There are a lot of guys out there who would love to have a woman like Nova. She never talks, she just obeys and has lots of sex. I’m not saying I’m one of them, I’m just saying!
Screenplay By: Rod Serling & Michael Wilson
Directed By: Franklin J. Schaffner
Great science fiction works on two different planes. It works on the obvious level where the settings have been changed and the world is much more fantastic than our own. It also works on the more obscure level, with messages and philosophical musings hidden underneath the stars and ape suits. Planet of the Apes is great science fiction because it works on both of those levels. We are given a new Earth, one that has a new dominant power and looks exotic and different. We don’t understand it and must discover it as the movie rolls along, but that is part of the wonder of science fiction, the discovery. Planet of the Apes also works on the obscure level, testing our mettle with theories about evolution, man’s place in the world, god, religion, science, and the very nature of animals and humanity.
I’m not going to spend a lot of time talking about the obvious science fiction leanings of Planet of the Apes, because they are so obvious. The ape suits look fantastic, the acting is choice all around, the barren landscape of the Forbidden Zone and the ape habitats are foreign, and wondrously interesting. The base science fiction aspects of Planet of the Apes are more than enough for this to be a great movie without the added philosophy. That’s not to say Planet of the Apes is perfect, because there are moments where the apes lose their luster and you realize you are watching people in ape suits. And there are times when Charlton Heston becomes thee Charlton Heston and goes a tad overboard with his acting. But, those moments are few and far between, and don’t do any sort of irreparable damage to the movie. The story also isn’t that spectacular, it’s not bad, but it’s pretty nondescript. It is standard science fiction new world stuff. However, Planet of the Apes isn’t so much about the story as it is about the questioning of ideas that is taking place underneath the formal story.
The philosophical questioning that takes place in Planet of the Apes is a staple of science fiction, and one of the many reasons why people who don’t think of science fiction as a serious art form are mistaken. Planet of the Apes tackles the idea of religion and its relation to science. How accurate is science and how can science survive when it must function as a part of religion? How can religion function in that same scenario? If there is a God, why would he/she do the things he/she does? What makes an animal an animal and how do you decide who has a soul and who doesn’t? How do you decide if man is sentient, and how is he any different than any animal? Does man really have power over nature or will our self-destructive tendencies allow nature to long outlive us as the power on the planet? Is evolution the truth, or not? Planet of the Apes also touches on the issues of racism and most people don’t even realize it is doing such a thing. The kiss between Taylor and Zira was as important to race relations as the one between Kirk and Uhura in Star Trek and most people didn’t even realize it. You know that you are watching great science fiction when it can touch very profoundly on a subject and do so in such a quiet subtext that a lot of people completely overlook it. Take the issue of gender roles and woman’s subservience for instance, I haven’t even talked about it yet, but the character of Nova is clearly there to address how subservient men wanted their women to be in the pre-1970s era. Profound science fiction indeed!
Planet of the Apes had the misfortune of coming out in the same year as 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was bested by 2001: A Space Odyssey in every way, but it is still a great movie and it is sad to see it so routinely tossed to the wayside in comparison to its 1968 brethren. Planet of the Apes is very fun and exotic, but it also makes you think, and questions the world as we know it. That type of questioning is always a treat to read or watch in fiction when it is handled in deft fashion. Planet of the Apes is an excellent movie that does handle all its elements in deft fashion and is a movie that any sci-fi fan, or anyone who wants to use their brain for a change, needs to see.