Friday, October 2, 2015

The Apeinator

Last year I began a project of watching sci-fi films from the seventies. I was born in the seventies but grew up in the eighties, so I haven't seen much before The Terminator or Escape from New York. Alien and Star Wars are notable exceptions, but I think of those as belonging more to the eighties, given their multiple sequels, and the fact that I watched them when I was a kid.

Anyway, here's a summary of what I've gotten through so far:
  • Planet of the Apes (1968): Not from the seventies but goes with the others.
  • The Omega Man (1971): Very cool and slightly funky.
  • Silent Running (1972): Underdeveloped tree-hugger flick featuring an overwrought, lachrymose protagonist who flies through space in a terrycloth bathrobe-habit and cuddles bunnies to the tune of throaty Joan Baez ballads. Weird.
  • Soylent Green (1973): Surprisingly excellent future noir with three legendary actors who played in major noir films; this is Edward G. Robinson's swan song, with a beautifully intimate farewell between his character and Charlton Heston's that goes beyond mere acting.
  • Westworld (1973): Never trust robots. Especially creepy Yul Brynner robots.
  • Death Race 2000 (1975): How about I just not review this one? For me the high point was the fistfight between David Carradine and Sylvester Stallone. Never knew such a thing existed.
  • Logan's Run (1976): Evocative, strangely beautiful, and life-affirming.
  • The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976): Good Lord, what did I just watch? (Actually I kind of liked this one.)
Of course, no review of seventies sci-fi cinema would be complete without covering all those damn dirty Apes movies. Well, thanks to my selfless dedication to this somewhat pointless project, this I now undertake to do.

(For my reflections on the recent reboot films and how they stack up against Planet of the Apes, see here; for my review of the original Pierre Boulle novel, see here.)
Damn Dirty Apes Movies

One thing you notice if you watch the original Apes movies through from beginning to end (which my father claims to have done in one night at a drive-in theater) is that they're quite inconsistent in their world-building. Heck, the first installment isn't even consistent with itself. For instance, it draws attention to the absence of a moon, a detail that's never explained, despite the fact that the planet turns out to be earth. (Oops, spoiler alert.) No explanation as to how the astronauts got back to earth instead of the planet they were making for is given, either.

One minor aspect of the world-building in Planet that I particularly appreciate is the fact that there are no birds. This is important, because the apes disbelieve Taylor's story of having come from the sky. If they had seen birds, the paper airplane folded by Taylor wouldn't have been remarkable to them. But, again, no particular attention is drawn to the fact. A less sensitive, more heavy-handed approach would have underscored it too much, or else ignored the issue altogether.

I mention this subtlety because it does seem purposeful to me, and because the second installment, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, blithely abandons it without an afterthought. That's typical of the series: what was a major plot point in one installment might be completely ignored in the next.

Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970)

If I were to rank the Apes movies from first to fifth, this would come in fourth (right before the execrable Battle). After a brief opening featuring Taylor (Charlton Heston again), his mute lover Nova, and some embarrassing special effects, the narrative shifts to his fellow astronaut Brent, who has come in search of him, which, for the record, makes absolutely no sense. Brent believes initially that he's on another planet, but, stunningly, discovers that it's actually a far-future earth ruled by apes! Actually, it's not stunning at all, as this is exactly the same plot as the first installment, only much less artfully executed.

As a matter of fact, the actor who plays Brent (James Franciscus) seems to have a Charlton Heston thing going on. It's almost as though they told him, look, just act like him, OK? Unable to get Heston for the whole film, they compromised by hiring a cheap knock-off for the non-Heston scenes. There's actually one part that seems lifted from Ben-Hur, hand gestures and all. Weird.

Toward the end Brent discovers the buried remains of NYC which is ruled by a race of mutant telepathic humans who worship an atomic bomb using a vernacular translation of the mass. So I guess that's a new twist. The sets are pretty cool, I have to say. Brent is captured by the mutants and finds Taylor. The mutants force the two to fight. I kept hoping Taylor would just kill Brent. That would have made up for a lot. Think about it: throughout the movie, Brent's like this irritating, phony, less muscular version of Taylor; then he meets the real Taylor, and is strangled by him.

Instead, disappointingly, they both survive, and go to mass at St. Patrick's.

