Fox // 1968 // 112 Minutes // Rated G
Reviewed by Judge Norman Short (Retired) // August 7th, 2000
Somewhere in the Universe, there must be something better than man!
Back in 1968 a phenomenon was created, starting with this seemingly modest sci-fi/adventure flick Planet of the Apes. Though marketed and slanted toward a family audience, the film stands up remarkably well for its subtle social commentary about class, race, and discrimination. Made during the height of the Vietnam War, it carefully toed the line between controversy and fun adventure. It also created the whole marketing trend of merchandising tied to a film, which set the stage for the blitz of action figures and other memorabilia surrounding the Star Wars films and others. Fox is now releasing this, the first and absolutely best of the five Apes films, both as a separate disc and as part of the upcoming box set. Unfortunately this set was developed before the new commitment to anamorphic transfers, and is reportedly the last such discs to be released without 16x9 enhancement. Still, for a non-anamorphic picture, it looks surprisingly good, and makes a worthy purchase for fans of the film.
I remember watching all these ape films during my teenage years, and have happy memories of them. I was worried that I might be disillusioned watching them through adult eyes, but at least in the case of the first film I was pleasantly surprised. In fact, I was able to appreciate even better the social commentary aspects of the film.
Just in case you're among the few who do not know about Planet of the Apes, a short synopsis is in order. The beginning of the film has Taylor (Charlton Heston) giving a log entry inside a spaceship on a deep space journey. By traveling close to the speed of light he and the other astronauts have abandoned the Earth they knew forever, since hundreds or thousands of years have passed there compared to only months on the ship. They are awakened from cold storage when the ship crash lands on a planet and immediately starts to sink, but not before Taylor realizes that 2000 years have passed in Earth time. With no ship or anyone to contact, they know they are stuck. They discover that humans exist here but are little more than mute beasts, while apes are the dominant, sentient life form. Taylor is wounded and treated by two sympathetic chimpanzees interested in "animal behavior." Ultimately he will have to make his own mark and stand up for his own humanity in a world turned upside down, where the very word "humanity" does not exist. The apocalyptic message in the last scene is a landmark of motion picture history.
Planet of the Apes was released early in 1968 and became a huge hit, achieving both popular and critical acclaim. It was nominated for two Oscars (Costume Design and Musical Score) and won an honorary Academy Award for achievement in makeup effects.
Those makeup effects were revolutionary for the time, with whole new methods of using prosthetic appliances invented that could make a person actually give facial expressions and show emotion through the makeup. The results were apes that looked as if they were evolved and intelligent, and very much human in their mental makeup.
It should be noted that this was no cheap B-movie in terms of the cast. Charlton Heston was chosen as the lead character, who had already won an Oscar for Ben-Hur. Acclaimed actors Kim Hunter (Academy Award winner for A Streetcar Named Desire), Roddy McDowell, and Shakespearean actor Maurice Evans were chosen for the lead roles as apes. Even from behind the heavy makeup, these actors gave strong performances and gave their characters depth.
There was a modicum of humor mixed into the story as well, especially little quips such as "human see human do" and one scene where a judicial panel wants to neither see, hear, nor speak any evil. But largely this is played straight and serious, as the apes treat humans as animals to be slaughtered or used in medical experiments. Indeed, Taylor has to find a way to evade being castrated or lobotomized during the film, which could have been done to him without any legal protection. But beyond the difference in species is the undercurrent of class and equality, as even among the apes "some are more equal than others." Even even the studio heads missed some of these remarks on society, as they wanted merely an entertaining film without any controversy. We are fortunate they did not notice.
As many of you are aware, Planet of the Apes became a real franchise for Fox, spawning four film sequels, two television series, and a plethora of merchandise ranging from lunch boxes to action figures. It is truly unfortunate that although each sequel made money, Fox continued to cut the budget for each subsequent entry in the series. None of the films would receive even half of the $8 million budget for the first film, which greatly cheapened the realism and impact of the sequels. It seems to be truly a place where greed won out over any sense of artistic integrity, though in retrospect I hope they realized that spending more up front might well have resulted in far larger profits down the road.
Since I just brought up the matter of the sequels, I will give a short prequel to the upcoming review for the entire box set being released by Fox. Only the first film reviewed here will be available as a separate release. All five Apes films and a sixth disc of extra content will be released soon as a box set, though at present only the first and last disc have been released for review while the production of the others are still underway. But I've watched the final disc Behind the Planet of the Apes and can comment on it here. The disc consists mainly of the two-hour 1998 documentary of the same title narrated by Roddy McDowell, who starred in four of the five films. The first hour is devoted entirely to the first film, with plenty of interview footage from the main actors and surviving members of the crew, including quite a bit of memories expressed by Charlton Heston. Every aspect of the making of the film is covered. Less well-covered are the rest of the films, which get about 15 minutes each. Still, the conception of each sequel and the production are covered. Besides the documentary, trailers for each of the five films in the series, one for the box set, and a preview of an interactive PC game based on the films are offered. Picture quality is quite good, and the dialogue driven soundtrack is very clear.
But let's get back to Planet of the Apes. As mentioned before, Fox started production on the disc before making a commitment to anamorphic transfers, but I have to admit they gave the film a great look anyway. The source print is free of nicks or scratches, and is remarkably clean. In fact only the somewhat muted colors give away the fact that the print is 32 years old. Though slightly faded, the colors are well defined and even subtle differences of shade are easy to discern. Black levels are accurate and the various earth tones are faithfully rendered in golds and browns. Detail is reasonably sharp, even the separate leaf blades in the rows of corn in the hunting scene. The overall picture is strikingly good, far better than even the laserdisc. Fox may not have gone anamorphic, but they didn't just rehash the old transfer.
There are two English soundtracks offered, but both are a bit more troubling than the picture quality. Both the Dolby 2.0 and remastered Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks are basically expanded mono, with some degradation in sound quality. Dialogue is clearly understood but is a bit harsh and hollow, and the musical score comes off just a bit strident. I'm sure the fault lies with the source elements rather than the track itself, as Fox worked hard to improve and expand on the original sound. It's still better than mono, but I can't go too far beyond that.
The extra content is confined to a short series of still photos, a weblink, and the trailers for the five Apes films. I suppose if you really want in depth extras you are expected to buy the box set.
While I like the film, it certainly is not perfect. Charlton Heston goes a bit over the top, especially when he echoes, "It's a madhouse!" His character isn't that likable in the beginning but takes on the role of hero for the human race without really being able to make that transition believable.
The quality of the makeup and the abilities of the actors to properly act from behind it varies from extremely good to barely adequate. This gets far worse in some of the sequels, but there is some evidence of it here. It took some elaborate techniques to emote from behind the appliances and have it show through, and not all the cast were always up to the challenge.
As for the disc itself, I don't know what else there is to say. It is a shame that Fox couldn't have given all their discs anamorphic treatment from the beginning, but there had to be a last disc to be without it, and this box set is it. I'm still impressed enough with the care given the DVD release to recommend it to fans of the film.
Look to my upcoming review of the entire box set, which I will do as soon as Fox can send the rest of the discs. In the meantime, this review of the first film will have to suffice. But I am quite happy with the overall results and this film has never looked better. It probably has never sounded better, though that in itself is a shame.
Planet of the Apes is acquitted and released to the public once more as a groundbreaking piece of American science fiction and fantasy. Fox is forgiven for past transgressions and this disc is a fitting end to the non-anamorphic transfers. May all studios follow Fox's example.
Review content copyright © 2000 Norman Short; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
Running Time: 112 Minutes
Release Year: 1968
MPAA Rating: Rated G
* Still Galleries
* Official Site