I have this somewhat odd, and some might say questionable, New Years tradition. It started a few years ago, my first Dec 31/Jan 1 living alone, with no friends nearby (college). AMC was marathoning The Planet of the Apes series, the one from the late 60’s-early 70’s. I don’t think I’d ever seen them, and yet, I fell in love with them. I watched them through the countdown and into the wee hours of the morning. I’d never really had a tradition for New Years before, and I enjoyed that night, so, it stuck. Fast forward a few years to now, and I’m still doing it, in one fashion or another. This year, I ended up watching it New Years Day cause I fell asleep early on New Years Eve.
If you’ve never seen the originals, or if you’ve only seen the 2001 remake, or the 2010’s reboot, I encourage you to see what started it all. Of course, any film from the 1970’s will seem a bit rough around the edges when compared to a new movie, but there’s something really great about them.
If you’re unfamiliar with the movies, I’m warning you now that spoilers lie ahead. I’ll be talking about major plot points, and possibly comparing the old and new. Turn back now if you’d rather watch them first.
The series is 5 movies long. Many years, I skip the movies I like less, and rewatch them out of order or selectively. This year, I decided to do a true marathon, in order, like I did that first time. I hadn’t watched the first movie, The Planet of the Apes, in a very long time. (Its kinda my least favorite)
The introduction has Charlton Heston’s character, Taylor, narrating/logging their space mission and its purpose. He gives a very existential monologue about man, and his hope that his space crew has left behind all the poor/negative aspects as they travel 700 years into Earth’s future. His crew, ‘diverse’ by hollywood standards of the time, includes himself, another white man, a black man, and a blond woman. Something goes awry on landing, and the crew wakes from their cryogenic sleep off course and 2000 years into the future. Right away, the blond woman is dead, something wrong with her cryo chamber, and within 30 minutes of the movie, so is the black man and basically the other white man too. (Technically, the white man is lobotomized, but you’ll never interact with his character again.) After that, the only humans you see are white (though very tan) and the rest are actors under ape prosthetics.
Taylor spends the rest of the movie trying to find a way home, maybe back to his space ship, only to find that this ‘backward’ ape planet turns out to be Earth, and humans were subdued and cowed back to primitives over the course of centuries.
Aside from the plot, which I’ll admit gets rocky at points, it serves as a good introspection into human past and customs, as reflected in ape culture. We spend the movie cheering for Taylor, after all the injustices he’s suffered, only to realize that we’ve done the same things to apes, monkeys and other animals in our past (and present) bringing to question, are we doing something wrong? For its time, it was a very powerful concept.
If you don’t want to look at the plot or care deeply about looking at our culture in the mirror, I also really enjoy the ‘special effects’ of its era. I had a conversation recently about CGI used in film. When you watch the newest effects in theater, they are spectacular, but if you’ve ever re-watched a move from the 1980’s/90’s or even early 2000’s that had CGI in it, state of the art at the time, it often looks like crap. The technology has improved so much since then, its hard to watch really old CGI without cringing a little. The same can’t really be said for makeup, prosthetics or animatronics.
I re-watched Jurassic Park recently (another of my favorites) and it holds up really well. There isn’t any CGI in it, its all animatronics (and a couple really bad prosthetic/props [Samuel L. Jackson’s dismembered arm]). They stand up really well, because that technology is already pretty much at its peak. (Research has revealed that there were a couple scenes, with dinosaurs in the distance, that were CGI, but most up-close interactions were animatronic.)
The Planet of the Apes, and the rest of the franchise, were before CGI looked credible, and instead leveraged a heavy use of prosthetics. And, both at the time and even now, its pretty darn convincing. The range of expressions and mouth movements is impressive.
Another part of the franchise, that made it so powerful and convincing, is the music. Its very… alien, other worldly.
Planet of the Apes Film Score – Main Theme clip
I find it fascinating that a movie made dura the 60’s/70’s has had such cultural impact. You’ve heard the line “Take your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!” or a parody of it in lots of media.
Similarly with the ‘big reveal’ at the end of the movie.
If you watch the entire series, you’ll get caught up in (and likely confused by) the time travel paradox. Like all time travel stories, things get muddy the more you press on and elaborate. The conclusion of the series (that is revealed to the viewer around movie 3 or 4) is that the entire planet of the apes future, is caused by a couple of speaking, intelligent apes coming from that future to the past (plot of Escape from the Planet of the Apes), where they birth a child that will eventually lead the revolution of the apes (Conquest of the Planet of the Apes) toward the future we know will happen. Again, its a bit murky, and a self fulfilling prophecy, but intriguing to watch unfold, even when you know whats coming.
Maybe its just me that has this profound love and appreciation for this series. Perhaps because I saw the 2001 version at a formative age, and even though its one of my least favorites now, it stuck with me and allowed the originals to influence me so strongly when I watched them years later. Between the well composed music, the awesome prosthetic effects, and the drawn out sci-fi story, it ranks high on my list.
I’d love to hear other opinions on the series, even negative ones. Oh, and don’t get me started on the TV Series spawned after the film series success. Its just terrible…