Century Studios decide to take this franchise next.
Are you a fan of Planet of the Apes? Do you have a fun fact, piece of trivia, or analysis about the 1968 film? Share it in the comments!