by Pauline Kael
Planet of the Apes is a very entertaining movie, and you’d better go see it quickly, before your friends take the edge off it by telling you all about it. They will, because it has the ingenious kind of plotting that people love to talk about. If it were a great picture, it wouldn’t need this kind of protection; it’s just good enough to be worth the rush. Adapted from a novel by Pierre Boulle, Planet of the Apes most closely resembles George Pal’s 1960 version of H. G. Wells’ 1895 novel The Time Machine. It’s also a little like Forbidden Planet, the 1956 science-fiction adaptation of The Tempest, though it’s perhaps more cleverly sustained than either of those movies. At times, it has the primitive force of old King Kong. It isn’t a difficult or subtle movie; you can just sit back and enjoy it. That should place the genre closely enough, without spoiling the theme or the plot. The writing, by Michael Wilson and Rod Serling, though occasionally bright, is often fancy-ironic in the old school of poetic disillusion. Even more often, it is crude. But the construction is really extraordinary. What seem to be weaknesses or holes in the idea turn out to be perfectly consistent, and sequences that work only at a simple level of parody while you’re watching them turn out to be really funny when the total structure is revealed. You’re too busy for much disbelief anyway; the timing of each action or revelation is right on the button. The audience is rushed along with the hero, who keeps going as fast as possible to avoid being castrated or lobotomized. The picture is an enormous, many-layered black joke on the hero and the audience, and part of the joke is the use of Charlton Heston as the hero. I don’t think the movie could have been so forceful or so funny with anyone else. Physically, Heston, with his perfect, lean-hipped, powerful body, is a god-like hero; built for strength, he’s an archetype of what makes Americans win. He doesn’t play a nice guy; he’s harsh and hostile, self-centered and hot-tempered. Yet we don’t hate him, because he’s so magnetically strong; he represents American power — the physical attraction and admiration one feels toward the beauty of strength as well as the moral revulsion one feels toward the ugliness of violence. And he has the profile of an eagle. Franklin Schaffner, who directed Planet of the Apes, uses the Heston of the preposterous but enjoyable The Naked Jungle — the man who is so absurdly a movie-star myth. He is the perfect American Adam to work off some American guilt feelings or self-hatred on, and this is part of what makes this new violent fantasy so successful as comedy.
Planet of the Apes is one of the best science-fiction fantasies ever to come out of Hollywood. That doesn’t mean it’s art. It is not conceived in terms of vision or mystery or beauty. Science-fiction fantasy is a peculiar genre; it doesn’t seem to result in much literary art, either. This movie is efficient and craftsmanlike; it’s conceived and carried out for maximum popular appeal, though with a cautionary message, and with some attempts to score little points against various forms of Establishment thinking. These swifties are not Swift, and the movie’s posture of moral superiority is somewhat embarrassing. Brechtian pedagogy doesn’t work in Brecht, and it doesn’t work here, either. At best, this is a slick commercial picture, with its elements carefully engineered — pretty girl (who unfortunately doesn’t seem to have had acting training), comic relief, thrills, chases — but when expensive Hollywood engineering works, as it rarely does anymore, the results can be impressive. Schaffner has thought out the action in terms of the wide screen, and he uses space and distance dramatically. Leon Shamroy’s excellent color photography helps to make the vast exteriors (shot in Utah and Arizona) an integral part of the meaning. The editing, though, is somewhat distracting; several times there is a cut and then a view of what we have already seen now seen from a different angle or from much higher up. The effect is both static (we don’t seem to be getting anywhere) and overemphatic (we are conscious of being told to look at the same thing another way). The makeup (there is said to be a million dollars’ worth) and the costuming of the actors playing the apes are rather witty, and the apes have a wonderful nervous, hopping walk. The best little hopper is Kim Hunter, as an ape lady doctor; she somehow manages to give a better performance in this makeup than she has ever given on the screen before.
The New Yorker, February 17,1968
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