Classic Hollywood Spotlight: ‘Planet of the Apes’

Planet of the ApesRise of the Planet of the Apes opens next weekend, and it’s a cautionary tale about technology. Or evolution. Or speciesism. Or something. And it’s fine. As you know, I tend to get all up in arms about how old movies are dope and today’s movies aim mostly to sell Happy Meals. And yeah I’m both fuddy and duddy, but one thing that’s true is that movies of the late 60s and 70s certainly had a yearning for social conscience. What I like about Rise of the Planet of the Apes is that it seems to carry forward not only the super smart apes that popularized its predecessors, but the social conscience that propelled the original series.

Here’s a bit of Charlton Heston’s opening rap from 1968’s Planet of the Apes. A little context. He’s on a spaceship hurtling at speeds so fast the he will return to Earth hundreds of years after he left. He knows this. Even at the top of the movie, Heston knows he’s going to return to a future world. And it’s Charlton Heston. Realize and understand this. Hear his voice. Witness his mighty chin. Feel his manliness as he says: “I leave the century with no regrets, but…one more thing. If anybody’s listening, that is. Nothing scientific. It’s… purely personal. Seen from out here, everything seems different. Time bends. Space is… boundless. It squashes a man’s ego. I feel lonely. That’s about it. Tell me, though…Does man, that marvel of the universe, that glorious paradox who has sent me to the stars, still make war against his brother, keep his neighbor’s children starving?”

As openings to pop entertainment go, that’s pretty heady stuff. If it weren’t delivered by Charlton Heston it might be too heavy, but Heston somehow makes the whole monologue manly and defiant and rebellious in that arch-Right Wing way that Michael Moore could never pull off. Put that speech in the mouth of Moore or Ralph Nader or Al Gore and it would just seem like so much whiny leftist hokum. Put it in the mouth of Chuck Heston and it sounds like the war cry of a militia madman. And I mean that in the best possible way.

Watching it in the cold light of the 21st Century, Planet of the Apes is both clunky and intense, an action-movie about racism and evolution that pulses with macho pride. Only a movie from the late 60s could be both macho and intellectual. We don’t really have genuinely macho action heroes anymore. James Franco will Rise of the Planet of the Apesonly ever be a kind of sexually ambiguous fey no matter what he does. He can achieve “athletic,” maybe, but never macho. Charlton Heston, on the other hand, seems like a blue collar bruiser even when he’s supposed to be a sci-fi Captain – but that’s just what Planet of the Apes needs.

At this point we all know what Charlton Heston sees at the end of Planet of the Apes. In one of the greatest shock endings of all time – but only those who are foolish or obsessed or slothful enough to have watched the entire five-movie Planet of the Apes story know the true depths of cynicism the tale achieves. Can either humans or apes escape their baser natures? Only watching all of the movies will teach you.

I appreciate that Rise of the Planet of the Apes wants to say something about what it means to be human. To me that’s far more interesting than any kind of cautionary tale about technology. We have a cautionary tale about technology; it’s called the 20th Century. If Rise of the Planet of the Apes can teach us something about being human they will have achieved something far more grand, and touched at least a little of the grandeur of the original Planet of the Apes series.