Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Beware the beast Man: Planet of the Apes '68

So HBO has all the old Planet of the Apes movies available right now. I haven't watched any of them since college, and I thought now would be a good time to go through them again. Might as well write about them here.

I have seen the newer ones as well. I'll get to them eventually, too.

My own history with this story isn't terribly long. Haven't read the comics or seen the cartoons. The only thing really worth reporting is that my mother told me long ago that the novel Planet of the Apes was the only book she ever saw her father read. My father moved from Tennessee to Michigan to work in the auto industry. He retired early to become a horse trader. I had to read Planet of the Apes immediately upon learning that he'd read it; I hope to track down a copy for a re-read soon. It's by Pierre Boulle (original title: La Planete des Singes, translated as apes but singes actually means monkeys if my high school French serves me well), who was a spy trained in science who, according to this BBC piece, wrote the end of his stories first and worked backward--sounds like an interesting guy.

The story begins: 1968's Planet of the Apes directed by Franklin J. Schaffner, written by Michael Wilson and Rod Serling.

The story starts out with Taylor (Charlton Heston) talking to himself. Good contrast with his later inability to talk after being injured. He and his crew are out in space, and while in stasis they crash on a strange planet. They trek across a desert in search of sustenance, and they meet some other humans who apparently can't talk. They do have food, though. Unfortunately, before Taylor and the others can conquer these tribal and insapient (is that word allowable? I don't want to use primitive; they're not able to talk or reason, as far as is presented to us in this film) humans, the apes show up and capture them all. One of the other crewmen is killed, the other gets a labotimizing head wound, and Taylor is rendered incapable of speech. We learn a bit about the ape society and their laws, but not too much, and eventually the apes learn that Taylor can speak. They suppress this--well, except for Cornelius and Zira, who are chimps that want to find out the truth in contrast to the zealously guarded other apes--and eventually put Taylor on trial. The chimps help Taylor and his cage-mage Nova escape, and they confront the other apes (epitomized by an orangutan called  Zaius) with evidence that human civilization preceded the apes. Zaius knows all this, of course, and was warned by their scriptures to "Beware the beast Man..." who kills for sport and laid waste to the world and all that. So they let Taylor and Nova run off, but Cornelius and Zira are going to have to stand trial. Then Taylor discovers that he's really on earth far in the future. Roll credits, etc.

Bit of a cliff-hanger there for the chimps.  I can't remember what happens to them in the sequel.

It's a pretty great move, I think. Different from the book; it's its own thing, with its own agenda. I was struck this time by Zira's nephew Lucius, who's a teenager spouting all this stuff about adults being the absolute worst; Taylor even says something about never trusting anybody over 30. It's weird in a movie that's about an ape society.

What I wish the movie had done (and what later movies will do) is explore how an ape society would be different than a human one. Though the apes aren't living in 20th century America, there's nothing particularly apey about their culture. They have a lawgiver from some distant past. They have flaws and foibles and talk (in English, of course) and interact much as humans might. They look sort of like differently evolved apes, but that's about it.

Of course, that wasn't the film's purpose. It's a film about culture shock, really; the shock of the devastation that Taylor's own culture could produce. There's even an Animal Farm reference, just in case we weren't picking up on it.

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