One serious problem with parody is that it tends to attack the earnest and the earnest are the most easily destroyed. In most cases, the earnest need to get the hot air parodied out of them so that they can engage rather than preach, hopefully making them less insufferable. But in time, the parodies sometimes outlive the target or, at least, precede it and poison the well. I’m talking mostly about Planet of the Apes (1968) which, if you haven’t seen it as an adult, will shock you by its quality and maturity. We’ve all probably seen the two iconic moments of Planet of the Apes where Charlton Heston yells something silly. I was reexamining the movie Drive (2011), a movie I love, not too long ago and happened to be playing a very violent scene without the sound on. It looked absolutely ridiculous. The beautiful image appeared amateurish without the moody score and limited dialogue. Imagine that, a highly dramatic moment in the movie looking absurd out of context.
NASA sent four astronauts into space to test the theory of time dilation. So, six months in deep space, traveling near the speed of light, shows that Earth has gone forward 700 years. This is explained by Capt. Taylor (Charlton Heston) in his pre-hypersleep log. Suddenly, Taylor and his fellow travelers are awakened when their ship crashes into a large lake. It’s 3978 and they’re 200 light years away from Earth, somewhere in the constellation Orion. Sadly, one crew member’s chamber had an air leak and the sole female onboard is dead. That leaves Taylor and two others and no ship. One golden boy, Landon (Robert Gunner), one man dedicated to knowledge, Julius (Buck Kartalian), and then Taylor, a man on a journey to find something better than humanity. They travel along, searching for some signs of life, and they find it. First a small tribe of humans mess with their stuff and then a band of hunting ape-men capture Taylor and Landon (who get separated) and kill Julius. The apes believe that humans are dumb animals–and, for some reason, native humans do not speak–without a soul. The strong-willed Taylor then tries to make his escape and understand what in the hell is going on.
It seems almost unfair to target Planet of the Apes for parody since the film itself challenges so many sacred cows itself. It takes on racism (“Taylor, remember, all men look alike to most apes.”), religious antagonism to science, war, and the misuse of science. Adapted from the novel by Pierre Boulle, the screenplay by Rod Serling–creator and host of The Twilight Zone–and Michael Wilson plies its message with the subtlety that science fiction can provide. That’s not to say that the performance is subtle. It isn’t. Nor, however, is it the maniacal caricature some doubters may suppose. Heston plays the role in the strong, theatrical style that was expected at the time blended with his own no-nonsense personality. It’s not unlike Clint Eastwood if someone loosened the wires holding his mouth closed.
I suspect that much of the antagonism–and it’s possible I’m boxing with shadows since it has an 8.0 on IMDb–comes from the parodies (like Spaceballs (1987)) and the lack of film quality that this generation would associate with the film. I watched Planet of the Apes on Blu-ray, taking advantage of an Amazon deal, and found the quality of production to be excellent for the time. Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner, the cinematography is fluid and almost aggressive in the use of helicopter and tracking shots. I was impressed. What isn’t impressive is the ape costumes. My disbelief was suspended enough to accept the premise, but when the two good apes, Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) and Zira (Kim Hunter), come together in a kiss, it’s just absurd. They’re acting is fine, even good, but those two masks pressing against each other are too obviously fake. Seeing even the costumes or the sets on the grainy VHS tape probably would have broken the spell in the first ten minutes.
I expected to watch Planet of the Apes as an oddity of the times, just to fill in the corners of my pop culture knowledge. I thought it was a B-movie. It’s worth a lot more than that. This imagined straw man sitting out there hating this movie–I am, of course, referring to my 21 year old self–is almost offensive to me. Because with all the crummy stuff out there worthy of your derision (though unaccountably busting blocks), there’s this gem of a movie–with impurities, I grant you–being prejudged. So, before you snicker at the name Dr. Zaius, watch the movie first.
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