Thoughts on books and other assorted topics.
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My name: Brian Martin
It may be that the true test of a "classic" science fiction film is whether, on mulitple viewings over the course of many years, you find yourself as attracted to the little things as the big ones. King Kong, I think, is like that (although one of those little things -- Fay Wray's incessant screaming -- seems to grow more annoying as the years pass). And War of the Worlds is not. In War of the Worlds, the little things'll kill you, especially its repeated use of stock footage. By this criteron, anyway, Planet of the Apes is a true classic.
The big things are still great -- the ape costumes and makeup, the first time you see them, Heston's "damn dirty ape" line, the final scene -- but so is everything else, including even a shot that doesn't exist. At the beginning of the movie, when Taylor and his fellow astronauts crashland on the planet, we see a lot of crazy camera angles of sky, desert, cliffs, and water, none of which is very interesting, but which in aggregate at least suggests what is happening. The truly inspired bit is not showing the spaceship in flight. With the resources of 1968, it would have looked ridiculous, and it would have set the wrong tone for the whole film. By contrast, the downed triangular ship poking halfway out of the water is a marvel. I don't know how they did it, but it looks real.
One of the nice features of the film turned out to be a lucky break. In the book, the apes lived in modern cities and were sufficiently advanced technologically that they were beginning to put satellites into orbit. They had, in other words, reached the same stage as man when the book was written, in 1963. Rod Serling, who wrote the original script for the film, evidently retained this feature, but a need to cut costs resulted in Michael Wilson being brought in to do a re-write, in which ape society was shown to be much more primitive. The cities worked in the book, but I think they would have provoked too much humor in the film.
This would have been a problem because the film already has quite a lot of humor, but just enough to tickle you forward without tipping you over into slapstick. Much of it comes from a stellar performance by Roddy McDowall as Cornelius, one of the chimpanzees who help astronaut Taylor escape a "living death" at the hands of the orangutans (led by Dr. Zaius, beautifully played also by Maurice Evans). One funny scene recreates the classic "hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil" triumvirate of monkeys, but does so in such a perfectly appropriate fashion that we can laugh without scoffing. (This was another lucky break, as it was reportedly improvised on the set.)
Of course, one reason the humor works so well is because the overall tone is much more serious, and it's this sobriety that gives the story its weight. From Heston's opening monologue to the hair-raising hunt that nets all three of the astronauts to its theme of dominance and resultant folly the film never loses touch with that other great science fiction concept, the exploration of what might have been and what could yet be. Oh, I'm not too worried about apes taking over the world, but machines? Same thing, different face.
I love this movie, but the really wonderful thing about that is that there's just so much to love about it.