Right from the beginning, Planet of the Apes settles itself on a nexus between tactile action and implacable inaction. The prologue, set on a spaceship as astronaut George Taylor (Charlton Heston) throws his throaty baritone into a mission log, establishes the very 2001: A Space Odyssey sub-Kubrickian cosmic chill of the material. Taylor, along with Landon (Robert Gunner) and Dodge (Jeff Burton), are on an amorphous vision of an intentionally nebulous, even pointless nature; what matters is not where they are going or why, but the existential frostiness of the pallid white of the ship’s interior and the very present deadened quality in Heston’s worrisome but unconcerned voice.
A voice, by the way, used here as an intentionally iconic, laconic American male more than as a three-dimensional character. He is a placeholder for humankind in the late 1960s as American cinema-goers saw the species rather than as the species actually existed; he in, in other words, an alpha male image that the film will prod at by making passive later on. A fact which is, considering this film’s release around 2001: A Space Odyseey, almost Kubrickian in nature. Kubrick was famous for his many lacerating experiments in non-acting, abusing and using his performers and catching them off guard and, in A Space Odyssey for instance, pushing Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood to under-emote and produce a leaden, stilted woodenness to capture not their humanity but their robotic inhumanity in a modern age defined by technology and ego which dwarf us and suck up human emotion.
Heston is used here somewhat similarly. Perhaps accidentally, he becomes an impersonal alpha-male whose bluster is often mocked in the film in a subtle undercurrent of self-critique on the part of the male ego and its belief in its ability to know all and change all. At the end of the day, Heston’s character, the would-be savior of the film, accomplishes almost nothing; rather, he is stricken to his knees in a decidedly Kubrickian gesture of nihilism, or, as mentioned, implacable inaction.
Implacable inaction with caveats, of course. Obviously, Planet of the Apes was released before Kubrick’s game changing science fiction opus (two months before, specifically), and it is unlikely that director Franklin J. Schaffner and writers Michael Wilson and Rod Serling had seen the film before release and were in the process of stripping it for parts. Rather than saying that they had seen Kubrick’s film, the similarity in tone signals something more general in the air at the time, an increased sense of maturity and a more temperamental, even insurrectionist demeanor about how to tell stories and what stories were capable of saying about society.
Obviously, part of this was the ever interrogative Rod Serling, using the time away from television to adapt Pierre Boulle’s book of the same name along with Michael Wilson (the previously blacklisted writer for the magnificent The Bridge on the River Kwai). These two were obviously in the habit of using character-focused stories as a backdrop for social analysis and, in an unfortunate case or two, out-and-out saccharine sermonizing. Primarily, they had an interest in refashioning the old boys’ genres of war, the Western, and sci-fi and repositioning them as more progressive social parables about discrimination; they had an interest in maturing the genres, in other words, looking back on their very real strengths as cinema but refashioning them to better their weaknesses.
On this note, of the screenplay they fashioned: when the three astronauts crash-land in the middle of a hyper-sleep, they escape their vessel only to discover a planet dominated by sentient apes who attack them and view humans as lesser species for hunt and fun, not unlike how humans view the alleged “animals” of our planet. There, two ape scientists (Zira, played by Kim Hunter, and her fiance Cornelius, played by Roddy McDowall, take a liking to Taylor and find solace in their belief in his intelligence, fighting with a stubborn administrator named Dr. Zaius (Maurice) to continue their research on him. Obviously, this is a fairly straight-faced parable about “the state of things as they existed”, and not really some far-flung tale of ape suppressors, and some of the stodgy obviousness and throat-clearing of Serling’s lesser Twilight Zone episodes make an unfortunate appearance more than once in the film.
The other caveat to the film’s Kubrickian intellectualism, and the other reason the film actually stands up after so many years, is that, frankly, no one involved in the production of Planet of the Apes had as much interest in blowing the idea of cinema to smithereens and reconstructing it how they saw fit, which was very much Kubrick’s thing. As it unfolds, Planet of the Apes is a relatively stable, incisive concoction of action and drama, little more than a grown-up adventure film, and this sort of direction and economy helps the film stay the course and never lose itself to over-zealous mythologizing, Serling’s worst habit as a writer and, I suspect, the fruit of Wilson’s accomplishments in this case. Wilson always was a writer who could move from the intimate to the world-changing and subsume complex emotional and psychological insight into action and event rather than philosophizing. His films were, essentially, deceptively masculine works of hidden combativeness that delved into the hard stuff of social change and that pesky amorphous interstitial space we all love to refer to as “the human condition”.
It is in this forward-push that Planet of the Apes does a nuanced, inspired job of hiding details of the world to be plumed through secret screen presence rather than bold statements to be told to us, the audience, via exposition. It is never stated outright, for instance, that the caste system of the apes mirrors the caste system of the US, with the lightest-skinned apes positioned as scientists and intellectuals and their darker-skinned counterparts resigned to brutish physical labor. These details, unstated but present in the visual iconography of the film, tell the tale of the apes with a confidence this sort of genre film really didn’t see much of circa 1968.
Elsewhere, Franklin Schaffner proves an inspired, if not revelatory, find as a hard-won director of tactility and screen-depth to give us just enough hints of the ape community to establish a certain mystique without overselling the details. He comes off as most comfortable with thrillers and the action-oriented material (the opening human-hunt is a real doozy at any rate, boasted by some sharp editing from Hugh S. Fowler and cinematography from Leon Shamroy). This craft gives the film a muscular quality that keeps it from getting too lost in the head and the admittedly less than nuanced social critique on display.
But skill is as much in the form as the content, and if the content of Planet of the Apes is on the gentle side almost fifty years later, the form is consistently sharp and even occasionally inventive. Planet of the Apes may not be a master-class in, well, anything, but it is well constructed and thoughtfully mounted in so many different ways that come together into a work that is, if not more than the sum of its parts, at least the equal of the best of them. It is a work of pop, by all means, but a work that elevates pop to exciting heights by splitting the difference between the casual action of the 1960s and the challenging temper and nihilism of more thoughtful works from the likes of Kubrick and the burgeoning ’70s American New Wave.