Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Planet of the Apes (1968)

"The vet's going to geld him."

Wow. I know this film is famous, but I wasn't expecting it to be so good. So good, in fact, that I'm going to ignore the awkward fact that all the apes speak English. I can be nice that way.

The opening of the film both sets up the premise and gives us a bit of misdirection; we expect the film to be about Taylor and the two surviving crew members, but in fact they both die early on- Dodge first, of course. We expect this: he's black.

Our three astronauts have travelled in an interstellar craft to another star system, it seems. Incredibly from our vantage point we have dialogue establishing that they're from the twentieth century: Landon graduated in the "class of '72". Still, although only eighteen months have passed for the crew, time dilation now means that the year is now 3978. Everything and everyone they ever knew or lived is dead, as Taylor delights in telling his crewmates.

I had to raise an eyebrow that the female character was essentially put there to be a brood mate(!), but both the set-up and the establishment of world are good. Taylor is a fascinatingly nuanced character, a cynic on the surface but with some high ideals hidden deep down.The real depths of his character are a real credit both to the script and to Charlton Heston's superb performance.

The plot unfolds slowly before the big reveal: this is a world where sentient apes rule and humans are mere beasts. Technology and social mores, it seems, are about a century behind the world which Taylor left. Powered flight remains unknown and theories of evolution are controversial. 

The ideological contrasts between the apes are shown through the characters of Zaius- a fundamentalist anti-evolutionist with a real contempt for human "beasts", the scientifically curious Zira and Cornelius, who holds heretical theories about humans being more advanced in the past. The big reveal at the end- and Heston's performance makes it pack a punch even though popular culture has long since spoiled it for all of us- is, of course, that this is Earth. Humans destroyed themselves in some sort of self-inflicted (nuclear?) disaster, and the senior apes know this. Zaius's speech to Taylor at the end is crushing: humans are warlike and murderous while apes are not,and paid a just price. Suddenly we can no longer see Zaius as straightforwardly prejudiced. This links back cruelly to Taylor's speech in the first scene as he speculates on whether humanity has become less warlike and cruel. This is a masterly piece of structuring.

Everyone should see this film. It's certainly the best I've seen this year.

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