Thursday, February 23, 2012


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: (1) *good,* (2) poor
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological,cosmological*

Perhaps the most "marvelous" thing about the success of the original PLANET OF THE APES is how well it succeeds as science-fiction cinema, even though its source novel resembles works of satire than those of mainstream science fiction.  Similarly, only one of the creative collaborators, Rod Serling, had established chops in writing SF, though the series in which he most explored metaphenomenal themes, THE TWILIGHT ZONE, was as devoted to fantasy and horror as to science fiction.  PLANET was not the first expensive SF-drama in 1960s cinema, but it's set apart by the artistry of the script by Serling and Michael Wilson, of Franklin Schaffner's direction and Jerry Goldsmith's memorable score.

Then again, when one looks at even many of the best big-budget works of the period, there's a sense that Hollywood found it hard to get away from the associations of Buck Rogers and BEMs.  The approach of Schaffner and his team, all of whom had long credits dealing with "normal" drama, kept their approach simple but alternated between the satiric jabs of Pierre Boulle's novel and the thrills of "manly adventure" stories.  At times the script resembles mainstream SF less than than a film Michael Wilson and another collaborator adpted from another Pierre Boulle novel: 1957's BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI.

Yet it must be noted that PLANET addresses a theme common to the "giant mutant" films of the 1950s: the constant fear that mankind stands in danger of having its reign usurped, whether by giant ants (THEM!) or giant mineral growths (THE MONOLITH MONSTERS).  Here, the usurpation has already taken place, with humanoid apes stepping in to take over from incompetent humans.  True, in a move that seems to follow the Boulle novel, the greater part of the film implies that the overthrow has happened on a parallel version of Earth, but then the film undermines that consolation in a finish that's too well known to merit comment.  I will note that the Boulle novel does have the Earth-astronauts find their way to a totally different planet, only to find out at the close that Earth has suffered the same ape-uprising.  But PLANET's conclusion is better in terms of driving home a barbed satire of man's self-destructive nuclear brinkmanship.

Watching it again, I'm most entranced by the film's first 20 or 30 minutes, in which the ape society isn't even seen, unless one counts the scarecrows they erect, encountered by Charlton Heston and his fellow astronauts in the barren canyons.  From a logical standpoint this scene is flawed: since later Dr. Zaius gripes about wild, unthinking human predators preying on the apes' agricultural fields, it seems like the scarecrows wouldn't be doing any good up in the mountains.  Yet the scarecrows are such a great alienating image that I can't say I minded.

The film's weakest aspects show up whenever the social satire goes on too long.  The script's anti-religious barbs are dated, and its transparent appeal to the burgeoning youth culture, seen in the character of the rebellious young ape Julius, is rather painful.  The metaphors of the apes themselves have been cross-analyzed so much that I'll forego repeating any such analyses here.  I will note that one critic averred that the apes are metaphors for black American slaves in the fourth APES film.  Yet even if that's accurate for that film, such a metaphor doesn't apply to PLANET, where the apes are accidentally replicating all or most of the faults of Euro-American "white" civilization.

Another metaphor not explored as often is the Apefilms' treatment of women: why exactly did the American expedition consist of three men and one woman, who, according to Heston's character Taylor, was expected to be the "Eve" to all three of the men?  The female astronaut Stevens dies during the journey to the supposed alien world, so the implication seems to be of human fruitfulness aborted, at least until Taylor comes across his potential "wild" mate Nova.  Indeed, one might argue that the qualities of Stevens, who is described by Taylor as both beautiful and smart, have been divvied up by the film's only two significant female characters, with the brains going to Zira (Kim Hunter) and the beauty going to Nova (Linda Harrison). Admittedly  Nova has one other attraction going for her that Stevens couldn't have possessed. Nova Has No Speech and Cannot Nag.

Given that PLANET succeeds so admirably on so many levels, my re-viewing of BENEATH sorely disappointed me.  I suppose it's unfair to expect that Ted Post, dominantly a director of TV shows, should step up to Schaffner's level of accomplishment.  Still, it's depressing to see the basic scenario of PLANET revisited in the visual terms of a TV-western, particularly noticeable when the new protagonist in town has a fight with an ape-opponent aboard an out-of-control wagon.  The credited writer of the screenplay, Paul Dehn, would remain associated with the APES series for the remaining three films of the 1970s.

Said new protagonist is another astronaut, Brent (James Franciscus), whose mission seems even more improbable than Taylor's, in that he's been sent to look for Taylor, even though the Earth of Brent's past can't  have any believable means of knowing of the fate of Taylor's failed mission.  Brent luckily comes across Nova, and flashbacks inform the viewer (though not Brent) that Taylor has been taken prisoner in a mysterious region outside the limits of ape society.

Eventually, after assorted skirmishes with the apes, Brent finds his way to the mysterious region, and does indeed find Taylor (Heston in a very brief appearance).  Brent also encounters this future-Earth's only enclave of humans who have retained their intelligence, unlike the "wild humans" encountered by both Taylor and Brent.  However, these humans are also deformed mutants, as well as being insane, in that they worship one of the Earth's last thermonuclear bombs.  I realize that the conceit of nuclear mutants "loving the Bomb" that made them is a clever one, but I don't think Post and Dehn pull it off to best effect, possibly because as a whole BENEATH looks like a rushed production.

The apocalyptic ending of BENEATH is also probably well known enough to need no comment, though it's never been quite as famous as that of PLANET.  Despite all the adventure-elements used in both films, I judge that at the core these still fall into the Fryean mode of the drama, where the proper measure of mankind is man's fallibility.

ADDENDA: I've reconsidered some of my statements in the text of the review, and I've changed my mind: these two APES pictures are more in tune with the Fryean concept of the irony, in that both posit a world where the aforesaid fallibility spells man's doom in spite of anything he might do.  In Fryean drama, the power of the protagonist to take action usually has some, albeit limited, significance, but in an irony it does not; hence these two APES pictures (though not necessarily their sequels) fit the mythos of irony better.

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