And lo the great Planet of the Apes viewing doth commence!
I’m sure most of you know there’s a new Planet of the Apes movie coming out next month – Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Until now I’d only ever seen one Apes movie, 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes. I thought it was great. The new trailer for Dawn was so great, however, that it rekindled my interest in watching the original series. I already knew the first was a must watch; obviously as a movie fan, that’s a film I’d have to see. The rest I hadn’t heard much about, until I discovered Devin Faraci’s unbridled enthusiasm for the first five films. So I got the five films, planned my schedule, and will watch them all before Dawn comes out. Here’s the first of the series with my review of Planet of the Apes:
Let’s get the boring part out of the way right off the bat. Yes, I liked this movie. I liked it a whole lot. I’m not one of those people incapable of contextualizing and enjoying movies older than a decade, so I was pretty much predisposed towards loving this movie. It’s a major pinnacle of popular culture. (How many times has the film’s end been parodied? I can immediately think of two, but I suspect The Simpsons alone would have imitated that scene more than twice.) But beyond that, it’s just legitimately well crafted.
Oh okay, a few more boring bits. The film stars Charlton Heston and Charlton Heston’s teeth as George Taylor, a human astronaut who travels to a planet where highly evolved apes rule and humans are mute brutes. There are some amazing ape effects, and the movie hides actors like Kim Hunter, Maurice Evans, and Roddy McDowall behind the effects. McDowall was so good they brought him back for a bunch of the future films. The film uses this premise to address all kinds of political themes and topical social commentary, the way science fiction was practically designed to do. This all leads into one of the most-spoiled twist endings in all of film history. I’d not only seen the DVD cover, which spoils the twist, but had of course seen parodies and just plain clips of the end. The damn thing still worked like gangbusters though.
Okay. We’ve established the gist of my reaction, we’ve introduced the film, now let’s talk about what actually makes this movie so effective.
The first thing that really impressed me about the movie was the cinematography. There’s an epic scale to it, especially the scenes set in the desert, which feels rare in contemporary films. If this was a modern day blockbuster I suspect we’d have something like four of those stunning wide shots total, and instead we get whole scenes of them. It’s wonderful. The whole film is just super well shot. The massive wide shots really contrast with some surprisingly dynamic camera movements during the action scenes. I was not expecting to see Charlton Heston leap over an upside camera when I started the movie, yet I totally got that! There are also a handful of thrilling whip-zooms, especially around the time the apes are introduced.
Which, holy fuck, is a great scene. It’s not until almost the twenty minute mark that the apes are actually seen. We’ve seen no hint of them until that point, but the scene is like a brilliant monster movie in miniature, teasing and hinting and building tension before the inevitable money shot. We see the humans panic and run. We don’t see what they’re running from, but our heroes run with them. The camera darts around as tall wooden rods suddenly bash through the cornfield. Again we see the frightened humans panic and run. The camera darts and figures on horses smash through the field further frightening the people. Then the camera zooms in as one of the riding figures turns around. The scene is utterly thrilling and immaculate in its construction.
Hell the movie maintains the wonderful tone right the way through the scene, which again feels like the sort of thing most modern blockbusters would botch. The trick is that there’s almost no pause. The closest the scene comes to allowing the audience breathing room is the money-shot of the ape, but it’s hardly enough to diffuse any tension. I can’t help but wondering if the same scene was attempted today would the camera pause the fly around their CG ape to grant the audience a better look at their effect, tension be damned? Actually the new Apes films have a wonderful sense of restraint to them, so maybe that’s an unfair comment (they’re clearly an exception to the trend though). The entire scene is relentless and brutal and features at least one unexpected death.
The only element of this movie that really caught me off guard was the evolution subplot. For some reason no article I’d read or video I’d seen had mentioned it. The plot line sees Cornelius trying to prove that apes evolved from man. This whole theme allows for the dramatic conclusion, and for the first real hints of the twist. Cornelius, you see, discovers signs that human culture used to be far more complex than ape culture. I really, really liked these portions of the movie. Don’t get me wrong, Charlton Heston in a cage is great, but when the film shifts heavily into the evolution plot line it gets really interesting. Some of this interest is generated by just how compelling Cornelius and Zira are. They’re wonderful, unusual characters and I adored every minute they were onscreen. This plot also leads to one of the film’s best scenes, the trial.
The trial scene for me served as a perfect example of the film in miniature. It’s taken up by four distinct and well-written characters, three of which manage to be compelling through ape make-up. It’s smart, well-written, surprisingly excellent SF (because SF needs world-building and this scene oozes world-building, which no one does anymore).
Of course at some point we’ll have to address the film’s effects. The film has great effects.
You want more than that?
I love to analyze and examine effects in movies, take stock of how the director handles effects shots, and generally try to figure out what works and why. Half the time watching Planet of the Apes I completely forgot the apes weren’t characters. The actors, writing, and effects create characters that feel powerful and real. It’s still phenomenally effective.
I’ve come out of Planet of the Apes more excited for this reviews project than when I went in; I expected to like this film, but I liked it so much that I’m even more into my planned viewing. Here’s hoping the sequels can retain this quality. If they’re even half as entertaining as this one. it’ll be worth the time.