PLANET OF THE APES (1968): CinAPES is a Madhouse – Roundtable Reviews [Two Cents]

20th Century Studios

Two Cents is a Cinapse original column akin to a book club for films. The Cinapse team curates the series and contribute their “two cents” using a maximum of 200-400 words. Guest contributors and comments are encouraged, as are suggestions for future picks. Join us as we share our two cents on films we love, films we are curious about, and films we believe merit some discussion. Would you like to be a guest contributor or programmer for an upcoming Two Cents entry? Simply watch along with us and/or send your pitches or 200-400 word reviews to [email protected].

The Pick: Planet Of The Apes (1968)

With Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes launching in May of 2024, our team curated a selection of titles from one of cinema’s greatest and most enduring franchises that we most wanted to discuss! We’ve gone full CinApes (and they told us never to go full CinApes). Join us for our Revisit of the Planet of the Apes! We’re excited to discuss these titles together thanks to the Two Cents movie club format.

The Team

Ed Travis

I don’t really remember a time when the Planet of the Apes films weren’t a part of my life. I don’t vividly remember when or how I experienced the original 5 film series, but I believe my Dad and I watched them together after renting them from our local video store when I was still quite young. Regardless, the series is simply one of my very favorite franchises and it all began with 1968’s Franklin J. Schaffner directed, Rod Serling and Michael Wilson scripted Planet of the Apes. And you know what? Every damn element that makes this series great is there immediately in the very first film. It’s probably best known for that incredible twist ending, which is perhaps the most spoiled twist ending in all of history by this point. But well before that masterful ending you had powerful science fiction tropes so abundant it seems almost impossible they could all be in the same movie. There’s space ships and time travel, there’s religion and philosophy, there’s an undercurrent of racial and generational strife, there’s groundbreaking special effects work, and a phenomenal cast. It’s lightning in a bottle that combines a rollicking sci-fi action/adventure blockbuster mixed with the richest (and most pessimistic) cultural commentary imaginable for a major studio tentpole.

A few specific thoughts include how patient and methodical the opening sequences are. We really odyssey with our lost astronauts for quite a while before they become ensnared and enslaved by the titular apes.

And immediately upon being enslaved (or, in the case of Taylor’s (Charlton Heston) companions, stuffed and lobotomized), we’re introduced to one of cinema’s all-time great antagonists: Dr. Zaius. Our Apes, evolved as they may be, suffer many of the same shortcomings as we modern day humans do, and there’s a palpable tension between the scientific question askers (Zera and Cornelius), and Zaius, the keeper of their laws and religion. The dynamic of heroic scientists embracing Taylor and simply seeking the truth, versus the establishment bastard ready and willing to suppress the truth to maintain the status quo will forever be salient and lifts this entry to the top of the franchise for me. I root so hard for Taylor, Zera, and Cornelius (and even Nova) because the film isn’t afraid to root for the underdog and question power structures. It’s a bold studio film unafraid to use groundbreaking imagery and wild world building to call into question our own societal shortcomings. Zaius is cold, oppressive, and full of fear. But he’s also undoubtedly brilliant and cunning. He’s a fantastic foil to our heroes and emblematic of so many of the issues I personally take with any authority figure who makes it their mission to stamp out truth in favor of safety.

Also hot damn that make up and production design and score… just the aesthetic vision here was such a huge swing and risk and I adore that the risk everyone involved took was rewarded by an audience who has supported this series to TEN entries over 50+ years. It’s a madhouse, and I’ll willingly commit myself to it no matter how many times the studio finances another one of these things, so long as they forever infuse them with powerful societal commentary that’s often as bleak as it comes.

(@Ed_Travis on X)
20th Century Studios

Julian Singleton

This film, the Burton remake, and the more modern Caesar trilogy form my cultural knowledge for all things Ape Planet-related, and admittedly, the last time I saw this OG 1968 version was when I was 11 and far too young to really grasp what Schaffner, Wilson, and Serling were really going for. While its cinematic cousin 2001: A Space Odyssey celebrates the limitless potential of the human race in spite of its self-destructive flaws, Planet of the Apes boldly literalizes anxieties towards racism, technological upheaval, and an invasion of religious belief or denial into the secular worlds of politics and science to create a broad-minded yet wholly devastating cautionary tale. 

What I loved so much in this viewing was just how patient this film was. For the first third of the film, it’s just three astronauts exploring a desolate landscape, positioning the audience for a meditative survival drama. With the arrival of the amazing-looking Apes, we’re thrust into a dystopian courtroom drama where Ben-Hur must fight to affirm his sense of personhood in a world whose survival depends on seeing him as anything but sentient or feeling. There’s tons of moments ripe for comedy amid such existential crises–specifically the centerpiece tribunal where Schaffner cheekily turns his panel into a “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” tableau. 

