Retro Movie Review Published in City Monthly Magazine June 2004

"Stop the Planet of the Apes, I Want to Get Off!"

Most early science fiction movies are at once sadly and hilariously out-dated, objects of camp attention. The naïve concepts, the cheesy special effects, the stunted "high tech" dialogue. Despite the validity of the concepts, when you compare even a quality, modern era classic such as 'Star Trek: The Next Generation' from the late 80's to the special effects in 'The Matrix' (1999) or 'The Day After Tomorrow' (2004), the dated effects often reduce the strength of the narrative.

Only a handful of sci-fi films from the late 60s and early 70s are we able to take seriously thirty years later. 'Star Wars' (1977), despite its often ripe acting, of course, has a timeless story, and influenced generations of film-makers that followed George Lucas. 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind' (1977), despite being an alien invasion movie, still has more plot than effects, and is awesome, frightening and potent decades later. (That Stephen Spielberg fellow may be one to watch. Maybe.)

The 1968 film, 'Planet of the Apes' is also a landmark movie. Based on Pierre Boule's satiric sci-fi novel, the intelligent screenplay was co-written by Rod Serling (who created the 'Twilight Zone' tv show) and directed by Franklin Schaffner ('Patton' 1970, 'Papillion' 1973) after original director Blake Edwards ('The Pink Panther' 1964) pulled out.

<cue Twilight Zone theme>

(spoken intro:)
With a key, you unlock a door to imagination
Beyond it is another dimension
A dimension of sight
A dimension of sound
A dimension of mind

You’re moving through a land of both shadow and substance
Of things and ideas
Guiding you through this wondrous journey
Is the hypnotic sound of the twilight tone...

With Cold War paranoia still running high in 1968, 'Planet of the Apes' ingeniously incorporated the fears of society with the popular concept of space exploration. Remember, at that point, we were still a year away from landing on the moon, let alone getting close-ups of Mars.

Charlton Heston chews through much of the scenery as George Taylor, the cynical and obnoxious leader of four astronauts on a deep space mission that crash-lands on a remote planet where the humans are mute, untamed savages and the apes are the dominant, educated leaders of society. (Am I giving too much away?) Mischief and mayhem ensue.

(from "Twilight Zone/Twilight Zone" by Manhattan Transfer:)

When I hear this melody
This strange illusion takes over me
Through a tunnel of the mind
Perhaps a present or future time
Out of nowhere comes this sound
This melody that keeps spinning 'round & 'round
Pyramidal locomotion
From a mystic unknown zone

Set in the then-future of 1972, the whole movie looks and feels like an exuberant Twilight Zone episode, from the upside down scenario, through the heavy handed morality issues and societal commentaries (the ubiquity of generational warfare, the inflexibility of dogma, the cruelty of prejudice), right up to the devastating apocalyptic twist at the end.

Many of the blatant moral points of the movie are shown through the reversal of societal roles; on this planet, humans are treated like mindless animals, rounded up, kept in pens, fed lumps of sugars as treats, and mercilessly and cruelly experimented on.

With any classic movie comes a classic score. The abstract, innovative score by Jerry Goldsmith was nominated for an Oscar, but lost to Bond composer John Barry for 'A Lion in Winter'. Goldsmith says that he intentionally used organic but unorthodox instruments, in a studied and carefully structured framework, to create a strange, unearthly atmosphere.

As with 'Close Encounters', the special effects are wisely kept to a minimum, allowing the story to propel the film. Something that obviously never occurred to the director of 'The Chronicles of Riddick (2004).'

The ape make-up and costumes are wonderfully realistic (this from one who has never in fact seen a talking ape, so hasn't much to compare with), and make up artist John Chambers won an honorary Oscar for his innovative work. So effective, in fact, that I could never really accept Roddy McDowell as a human in subsequent film roles. I had to consider that he had had a radical make-over surgery to look more human, but he always seemed somewhat simian to me. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Like 'Star Wars', 'Planet of the Apes' became a cultural phenomenon, spawning four sequels, a TV series and a cartoon series, as well as a multitude of merchandise from plastic figurines to bubble gum cards. Thankfully, the original remains untarnished by its lesser and often silly spin-offs.

One of the most hilarious references to the Apes series is the Simpsons' satire, "Stop the Planet of the Apes, I Want to Get Off!" In the Season Seven episode "A Fish Called Selma," legendary actor Troy McClure (voiced by the late Phil Hartman), plays astronaut Taylor in the stage version of 'Planet of the Apes', a comment on the current trend to turn almost anything into a Broadway musical.

When Taylor is first captured by the apes, he has been shot in the throat (I hate it when that happens) and can't talk, which keeps him, for the most part, in the 'cattle' pen with the other lowly humans. But soon enough he regains his ability to speak. In the Simpsons version, it is a moment out of any Fosse musical:

Ape: Help, the human's about to escape.
Troy: Get your paws off me, you dirty ape.
Ape: [gasping] He can talk!
Apes: [in unison] He can talk, he can talk, he can talk
Troy: [singing] I can siiiiiing!

Sympathetic ape scientists Cornelius (Roddy McDowell) and Dr. Zira (Kim Hunter) are the only liberal thinking apes who can accept a talking human, and risk their careers to protect Taylor and expose the secret of their planet's history that Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans) and his minions guard so ferociously.

(from the Simpsons version, sung to the beat of Falco's "Rock Me Amadeus")

Female Nurse Ape: Ooh, help me Dr. Zaius!
Apes: [in unison] Dr. Zaius, Dr. Zaius
Dr. Zaius, Dr. Zaius
Dr. Zaius, Dr. Zaius
Oh, Oh, Oh... Dr. Zaius
Ape: Dr. Zaius, Dr. Zaius.

Troy McClure : What's wrong with me?
Zaius: I think you're crazy.
Troy: I want a second opinion.
Zaius: You're also lazy.

The best part of this film, which can be appreciated even if one knows what it is, is that elusive and rare thing... a spectacular ending (something that obviously didn't occur to Tim Burton, director of the 2001 remake starring Mark Wahlburg). The climactic final moments on the beach are shocking and deeply potent, and remain burned into the screen of my mind for hours/years afterwards. It's the same, brilliant sort of twist that my second favorite director M. Night Shyamalan (my favorite being Ridley Scott, of course) used to great effect in 'The Sixth Sense;' one that instantly changes the context of the entire preceding movie, and makes you want to watch it again.

(from the Simpsons version)

Troy McClure : [singing] I hate every ape I see
From chimpan-a to chimpan-zee
No, you'll never make a monkey out of me
Oh my God, I was wrong, It was Earth all along
You've finally made a monkey
Apes: Yes, we've finally made a monkey
Troy: Yes, you've finally made a monkey out of me
Apes: Yes, we've finally made a monkey out of you

Rod Reynolds ©2004 The Art Dept Los Angeles

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