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PLANET OF THE APES
35th Anniversary Edition

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Charlton Heston, Roddy McDowall, Kim Hunter, Maurice Evans, Linda Harrison
Director:  Franklin J. Schaffner
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio:  20th Century Fox
Features:  See Review
Length:  112 Minutes
Release Date:  February 3, 2004

“IT’S A MADHOUSE…A MADHOUSE!!!”

Film ***1/2

The best science fiction always paints wondrous and imaginative fantasy, but using a mirror for a surface.  If we look closely enough, we see ourselves.

Planet of the Apes crafted an incredible world where man was a lower order animal and apes evolved into the dominant species.  The premise is more than enough to craft a skillful and entertaining story, yet it leaves plenty of room for social commentary, political discourse and an exploration of the human condition.  The surface tale may be futuristic, but the subtext reflected the time of the turbulent 1960s when it was made.  Superstar Sammy Davis Jr. called it the best movie he ever saw about the state of black and white relations.

It opens with American astronaut Taylor (Heston) making his final shipboard log entry before hibernation.  Traveling six months at the speed of light theoretically meant that thousands of years would have passed on Earth.  Having left home during a strained time in human history, he wonders aloud what the outcome of it all might have been.

It doesn’t appear that he’ll find the answer…his ship crash lands on a mysterious planet, thousands of years in the future and many lightyears from his own solar system.  He and his two crewmates attend to the first order of business:  survival.

But an odd turn of events are in store:  they are on a planet where human beings are primitive, unintelligent, mute and hunted.  Apes are the masters of this world.  Taylor quickly becomes just another animal taken in a great hunt.

But two scientific minds in the ape community take an interest in him:  Zira (Hunter) and Cornelius (McDowall) learn that Taylor can write and speak.  They can’t quite believe his strange stories of travel through time and space, but they soon suspect that Taylor’s past might be the key to their own.

Opposing them is Dr. Zaier (Evans), who would rather see the “freak” disposed of rather than face the cultural shock and threat Taylor could represent to the ape way of life.  He is a powerful enemy; if Zira and Cornelius are to get to the bottom of Taylor’s mystery, it could end up costing them everything.

The screenplay was co-written by Rod Serling, and there’s a definite Twilight Zone feel to the unfolding scenario.  Using a simple premise for a jumping off point, a full story of social and political depth unfolds.  One can clearly read in the margins about the importance of civil rights and liberties, the dangers of discrimination, and the tragedies than can unfurl when we close our minds to new possibilities or fail to treat others with compassion and understanding.

The only points where the film goes astray are with some forced attempts at humor.  Lines like “human see, human do” or “I never meant an ape I didn’t like” may induce a chuckle, but at the expense of pulling the audience out of the moment.  Still, nothing really derails the momentum of the script, which moves towards an exclamation point of a finale, and one of the cinema’s greatest surprise endings (one of the best aspects of this anniversary re-release is that said ending is no longer given away on the box cover…sheesh!).

The cast is wonderful, particularly the delightful Kim Hunter and Roddy McDowall, who give a sense of warmth and humanity (no pun intended) to an unusual pair of characters.  The make-up work was of course extremely revolutionary for the time:  the actors really did look like apes, while at the same time, their abilities to perform were enhanced rather than covered up by the appliances they wore.

The film became a huge smash, spawning four sequels, comic books, television series and merchandise galore.  Like many franchises, the footing became a bit less sure as time went on.  But the original remains a staple of the genre and a classic of the modern cinema…it’s no wonder fans still flock to it some 35 years later.

Video ****

This film looks better at 35 than I do; I can tell you that much!  Seriously, this anamorphic widescreen transfer is quite glorious…this movie has probably never looked better.  The colors are gorgeous and well rendered throughout, in both darker and lighter settings.  Each tone is uniquely shaded; no bleeding or smearing disables the integrity of the images.  All details are sharp and clear, with crisp lines and no undue grain or compression interfering.  The final shot, though, in every version I’ve ever seen, looks a tad muddy.  I’m guessing it’s a source material problem that can’t be corrected, but in any event, it’s a minor complaint.

As a final thought, this movie MUST be seen in widescreen to be fully appreciated.  My first experience with the picture was on television, and I realized later that many carefully staged shots just don’t work when the image is cropped.

Audio ***

With both a Dolby Digital and a DTS surround track, the movie sounds better than ever, too.  The biggest beneficiary is Jerry Goldsmith’s incredible score, which is percussive, primitive, and unique.  The front and rear stages really open up the orchestration so that not even the minutest detail is lost.  The subwoofer really opens up the lower end.  As for the rest of the film, rear stage use is somewhat minimal, but spoken words are clean and clear.  Dynamic range is fairly strong throughout, especially with the DTS mix.

Features ****

This is a very loaded special edition…Disc One features three commentaries:  one is a text-trivia subtitle feature penned by author Eric Greene, who knows quite a bit about the film, but needs to brush up on some of his American history (he incorrectly blames McCarthy for the Hollywood blacklisting actually done by the non-related HUAC).  The other two are audio:  composer Jerry Goldsmith discusses the score; the other is a spliced together one featuring the producer, Oscar winning make-up artist John Chambers, and actors Roddy McDowall, Kim Hunter and Natalie Trundy.

Disc Two contains a lot of the excellent features from the former release of Behind the Planet of the Apes, beginning with that terrific documentary that was hosted by Roddy McDowall and that original aired on American Movie Classics.  It’s a detailed look back at all the films and offshoots of the franchise, with plenty of interview clips, behind-the-scenes bits and more…it’s definitely one of the best of it’s kind ever produced.  There is also a promo for this documentary.

Three production featurettes on the individual films are also here, home movies by Roddy McDowall, trailers for all the films (including an extra teaser for the original), a text review, looks at the merchandising from the films, outtakes and photo galleries.  Rounding out are the original 1967 NATO presentation and a real treat:  the initial make-up test featuring Edward G. Robinson!

Summary:

Planet of the Apes has duly crossed the line from cultural event to cinematic classic.  This outstanding 35th anniversary re-release from Fox has set the bar high for disc releases in 2004.  Wholeheartedly recommended.