The mass itself is interesting to me as a Catholic. This was the era in which the liturgy, which had remained unchanged for centuries, was modified and translated into the vernacular. The mutants' worship service reminds me very much of going to church as a young kid, when such usages were still a novelty, and felt banners abounded. It's interesting how, of all things, science fiction is sometimes the most effective time capsule.

Beneath explores various forms of fanaticism and religious extremism, mostly in unimaginative ways, though I do like the idea of mutants worshiping The Bomb as the alpha and omega, the beginning and the end. It ends with Taylor detonating the bomb, destroying all life on earth. The final exchange between Taylor and Dr. Zaius is coldly cynical, and the ending is unrelentingly fitting. But, disappointingly, the screen fades to white instead of showing a special-effects nuclear blast. Even Dr. Strangelove has some mushroom clouds. Couldn't they at least have found some stock footage?

Interesting trivia: the actress who plays the telepathic mutant Albina (Natalie Trundy, the wife of producer Arthur P. Jacobs) went on to play Dr. Stephanie Branton in Escape and the chimpanzee Lisa in Conquest and Battle.

Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971)

Given how unimpressed I was by Beneath, I'm surprised at how much I enjoyed Escape. It follows the lovable chimp couple Cornelius and Zira (and their colleague, who dies to save money on makeup) back in time to the twentieth century. They're captured and caged, then investigated, then celebrated, then persecuted, and finally murdered.

I see Escape as a sometimes dark, sometimes satirical exploration of American culture at the time. The paranoia of the government and the atmosphere of fear into which Zira and Cornelius are received is well portrayed. It's impossible not to reflect on then-current events, e.g., the Kent State shootings. Dr. Otto Hasslein, the President's shadowy science advisor, deeply suspects the apes and the future they represent. He soliloquizes about whether it would be right to kill them to change future history:
How many futures are there? Which future has God, if there is a God, chosen for man's destiny? If I urge the destruction of these two apes, am I defying God's will or obeying it? Am I his enemy or his instrument?
The chimps' exposure to fashion and entertainment (and "grape juice plus") provides a humorous intermezzo to these more sinister proceedings. They show themselves radically out of step with the prevailing culture, which they find bewildering, reprehensible, and crude. They are a sign of contradiction and a threat to the social order.

More than anything, I find myself delighted by the relationship between Cornelius and Zira. To me, their overacted parts are merely irritating in the first installment; here, perhaps because of their isolation, they seem the most human of the characters. Zira's testimony before a government commission is the high point of the film. She is warm-hearted, humane, strong-minded, and intelligent; her more down-to-earth counterpart Cornelius is a perfect foil.

The final act centers around the birth of their child, Milo, and their subsequent flight and murder. Religious references abound. The President and Dr. Hasslein liken themselves to Herod, and the imagery surrounding the chimp mother, father, and child evokes the Holy Family. Señor Armando (Ricardo Montalbán), the circus owner who harbors the fugitives and ultimately adopts their son, presents them with a medal of St. Francis of Assisi; St. Francis was famously a lover of animals and, it so happens, the inventor of the nativity scene. The ending is hauntingly bleak.

All in all, I think this is my favorite of the sequels to Planet. But its place in the series does raise some insoluble problems of causality: Milo leads the future rise of the apes, and Zira and Cornelius owe their existence to said rise, and Milo is their child. My advice: don't think too hard about it.

Final question: Why does Escape from the Planet of the Apes remind me so much of Escape to Witch Mountain and Return from Witch Mountain?

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972)

Conquest follows the fortunes of Milo, now named Caesar for some reason, as he is separated from Señor Armando, forced into slavery, and driven to lead a revolution.

The year is 1991. All dogs and cats have died. Apes now supply companionship and labor. For some reason that is never explained, apes from the wild are, with a little training, suited to becoming intelligent servitors in human households, and look more or less like humans in ape suits. It's like we're already in a parallel universe here.

