Science fiction, as a genre, allows filmmakers to tackle complex ideas and theories without necessarily being restrained by current reality. Without the constraints of real life as we know it, filmmakers are free to construct worlds that abide by their own rules and tackle important, existential ideas. Some of the most common concepts include what it means to be human, as shown in Ridley Scott’s BLADE RUNNER (1982), or a look at our reliance on technology shown in Spike Jonze’s HER (2013). One of the best films that explores both of these themes is Franklin J. Schaffner’s classic film, PLANET OF THE APES (1968).
The film has spawned comic books, sequels, and multiple reboot franchises, as well as two television series. Loosely based on the book Planet of the Apes by Pierre Boulle, the screenplay was co-written by Michael Wilson and Rod Sterling. Serling was known at the time as creator of the original revolutionary sci- fi series, THE TWILIGHT ZONE (1959 – 1964) just a few years earlier. The film follows three astronauts who have embarked on a mission through space in 1972: Taylor (Charlton Heston), Landon (Robert Gunner), and Dodge (Jeff Burton). After spending almost 2,000 years in hibernation, their spaceship crash lands on a distant planet. They are soon captured and studied by a society of talking apes, who have become the dominant species over the primitive, mute humans.
Once Taylor is captured, it is shown that the apes look down on humans as primitive savages. They continuously make comments about how humans are lowly creatures who lack souls and thoughts, and are just brutal beasts that are kept in zoos and experimented on. They say things about humans and treat them the way we treat animals now. The film flips the roles and makes us the “brutal savages.” It’s a great way to convey a message about human brutality and violence.
One thing I have to mention about this film is the makeup. It might not seem like it now, but, for its time, the makeup is truly a wonder to behold. All of the work was done by John Chambers, who began his carrer performing facial reconstruction for World War II veterans. Known for designing Spock’s ears in Gene Roddenberry’s original STAR TREK (1966- 1969) series, Chambers revolutionized movie makeup. The Independent’s obitury of Chambers in 2001, released a quote by his protégé, Michael Westmore; he remarked that Chambers “brought new techniques and materials to the motion picture business that are still being used today.” One way he achieved this was by creating a new type of foam latex that could more easily mimic simian facial expressions. He also made facial appliances for the hundreds of actors playing several different ape species. Compared to the CGI-heavy effects of today, the makeup may seem tame, but his designs were truly revolutionary for the time.
PLANET OF THE APES has received several different reimaginings. After the five-part run of the original series, legendary director Tim Burton remade the film in 2001. The series was then rebooted by Rupert Wyatt in 2011, entitled RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2011), starring James Franco. The film and its two sequels serve as a reboot/prequel to the 1968 film, and actually borrow elements of the fourth and fifth films of the original series.
The film was incredibly well received at the time of its release, Roger Ebert even gave it 3 out 4 stars and remarked that it was “completely entertaining.” PLANET OF THE APES made over $32 million on a $5.8 million budget and John Chambers received an honorary Oscar for makeup- even though there wouldn’t be an official makeup category until 1981. It continues to influence pop culture today, with a stream of remakes and prequels still being released decades since the original premiered in theaters.
PLANET OF THE APES has an excellent message that has been updated throughout the years to fit modern audiences. Each film brings all of its pieces together perfectly to tell a story of compassion in a visually stunning way. The film, and more specifically, John Chambers, led to the evolution of special effects makeup and prosthetics which are still used today. It’s one of the greatest sci-fi films of all time, and will continue to teach audiences about love and compassion for a very long time.