Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Returning to the Planet of the Apes

Cornelius (David Watson): If you are caught by the gorillas, you must remember one thing.

Brent (James Franciscus): What's that?

Cornelius: Never to speak!

Brent: What the hell would I have to say to a gorilla?

I would never categorize myself as a fan of science fiction. I do like what could charitably be called mainstream science fiction — at least as it pertains to the movies. I haven't read much science fiction in my life, but I've seen some movies — all of the "Star Wars" movies, for example, and "The Day the Earth Stood Still" and "2001: A Space Odyssey."

And the "Planet of the Apes" movies. The sequel to the first movie, "Beneath the Planet of the Apes," premiered on this day in 1970.

I don't remember when I saw the first two "Planet of the Apes" movies, but I do know the circumstances. I saw them as part of a double feature at the movie theater in my small central Arkansas hometown. It was an old–fashioned single–screen theater, the only movie theater in town other than the drive–in on the outskirts of town, and first–run movies were never shown there. If one wanted to see a movie when it was popular, it was necessary to drive to Little Rock.

And in the summers the local merchants would sponsor free movies for the children in town on Wednesday afternoons. All a kid had to do was pick up a pass at just about any store in town and then present it on the date that was printed on the pass. Presto! You were in. Drinks and snacks still cost you money, though, but not that much, at least not when compared to what you've got to pay for drinks and snacks today.

The movies that were shown typically were a few years old, and the producers were wringing a few more bucks from them before they were retired (this was before cable and home video revived movies that were believed to have outlived their profitability). Investing in free movies was good public relations for the businesses in town. I didn't know a single mother who didn't appreciate having a few hours away from her children every Wednesday.

Most of the time, the kids paid little attention to the movies that were being shown. They were more interested in throwing popcorn at each other. And I was no different, I guess. But I remember times when I was interested in what was on the screen, and the occasion I saw the first two "Planet of the Apes" movies as a Wednesday afternoon double feature was one of those times — which also must have meant that, by that time, it was at least a year, maybe more, since the sequel had been released. I didn't think of that. I just watched the movies, mesmerized by them.

In hindsight, I think that seeing those two movies at a young age impressed upon me — especially the first movie with its unexpected ending — that movies could entertain as well as provide effective social commentaries on whatever the filmmaker wished to comment simultaneously. That may not seem like much of a revelation to you, but to my 11– or 12– or 13–year–old mind at the time, it really was a revelation.

The second movie wasn't as good as the first, but it had much better special effects, and the continuation of the story made sense to me. Charlton Heston was back, albeit in more of a supporting role this time, and James Franciscus was in it as an astronaut who had been sent in search of the lost space ship. Kim Hunter was back as Dr. Zira. Linda Harrison returned as Nova, the beautiful mute.

And the audience pieced together what had happened to earth over some 20 centuries as well as what had happened on the planet since the first movie. From the by–now famous finish of the first movie, it was clear that a nuclear war had broken out, and most of the world's population had been wiped out. Life had to begin again, but this time it evolved into a world in which apes were the rulers and humans the ones who were reduced to acting on animal instincts.

Since the original movie two years earlier, apparently the gorillas had staged some sort of military coup and were dispatching an army to the Forbidden Zone — where Heston had disappeared.

Most of the humans on the planet were mute, like Nova, but there was a subset of humans living beneath the surface (hence the name of the movie), worshiping a nuclear weapon. They accomplished many things through mind control, but, in the end, it was the bomb that stood between them and being overrun by the apes.

I wasn't very impressed with the next three movies in the "Planet of the Apes" franchise — nor have I been very impressed with its recent reincarnations — but I thought the sequel that premiered 45 years ago today was a worthy followup to the first movie and adequately answered some lingering questions.