To get this out of the way first – the twist for this film has been spoiled to death. I’d say it probably was spoiled in its entirety well before I was born. On the one hand, this means that the film’s ending has lost some of its punch, as we all know it’s coming. On the other hand, this means that when you come into the film, since you know the twist is coming, you also know to look for the clues for the twist in the story, and generally pay more attention to the film itself.
So, the movie, on its own, is alright. The film follows an Earth expedition (presumably from the US), to a planet in the constellation Bellatrix, using an experimental FTL drive, allowing them to get to the planet a manner of months instead of years, though Time Dilation will still occur, meaning that by the time they arrive, it will be the fourth Millennia on Earth.
This also is where the film runs into issues very early. I get, considering the mission is launched 10 seconds in the future, that the planet in question was not scouted for habitability before the mission is launched. What I don’t get is the fact that this mission seemed to have little to no serious planning. The mission is a one-way trip, with the crew having to colonize and populate an alien world by themselves. However, the crew is made up of four people – three men and one woman. This is iffy on several respects, both in terms of the depth (or rather lack of depth) of the gene pool of this population, combined with some rather iffy sexual power dynamics.
Additionally, it seems like the crew seems to not have gotten a psych evaluation for compatability. Charlton Heston’s character, Taylor, begins as an obnoxious prick, whose interactions with his other crew members are made up entirely of mockery and ridicule of his crew members. While this allows for some character growth as he makes his way through the film, having the character start out as an asshole does him no favors.
Where the film gets interesting is after Taylor and his companions land and are captured by the Apes, in particular due to Taylor’s throat being injured during his capture. We see how Taylor, and the other humans, are perceived by the Apes, particularly through the eyes of Dr. Zira and Dr. Cornelius (played by Kim Hunter and Roddy McDowell, respectively), two chimpanzee scientists who are focusing their research on humans.
The Ape settlement is an interesting and well done set – with a distinct form or architecture that is both familiar, but also very visually different than most human settlements. The makeup in the film is, on the one hand, very iconic. On the other hand, it runs into the issues that other 1960s films with full face prosthetics run into – a loss of expression due to how heavy and inflexible the makeup materials are.
I enjoyed the narrative exploration of Ape Society, and how Taylor reacts to it (and how it reacts to Taylor). However, the twist doesn’t feel earned. There is nothing to set up its reveal until very late in the film, aside from a handful of points (the presence of Earth primates and humans, compatible blood chemistry). A good twist, while it isn’t telegraphed a mile away, on repeat viewings has some clues that it up for the audience, once they know what to look for.
Additionally, the “It was Earth All Along” was already a hoary old chestnut when Planet of the Apes came out. Women of the Prehistoric Planet (as seen on MST3K) came out two years prior, and had the same twist, and several short stories published in science fiction magazines (including one published in Galaxy, written by Richard Matheson) also used that twist. It resonates, but in terms of 50s-60s SF, it does come close to being the equivalent of “And his eyes open…” and “hand claws out of the rubble” in terms of being a stock concept. If the rest of the film wasn’t as enjoyable, the twist would have fallen flat.
Due to the film’s historical significance, and the good performances from the main leads, I’d say that this film is worth viewing, but the twist only works because of the quality of the film attached to it.
Planet of the Apes is available from Amazon.com.