In the interest of continuing my tour of long-shadow classics, I ventured most recently to Planet of the Apes (1968), a film that doesn’t exactly electrify modern sensibilities but still earns a certain critical legitimacy. Taylor (Charlton Heston) is the cynical, cigar-chomping captain of a space expedition. He and his crew enter cryogenic sleep chambers for their deep-space journey, preparing to leave the Earth behind—not just in distance but in time, as the relativistic effects of near speed-of-light travel take effect. When they awaken, they crash-land on an alien, Earth-like world, but when they finally encounter other humans, they’re mute and considered wild animals. The world is run by walking, talking humanoid apes who have developed an advanced, if crude, simian culture where science and religion vie for dominance. Taylor finds himself captured and treated like a lab rat, until he’s able to break through and communicate with two simian scientists, Zira (Kim Hunter) and Cornelius (Roddy McDowall). With their conflicted aid, Taylor manages to defy the simian rulers and helps his new friends uncover the true historical origins of this strange planet.
Planet of the Apes, which spawned four sequels as well as a reboot franchise, is an unsophisticated-looking thing, essentially a cinematic space western. Taken in the context of its era, however, it’s got a clever sociopolitical subtext. Oh, the upside-down caste system isn’t particularly subtle, but it does end up being a useful way to examine human short-sightedness and hypocrisy, for which the crude ape society stands in. The script is co-authored by Rod Serling, whose thematic handiwork is evident, and since the whole affair plays out like an extended Twilight Zone episode, the property is a good fit for his talents. Of course, he may also be responsible for its occasional sexism, which manifests both in glaring moments of dialogue and in the character of Nova (Linda Harrison), Taylor’s sexy female companion who’s literally on display as mute eye candy. The indoor sets have the studio fakeness of an old Star Trek, but the overall look of the film—particularly its outdoor vistas—is gorgeous. Jerry Goldsmith’s score contributes to an unsettling atmosphere, which is also driven by the creepy prosthetic mask-work of the apes. On many levels, Planet of the Apes may be anachronistic and silly, but there’s a reason it has lingered in the DNA of cinematic science fiction.