On April 3, 1968, two all-time greats of the science fiction genre, Planet of the Apes and 2001: A Space Odyssey, hit U.S. theaters. Both films are classics in which astronaut missions go awry, but there are other linking threads. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, the famous “Dawn of Man” sequence shows the beginning of human history, with intelligence alighting within some of our ape-like ancestors, teaching them how to wield bones as weapons. In Planet of the Apes, it’s the end of history we see: humankind has nuked itself into near extinction and the world has come full circle to where it is now overrun by primates again.

In addition, both movies honor the genre tradition of using the future as commentary on social concerns of their day, with a major linking thread being the principle of evolution. Let’s discuss these two seminal films, their legacy, and how they align and differ in their views of humankind, its place in history, and its place in the cosmos.

Planet of the Apes

Of the two films, Planet of the Apes is arguably much more accessible. Half a century ago, a feature helmed by Franklin J. Schaffner — who would next go on to direct Patton and win an Oscar for it — started a franchise that has remained visible even in recent years with Fox’s new reboot Apes trilogy starring Andy Serkis as Caesar (Rise of, Dawn of, and War for the Planet of the Apes).

Divorced from itself as a proven intellectual property in Hollywood, a society of talking apes may seem like a silly premise (though with the specter of swine flu and avian influenza, or bird flu, looming large in the 2000s, the “simian flu” portrayed in the reboot trilogy came off as frighteningly realistic). The talking-apes society is actually a brilliant high concept, however, one that has consistently managed to frame compelling allegories for the human race, even as the Apes series has shifted from outstanding practical effects, make-up and costume design, to motion-capture-driven CGI.

Like so many other good science fiction stories, the original Planet of the Apes and its numerous sequels and prequels — even the absolutely bonkers Beneath the Planet of the Apes, with its singing, nuclear-warhead-worshipping underground mutants — merely serve to reflect the real world back at us in a phantasmagorical way. The focus on apes in these movies belies a very human story, as if returning the audience to its evolutionary roots, holding up a mirror to our more primitive selves and reminding us that as far as we may have come as an ostensibly civilized species, we still have a long way to go.

The choice of Charlton Heston was an interesting one for the role of Taylor, the main character in the original Planet of the Apes. Prior to 1968, Heston had starred in a string of religious films, including but not limited to The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur, The Agony and the Ecstasy, and The Greatest Story Ever Told, where he played John the Baptist. By today’s naturalistic standards, his style of acting — the air of considerable pomp he brought to some of those performances — almost seems like overacting. He was never more hammy than he was as Moses. According to Gore Vidal, who had a hand in the film’s screenplay, the crew of Ben-Hur (which I wrote about recently) nicknamed Heston “the big cornpone.”

Taylor is a very different character from the kind Heston was known for. He starts out as a misanthrope, waxing philosophical in astronaut voice-over about man making war on his brother and keeping his neighbor’s children starving. If anything, he seems glad to escape Earth. After crash-landing on an unknown planet, one of the other astronauts in his crew, Landon, calls Taylor out on his misanthropy, saying he “despised people” back home and “thought life on Earth was meaningless.”

We have already heard Taylor dreaming aloud of a different breed of men, “a better one,” and here again, he is forced to admit, “I can’t help thinking somewhere in the universe there has to be something better than man.”

Thus Planet of the Apes introduces one of the central themes it shares in common with 2001: A Space Odyssey — namely, that humanity in its present state could be a kind of imperfect middle stretch along the evolutionary road. Gritting his teeth while talking (as Heston was wont to do, all the better to chew the scenery by baring those magnificent chompers of his), Taylor takes perverse pleasure in needling Dodge with the hopelessness of their predicament. All in all, he’s rather unlikeable, not in line with the traditional Heston hero.

When he is shot in the throat and netted by gorillas on horseback, Taylor is soon forced into a regressive, speechless, cave-man-like state, where he has to fight for what it means to be human. The world of the apes is a theocracy where the terror of taxidermied and lobotomized humans marks them as little more than animals. It was only a year before the release of Planet of the Apes and 2001: A Space Odyssey that the Tennessee law against teaching evolution in public schools was finally repealed. The Scopes Monkey Trial is clearly alluded to in Apes in the scene where Taylor appears before a tribunal of orangutans who strike see-no-evil, hear-no-evil, speak-no-evil poses as they cling to the dogma of their Sacred Scrolls.

In the end, Taylor finally wins his freedom, riding away on the beach with the beautiful Nova (played by Linda Harrison), his dignity as an ambassador for the human race seemingly restored. But then the film pulls the rug out from under him, delivering a delicious twist ending originated by The Twilight Zone’s Rod Serling.

It’s revealed, of course (spoilers for a 50-year-old movie), that Taylor’s time-dilated travels through space landed him not on another planet, some alien ape-world, but rather, on a future Earth where humanity has regressed to a more primitive state while apes have gained ascendancy in the wake of nuclear war. Confronted with this terrible knowledge in the sight of the Statue of Liberty on the beach, Taylor sinks to his knees, pounding the sand with his fists and upbraiding humanity with the lines, “You maniacs! You blew it up! God damn you! God damn you all to hell!”

It’s one of the greatest movie twists of all time. Informed by Cold War paranoia about a potential nuclear holocaust, this ending espouses a decidedly pessimistic view of humanity’s future. It’s also interesting because if you look beyond the trappings of the primate costumes, Planet of the Apes and the series it spawned can be seen in this defining moment as a fundamentally earthbound, human-centric narrative.

The best of the contemporary reboot films, 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, unfolds like an epic based on real political events, complete with a coup d’etat that changes the course of history. By the time the movie descends into a nightmare vision of apes unloading assault rifles on unsuspecting humans (in a sandbag nest, and then again later, while charging forward on horseback, against a backdrop of flames), it is clear this film is painting a stark metaphor of human tribalism at its worst.

The world is on fire every day with conflict and in the heat of all that, down here on terra firma where we are, it’s easy to want to turn off the barrage of bad news and tune out the suffering of others. The best art reminds us of that which we forget to see.

To inspire us with a vision of what could be, what we might be, what the greater universe might hold, science fiction would need to look to the stars. In the world of 1968, it just so happened to do that in a film that ran concurrently with Planet of the Apes in theaters.

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