Planet of the Apes (1968) is a film that has become a really central part of pop culture. Not just through The Simpsons, though yes that did totally ruin the film’s ending for me some years ago. I hadn’t seen the film for a whole bunch of years, so thought I would revisit it to see if it still held up as a sci-fi classic for me.
I actually watched Planet of the Apes a good 10 years ago, long before I was into classic film. I recall being really impressed by it and blown away by the ending even though I knew what was coming. It starts exceptionally well, combining thought provocation like all the best sci-fi with some nice futuristic visuals. The exploration of the mental and philosophical issues of exceptionally long space journeys is really good stuff and it leads into a spectacular crash sequence. The camerawork here is one of the highlights of the film as the camera swirls wildly while the spaceship tumbles to the ground. There is an early sense of exploration and a final closing off of the initial ideas that the film is concerned with, particularly in the manner that George Taylor played by Charlton Heston reacts to the fact that everyone he knew has been dead for millennia and he will almost certainly never get back home. These are all great questions to ponder, especially today with manned missions to Mars possibly looming, and the very real probability that one day people will have to sign up for one way space missions. The discussions between Taylor and his rather more perturbed crewmates are really well scripted and bring all of those ideas out. Unfortunately once the three men were captured by the apes, the film really flattened out for me. Aside from that capture sequence, the action is all pretty lacklustre and the narrative never particularly goes anywhere. Most of the elements of the film that work later on have very little to do with the apes actually, which are obviously the focus of the action. Rather, it is the hallmarks of the environment that have the timeless prescience of all the best sci-fi that hit the mark. The soil is totally ruined, nothing at all will grow and much of the planet is a total wasteland.
One aspect of this film that really stands out, especially given its vintage, is that it is really quite a dark film both narratively and especially thematically. The plight of the astronauts is bleak, basically from start to finish and there is a certain meanness to much of what happens. For such a mainstream film, some of the technical elements are quite bold. There are long segments with very little dialogue, the spaceship is intricately designed, there is an almost handheld sense to some of the camera work and the soundtrack is full of (at times annoying and intrusive) electronic bleeps and bops. The ape costuming work, whilst possibly revolutionary at the time, is exceptionally dated now, just looking terrible and basic. At times, I found them to be so bad that it was actually distracting. Planet of the Apes is quite famous for a number of the philosophical messages it examines. This is cleverly done by inverting the roles of humans and apes that currently exist. Humans are used for ‘animal testing’, talked down to and generally treated abhorrently. In some ways it is a very forward argument against human exceptionalism, at least that is a reading I made of the film. Unfortunately though whilst this inversion of roles is clever, there is only so much you can achieve simply by inverting the roles. The ideas needed to be, or at the very least could have been, pushed a lot further. I guess one advantage of the limited approach of the inversion of ape and human roles is that it makes the film’s messages quite universal and open to interpretation. But I still think that overall the script needed to go further with the ideas.
I was definitely less impressed with The Planet of the Apes this time around. My impression is that if you look at various elements of the film, especially the themes and some of the design, it should be a lot better than it actually is. As a whole though, I found this to be a merely good experience rather than a truly satisfying one.
Verdict: Stubby of Reschs
2014 Progress: 11/101
Even though I am sure I saw it (or at least parts of it) growing up, putting Ben-Hur (1959) into my DVD player, I had managed to keep myself ignorant of the details of the film’s plot. As such, despite the arduous running time, I was pretty excited to get into one of the most celebrated American films in history.
The scope of the film is obvious right from the start, even with the very slow start to the film. The film follows Charlton Heston’s Judah Ben-Hur, a prince/merchant who finds himself a slave. His stock rises and falls throughout the lengthy film. Even though the film looks really sharp though, the feel of it is that of a dated telemovie about Jesus you would buy from an infomercial. That music! Argh. It feels in many ways like it is an adaptation of a play. A bad play though, because the film is so stilted and lacking in any of the searing quality of adaptations of really great plays such as the works of Shakespeare. There are a couple of sequences that manage to distinguish themselves from the tepidness of everything else going on. Most notably the subplot of Ben-Hur’s mother and sister being lepers and his insistence on seeing them. I actually found those sequences quite intense and difficult to watch because of the emotion involved, which is so lacking from a vast majority of the film. For me though, the much celebrated chariot race sequence is not one of those that does not manage to rise above the mire. There was so much build-up to it and then it was just all a bit meh. There was no exhilaration there, not to mention I have definite concerns around the welfare of the animals used to film those scenes. So much of it is totally lacking in excitement because it is just a bunch of horses riding along beside each other and even the final highpoint of the race lacks any punch.
From my perspective there are two major issues that really affect this film. The first is the laborious pace. The film does not really seem to be telling a story that is truly that ‘epic.’ Rather, the scope that is teased early on by the film just turns into it taking so long to actually move anywhere. Think the opening 45 minutes of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012), only worse. The second issue is that the narrative itself is totally unfocused. I mean what is the core narrative of Ben-Hur? Killing that dude in the chariot race? Finding Christ? I mean it is all pretty oblique and not only that, none of these narrative strands are either particularly engaging for the audience or well done. None of these issues are helped particularly by the performance of Charlton Heston. Never mind the fact that for me (and I suspect others as well), I cannot see him in a film and forget his turn in Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine (2002). He manages to get across some of the emotion of the film, but overall I don’t think this is a very good performance from Heston. He is too rigid and can’t inhabit the role like is required and like he managed to do in The Planet of the Apes (1968).
For a celebrated epic from the golden era of Hollywood epics, I found Ben-Hur to be a strangely flat experience. Riddled with issues, it is one of those films that you should probably see just so you can say you have seen it (plus I guess you may love it). But at around 4 hours in length it is a big time investment for little reward.
Verdict: Schooner of Carlton Draught
2014 Progress: 3/101