For as much as this series pivots its focus into Ape-on-horseback action shenanigans, what lingers after this viewing is just how much it focuses on the moral incentives behind active denial. It makes for what must have been a chilling parallel to the belief backflips of those skeptical of the Civil Rights Movement or Vietnam protests back in 1968–and it certainly feels all too resonant today as students and faculty on College campuses fight to affirm the rights and safety for citizens in Gaza against those seemingly dead-set on turning a blind eye to their suffering. No matter the era we revisit it in, Planet of the Apes’ cracked lens on a world gone mad never seems to lose its cynical counter-cultural edge. 

(@gambit1138 on X)
20th Century Studios

Justin Harlan

I know I’ve seen this classic film before, but I expect it’s been so long that it makes sense that I remembered little to none of the main beats. While I know there are tons of things I could say about the film, its influence, and its long-standing imprint on pop culture, I have two main points that I wish to spend my brief entry on today.

First, the film itself is surely an entertaining one and one that was cutting edge for its time in its style and execution. Notably, I genuinely love the costuming and effects. The humanoid ape creatures are so wonderfully designed. Their look is so unique and well crafted that they honestly make so many modern films look like garbage. Modern film, notably the sci-fi genre unto which this film belongs, relies so heavily on computer generated visuals that practical effects and costuming are sometimes a seemingly lost art. This film has such a great look and feel due in large part to the effects of a bygone era. I simply love the way this film feels and I attribute that to both an affinity for late 60s and 70s genre film and the fantastic costuming/effects of this 1968 gem.

Second, I love the commentary this film is making, beginning with the statement that Heston’s George Taylor concludes his opening monologue with:

“Tell me, though. Does man, that marvel of the universe, that glorious paradox who sent me to the stars, still make war against his brother? Keep his neighbor’s children starving?”

The entire film is a commentary on humanity. It forces humanity to look at itself in a mirror. It’s heavy handed at times, but this era is defined by such heavy handedness so that’s not a deterrent – in fact, as I am a big fan of this era’s genre film, I probably consider that a feature. It’s not lost on me that Heston himself became the very type of human that several of his earlier sci-fi films seemed to be warning against – but alas, that doesn’t take away from the power of the messaging in the film itself.

As a novice to this series, I’m excited to try to monkey around with the team each week in this month of CinAPES… and I hope to eventually dig into all of the films in the series, beyond just the four we’re highlighting. So, thanks to our personal lead ape, Ed, for pushing me to watch these films… so for it’s been as fun a a barrel of monkeys.

(@thepaintedman on X)
20th Century Studios

Austin Vashaw

For a film that feels really familiar and beloved, I’ve only really seen Planet of the Apes a couple of times. I’m rewatching the entire original series and one of the wildest things about these films is that most of them were Rated G despite having some nudity, violence, and rough language, not to mention overall themes of oppression. Pretty wild, as I think these same films would probably merit PG-13s if submitted today.

One of the things that I’d kind of forgotten is that Charlton Heston’s Taylor starts out as a very strong personality, ribbing and even bullying his astronaut compatriots. He’s not necessarily a jerk, but certainly someone accustomed to having a natural sense of authority, if not a smug superiority. Which makes it all the more of a shakeup to suddenly find himself at the bottom of the evolutionary chain in a society that has no use or respect for him.

As a kid I knew the film for its more adventurous, science fiction aspects, and grasped only its most basic allegory of racial prejudice. It’s hard for me to fully understand the context of the film’s 1968 creation, but as an adult I can appreciate that there’s a lot more under the surface here, touching on that zeitgeist. Most notably a not-at-all subtle indictment of religious mania and fascism embraced by Dr. Zaius, a character who’s both the Minister of Science and defender of the faith – and far more interested in control of information than serving any objective truth.

What a terrific film, and imbued with terrific effects and a strong social conscience, both of which would become the hallmarks of a still-ongoing franchise.

Anyway, closing with a true story: On this viewing, while I was watching this my kids came home, pretty close to the beginning of the movie but without seeing any context, menus, or explanation beyond knowing Taylor was an astronaut who had crash-landed on an unknown planet. There’s a scene where the humans are suddenly spooked right before the apes show up, and I asked them to guess what the aliens would be like. Silas (7), trying to be funny: “HUNKY MONKEYS!”

(@VforVashaw on X)

Upcoming Picks: CinAPES, aka Revisit Of The Planet Of The Apes

Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes

Planet Of The Apes (2001)

Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes

And We’re Out.

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