Astronaut Taylor (Charlton Heston) sits in the cockpit of the deep space craft he shares with three others. Although it seems like months have passed, in fact hundreds of years have gone by while their mission to a distant planet goes on and as he records his logbook Taylor acknowledges that whoever hears it won't be the same people who established the mission in the first place because they are long gone. He muses over whether mankind still fights wars and suffers poverty as he prepares himself for suspended animation, then switches off his microphone, makes one last check of the instruments and climbs into his pod. But if he knew what he will find when he wakes up he might wish he had never left home...
In 1968 there were two heavyweight science fiction films of provocative ideas released: 2001: A Space Odyssey and this one, Planet of the Apes. It's difficult to gauge which has survived the better, but for sheer symbolism this one is hard to beat, bringing clever metaphors to what is essentially a pulp sci-fi premise. Adapted from the novel by Pierre Boule, author of Bridge on the River Kwai, the script was initially by Rod Serling, then rewritten by Michael Wilson, which gives lazy commentators an excuse to call the film an extended Twilight Zone episode. Granted, it shares properties with episodes of that series, notably its social conscience and twist ending.
In fact, Planet of the Apes is one of those films where the ending is so famous it tends to eclipse its other achievements; if you don't know what it is, I'm not going to reveal it here, although you just have to look at the cover of the DVD to have it spoiled for you. However, if you take the production as a warning of how our society could go if bigotry and irrationality take over it remains surprisingly potent. Although it takes around half an hour for the Apes of the title to appear (John Chambers' celebrated makeup was worth waiting for), that time is well spent in setting the surviving astronauts up for a major fall.
They have crashlanded on an alien world, and once they escape their sinking spaceship which has ended up in a lake, they think there is no civilisation around and spend the next couple of days searching for signs of life and food before their supplies run out as Taylor philosophises about possibly being the last men in the Universe. When they discover crude "scarecrows" they wonder if they have struck gold, and the lake they see beyond them offers refreshment, but who has stolen their clothes? They give chase and meet a tribe of mute humans who are operating on a lower level of intelligence than the astronauts. Taylor says they will be running this place before long - and the hunt commences.
Yes, it is the Apes who are the masters and Taylor is not only separated from his colleagues but receives a shot to the throat that renders him silent (for a while). The Apes in a nearby town use the docile humans for vivisection, but chimpanzee scientists Kira (Kim Hunter) and Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) have never met anyone like Taylor. Could he actually be intelligent? Just wait until he gets his voice back... Planet of the Apes muses over the ethics of animal testing (not such a great idea if you're the animal) and Creationism when head of the orang-utan council Dr Zaius (an impressive Maurice Evans) refuses to accept that mankind could evolve into someone like Taylor. Heston was rarely so well cast, a proud and noble man utterly humiliated by cruel fate and ignorance he spends the film pinballing from one ingominy to another. It may be heavy handed, but the film burns with a righteous anger that the sequels never quite recaptured, of its time with its questions of civil rights and state violence and enduring for its novel presentation of the issues. One of a kind score by Jerry Goldsmith.