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Planet of the Apes

Entry updated 19 November 2023. Tagged: Film, TV.

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1. Film (1968). Apjac/Twentieth Century Fox. Directed by Franklin J Schaffner. Written by Michael Wilson, Rod Serling, based on La planète des singes (1963; trans as Planet of the Apes 1963) by Pierre Boulle. Cast includes Maurice Evans, Charlton Heston, Kim Hunter, Roddy McDowall and James Whitmore. 112 minutes. Colour.

Astronauts crashland on a planet where intelligent apes of three species rule over human savages. One astronaut is killed, one lobotomized, and the survivor (Heston) is put in a Zoo. There follows a long middle sequence whose Satire, alternating between sharp and heavy-handed, suffers from an attempt to have it both ways: sometimes ape society – in its racism, its snobbery, its casual cruelty – is seen as a reflection of our own excesses; yet sometimes the humans are seen as crass and insensitive alongside the apes, who perhaps have made a better fist of things than we ever did (see Apes as Human). After unsuccessfully trying to persuade his captors that he is an intelligent being, the astronaut is befriended by two chimpanzee scientists (McDowall and Hunter) who accept his story; with their help he escapes. The final sequence has him fleeing to the Forbidden Zone with a female "savage" and – in a wonderful image (perhaps inspired by Hubert Rogers's cover for Astounding February 1941) – coming across the half-buried Statue of Liberty projecting from a sandy beach. He realizes that he is still on Earth but in a New York of the Far Future, having unknowingly passed through a time-warp (see Timeslip; Time Travel).

The film is well directed, and the ape make-up by John Chambers is mobile and convincing, deservedly winning him an honorary Oscar (the Best Makeup category had yet to be created). A commercial success, Planet of the Apes was one of the 1968 films that made that year a turning point both for the increasing maturity of sf cinema and for its popularity. Planet of the Apes inspired five sequels – Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1969), Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971), Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972), Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973) and the much later Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) – as well as two television series, one live-action (see 2 below) and the other animated: Return to the Planet of the Apes, 13 20-minute episodes (1975). Behind the Planet of the Apes (1998) is a television documentary about the making of the franchise. Books spun-off from the animated series include three published as by William Arrow, #1 and #3 being by William Rotsler and #2 by Donald J Pfeil: Visions from Nowhere (1976), Escape from Terror Lagoon (1976) and Man, the Hunted Animal (1976). A comics spinoff, retelling the film storyline (plus new material) in graphic form is Planet of the Apes (1974-1977). Further Tie merchandise connected to the original film series was sold throughout the 1970s in the US of films, including jigsaw puzzles, plastic model hobby kits, and large wall-posters. [PN/JB/DRL]

2. US tv series (1974). Twentieth Century Fox Television for CBS. Produced by Stan Hough. Executive producer Herbert Hirschman. Cast includes Booth Colman, Ron Harper, Mark Leonard, Roddy McDowall and James Naughton. 1 season, 14 50-minute episodes. Colour. This spin-off was set in the same future world as the film (though its ethics were more black-and-white), with some episodes in the ancient subterranean ruins of Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1969). There were four books, all by George Alec Effinger, based on the television series: Man the Fugitive (1974), Escape to Tomorrow (1975), Journey into Terror (1975) and Lord of the Apes (1976). [PN/JB]

3. Film (2001). Twentieth Century Fox presents a Zanuck Company production. Directed by Tim Burton. Written by William Broyles Jr and Lawrence Konner & Mark Rosenthal, based on Boulle's novel. Cast includes Helena Bonham Carter, Michael Clarke Duncan, Paul Giamatti, Kris Kristofferson, Tim Roth, Mark Wahlberg, David Warner and Estella Warren. 119 minutes. Colour.

In 2029 CE an astronaut (Wahlberg) falls through a Space Warp and crashes on a world where talking apes enslave humans, whom he leads in an apparently successful uprising before returning to Earth and discovering that his nemesis General Thade (Roth) has overthrown humanity.

Fox's attempt to revive and remonetize the mother of modern sf franchises was a revolving door of directorial talent in the nineties, with Oliver Stone, Peter Jackson, Chris Columbus, Philip Noyce, and James Cameron attached to various incarnations, several of them headlining Arnold Schwarzenegger. Some of the very disparate versions commissioned were closer to the Satirical spirit of spirit of Boulle's novel, before Burton was lured with Broyles's straight-ahead version. Despite a tensely accelerated production cycle, Burton demonstrated his recurrent flair for turning a floundering studio project into a commercial hit; but the result was not a proud moment in either his or the franchise's CV. Though the novel's future milieu and extrasolar setting are retained in this version, and the ape makeup (by Rick Baker) and performances are sophisticated, the plot is formulaic and the civil-rights allegory of the original film series undercut by a pervasive anthropocratic jingoism. The earlier films' Time Travel element is retained in the revelation that Wahlberg's mothership has followed him through the warp but crashed centuries earlier; but the Boulle-homaging final twist, apparently set (as in the novel) on a future rather than a Parallel-World Earth, is deliberately open (for a sequel that never came) and difficult to parse intelligently, though Ian Edginton's Dark Horse Comics spinoff series attempted an explanation. The novelization is Planet of the Apes (2001) by William T Quick, who followed it with two standalone prequels. But by 2003 this incarnation of the franchise had petered out, and Fox would start afresh from the other end of the original film series with the earthbound re-reboot Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) and its sequel Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014). [NL]

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