“Do they know they’re on Earth yet?” So said my mother when, many years ago now, the ten-year-old me was settling down to watch Planet of the Apes for the first time. It was three minutes into the film when she unleashed that bombshell—barely past the opening credits—and the revelation that Charlton Heston has traveled forward in time on planet Earth rather than to some other far flung planet was, of course, the film’s big twist. Suffice it to say that my family has never been too wary of spoilers. Still, maybe those that say having the ending spoiled doesn’t affect one’s enjoyment of a film are right, because I still had a good time with Heston and the apes, even knowing that the Statue of Liberty would be making a cameo appearance at the end. Or perhaps it’s not that spoilers don’t matter, but rather that Planet of the Apes’ revelation doesn’t have quite the same majesty about it today as it did in 1968.
That’s because Planet of the Apes is the quintessential Cold War film. And it lays it on thick—you barely need to know anything about the iron curtain or nuclear weapons to know that this work is positively anti-war. It transcends even plain anti-war messaging, though; we can comfortably categorize it as hysterical, with its bleak outlook for mankind, packaged along with a curious Darwinist twist below the surface. Here, Earth has been scorched by all-out nuclear war between the superpowers. It appears that near everything has been destroyed, the planet sent back billions of years in evolutionary history, Homo sapiens and other common animals eradicated. Now a new animal is top dog: a cruder version of us, an ape, but an ape that sounds human.
It’s a grim image that now seems anachronistic at best and silly at worst. Dramatic imagery such as scorched dolls and shattered spectacles is deployed in order to tug on our heartstrings. But one imagines it rang true for many viewers when it was first released. Fear of nuclear conflict can be found in all manner of works from the 60s all the way to the late 80s, and is not only limited to fiction. Planet of the Apes’ shrill warning to its viewers anticipated the same (or perhaps even more desperate) tenor we find in the likes of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, a documentary series about astronomy (and more broadly science and critical thinking) where Sagan dedicates an entire episode and several shorter sequences to what our chances of survival as a species are given our apparent desire to “blow ourselves up.”
This perhaps betrays a larger truth about films that are centered on an apocalypse or a post-apocalyptic world: they are all wedded to the time period in which they were made, more so than any other type of disaster film, and maybe more than any other broader genre. It wouldn’t make too much sense to release a film about a cataclysmic nuclear war between superpowers today—which is not to say that such an event isn’t possible, but rather that it’s just unlikely. It’s much more logical to make an apocalypse film where climate change was the thing that got us—say, like, the John Cusack/Amanda Peet special 2012, or the even more blatant The Day After Tomorrow (director Roland Emmerich was, incidentally, responsible for both pictures). While the latter very clearly echoes climate science, the first is more of a grab-bag, which makes it more interesting to examine: within we find traces of the aforementioned climate change, along with concerns about what the Mayans may or may not have known, and some other business about quantum physics and sub-atomic particles. These are concerns exclusive to our time, specifically to the last five years or so—concerns that would have made no sense to a viewer back in 1968. And if by some chance climate change turns out not to be a big deal, then in fifty years our progeny will look back at The Day After Tomorrow with the same curiosity as we look back at Planet of the Apes with today.
None of this is to say that Planet of the Apes is a bad picture—only that it has long since shown its age through its politics. We might be tempted to call it naïve, given that things didn’t turn out nearly as bad as the filmmakers might have thought, but if anything, the film now comes across as an honest production, and perhaps even has a little charm to it because of its quaintness. Its methods are still effective despite the fact that we can see through them. The reveal of the half-sunken Statue of Liberty remains imposing, and has, of course, become an iconic film image. Heston’s theatrics—falling to his knees and thumping his fists on the sand—are totally appropriate, ending the film on a desperate (almost horrific) note. It sticks with the viewer. No one who has seen the film will ever forget Heston’s last words: “We finally really did it... Damn you all to hell!”
Heston is in fact deserving of more recognition. He is remarkably good here, and is as much the picture’s unsung hero as the star of a film can be. He’s quite subtle at times, which is something we might not expect given his generally bombastic approach to acting. Watch carefully, especially in the film’s first act when the crew waken from their slumber. He does a great job as the cynical (almost unwitting, one gets the sense) space traveler that would rather be back home than out where no man has gone before.
Planet of the Apes is an antique—a film with an old filmmaking style and an old moral to go along with it. But being dated does not make it bad. This is one film that survives the weathering of time. The drama in its story, the curious locales and the novelty of seeing anthropomorphized apes all help it retain interest on a superficial level. But there are ways in which it is a little more important. We can, for instance, examine it as a historical and social document. It tells us more about what people were thinking and feeling and fearing at the time than most of its contemporaries. In that light, Planet of the Apes will always be genuinely interesting—sort of a small emotional time capsule that tells us that, some forty or fifty years ago, our parents and grandparents might have felt that they, our species and our planet, did not have too long left to live.