Impacted by the pointless death of the kindly Armando and the mistreatment of his fellow apes, Caesar goes from wide-eyed amazement at the wonders of the city to disillusionment and finally rage. He teaches the apes to organize and fight, and leads a fiery revolution to overthrow the social order. The saga comes full circle as apes gain the ascendancy and humans begin their slow decline.
Where there is fire, there is smoke. And in that smoke, from this day forward, my people will crouch, and conspire, and plot, and plan for the inevitable day of Man's downfall. The day when he finally and self-destructively turns his weapons against his own kind. The day of the writing in the sky, when your cities lie buried under radioactive rubble! When the sea is a dead sea, and the land is a wasteland out of which I will lead my people from their captivity! And we shall build our own cities, in which there will be no place for humans except to serve our ends! And we shall found our own armies, our own religion, our own dynasty! And that day is upon you NOW!
The ending was softened by studio demands but remains as bleak as any in the Apes cycle.

I enjoyed the stark, vaguely futuristic setting, with its broad, clean sidewalks and blocky buildings, which reminded me of a college campus and was in fact Century City, Los Angeles, with a little UC Irvine thrown in. The scope of the film is strictly local, which makes the sense of global catastrophe at the end a little hard to believe. It's too bad they didn't have more of a budget. But they took what they had and did very well with it.

I've read that Conquest was inspired by the Watts riots that took place in L.A. in 1965 and similar evidences of civil unrest and racial discord that swept the country during the years that followed. The one human worthy of the viewer's sympathy (other than the unfortunate Armando) is MacDonald, an African American to whom Caesar appeals for understanding of the apes' plight specifically because of his race.

The use of apes as stand-ins for minorities is effective but troubling on a number of levels. Unlike species (or sexes), races are not discrete, mutually exclusive categories, but the fact that the apes seemed a fitting symbol reflects a cynical belief that they may as well be. Tension mounts throughout the movie, and in the end no real reconciliation seems possible: once man no longer dominates ape, ape must dominate man.

At any rate, Conquest is a movie that isn't afraid to tackle current events and controversy. Nowadays when a movie explores an old issue with a level of caution that filmmakers forty or fifty years ago might have thought timid, people treat it a some kind of triumph of courage. It's something I've been appreciating about science fiction movies from this era: where filmmakers in the eighties were content to retreat into safe actioners, those in the seventies were all about pushing the envelope.

Now, here the Apes cycle should have come to its bitter end, but instead the world received

Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973)

about which, the less said, the better. I might have enjoyed this movie if it had made an iota of sense, hadn't been riddled with errors and inconsistencies, and hadn't culminated in an epic battle between a handful of humans driving extremely slow-moving yellow school bus and a smallish mob of poorly armed apes living in tree houses in what looks like some California state park.

I will say this for it: the background paintings for the ruined city are pretty good looking. But, overall, it's a terrible, terrible movie. Bizarrely, its framing device features the legendary John Huston dressed as an orangutan and speaking to a group of children. He would star in Chinatown only a year later. Maybe he just wanted to wear the makeup? Who knows.


For the most part, I enjoyed the Apes movies. They're a snapshot of America at a certain point in time, and don't shy from dealing with delicate issues like religion, nuclear proliferation, race relations, governmental intrusion, antiestablishment movements, women's rights, and the treatment of animals. Causally speaking they're a bit like that Escher staircase that goes up and up and leads back to where it started, but in a way that only adds to their mythic dimension.

So here's how I rank them:
  1. Planet of the Apes
  2. Escape from the Planet of the Apes
  3. Conquest of the Planet of the Apes
  4. Beneath the Planet of the Apes
  5. Battle for the Planet of the Apes
Now, if I could only find a clip of the Saturday Night Live cold open where Charlton Heston falls asleep in his dressing room and awakens to find apes ruling the studio. Oh well, here's the transcript.


  1. I have a soft spot for Battle as it was the only one I saw at the movies. As a seven year old the sparseness of everything didn't bother me and I was shocked by the death of Cornelius (and still am - 70s movies had no qualms about killing children). At some point I realized it looks cheaper than one of the commercials for the Mego Planet of the Apes action figures.

    Conquest definitely suffers from the lack of any sense of global scale, but it's a pretty radical story for a mainstream sci-fi movie.

    1. I enjoyed Conquest considerably. I found it chilling and slightly disturbing, which seems to be what it set out to be. I don't understand why it typically gets such negative reviews. In a way I think the various Apes movies suffer from being reviewed as installments in a series, because they're all pretty different from one another.