By: Erik Swift
It’s hard not to go bananas over “Planet Of The Apes.” Upon its February 1968 debut, it was a rousing hit that spawned four sequels, a live-action and animated TV series, a deluge of marketing items and an uneven 2001 remake by Tim Burton. It arrived during one of the most tumultuous years in US history during the height of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War, and its twin teachings – equal treatment for all and the true cost wrought by battle – are blatantly clear. The world was caught by surprise upon its initial release, but 20th Century Fox’s striking 35th anniversary double-disc DVD set is not unexpected. Franklin J. Schaffner’s adaptation of Pierre Boulle’s novel has only grown in stature as one of film’s great achievements. “Planet Of The Apes,” more than any of its mediocre follow-ups, deserves spectacular treatment on DVD, and this edition fails to disappoint.
“Planet Of The Apes” finds Charlton Heston playing pessimistic colonel George Taylor, in orbit for centuries. After his spaceship crashes on a remote asteroid, Taylor leads the surviving crewmembers in search of food, water or other forms of life. What they encounter makes for one of the more stunning moments in any film – apes are the rulers in this strange land while mute humans are hunted down like savages. Captured and jailed in this upside-down society, Taylor manages to pique the attention of a pair of scientists, the behaviorist Zera (Kim Hunter) and her archaeologist fiancé Cornelius (Roddy McDowell). The astronaut manages to escape his prison with the duo’s help but his hope of returning to Earth hits a shocking obstacle in a stunning climax.
Leon Shamroy’s Panavision & Deluxe Color cinematography remains wonderful when viewing this widescreen (the only way to watch). Sweeping shots of the Lake Powell & Colorado River areas of Utah & Arizona make the bleak wasteland that Heston and crew arrive at seem like a completely new world. While many parts of “Planet Of The Apes” remain essential to its success, no component is more crucial than the writing of Rod Serling. Michael Wilson’s name may be credited first but the influence of the creator of “The Twilight Zone” is all over the film’s 110 minutes. Few features bear his stamp, an unfortunate side effect of being one of television’s pioneers. However, two decades of writing for that medium made him a pro at evoking mood, and he especially excels here when creating distance between the apes’ structured world and Taylor’s increased isolation. Listen to the sly twisting of well-known phrases into normal ape vernacular (“Human see, human do”) that subtly add to Taylor’s maddening ordeal, or watch with wondrous curiosity at the initial desolation the astronauts find themselves in. Penning one of the most decisive and well-known endings in film history (a la “The Eye Of The Beholder”) doesn’t hurt either, crowning a triumph that Serling was only too happy to walk away from. A subsequent return to television with the butchered “Night Gallery” series soured him on a Hollywood run by dim-witted studio brass that wanted more crass than class. At least he left us this before his untimely death in 1975.
There’s more to go ape over on this new edition than just an anamorphically enhanced picture or the newly added DTS surround sound audio track – its depth is truly astonishing. Sure, there’s multiple commentaries from McDowell, Hunter, producer Richard Zanuck and makeup artist John Chambers. Trailers, galleries, costume sketches and featurettes (including a pre-Maurice Evans take on Dr. Zaius by Edward G. Robinson) are here but there’s also 20 minutes of audio-free dailies and outtakes. Combined with another 20 minutes of McDowell’s home movies, this bolsters the 126-minute McDowell-hosted documentary “Behind The Planet Of The Apes,” a 1998 AMC production previously only available separately or in the boxed set “Planet Of The Apes – The Evolution.” Check out Chambers’ award-winning team of more than 80 makeup artists transform actors into simians or discover that composer Jerry Goldsmith procured a ram’s horn as part of his Oscar-nominated score. Hear Linda Hamilton say everything except “OK, I got the part of Nova because I was banging Zanuck.” Everything primate is present, and then some.
This remains a must-see motion picture. The best science fiction tries to teach humans about themselves – and “Planet Of The Apes” does just that…without monkeying around. As ageless and relevant today as it was decades ago, the film’s 35th anniversary is worth celebrating with this essential purchase for the DVD collection.