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Planet of the Apes

While most folks are content to describe Franklin J. Schaffner's 1968 Planet of the Apes as a sci-fi film, nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, the story does concern a group of astronauts, and yes, it does start in a spaceship, but beyond that the film is as much "sci-fi" as Gulliver's Travels is a nautical adventure. Instead, the deliciously fun Apes is about the coolest "Twilight Zone" episode ever, which should come as little surprise — "Zone" master Rod Serling co-wrote the screenplay. Charlton Heston stars as Col. George Taylor, the commander of a 1973 NASA mission that will hurl four astronauts through the cosmos at light speed, after which they will return to earth hundreds of years in the future and (presumably) prove that Einstein's "Twin Paradox" isn't a load of hooey. But something goes very, very wrong, landing the team on a remote planet in the Orion constellation some spare change short of the year 4000. "Time's wiped out everything you ever knew," the cynical Taylor tells his comrades. "It's all dust." But remnants of Earth appear on the new planet, in particular humans and apes — or reasonable facsimiles thereof. The problem for Taylor is that the humans are mute savages while the apes have a rudimentary civilization, and when Taylor is captured he must face the orangutan "defender of the faith" Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans) in court while defended by two chimpanzee scientists, Dr. Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) and Dr. Zira (Kim Hunter). Awarded a special Oscar for makeup effects, the technical aspects of Planet of the Apes hold up remarkably well, even if other items are rather dated. After all, there's that teenage chimp who obviously is supposed to be a beatnik or a hippie ("You can't trust the older generation!" he whines); Chuck Heston overacts so completely in every scene that one finds themselves longing for the subtle nuances of William Shatner — "It's a madhouse!" Heston screams in his ape-ruled prison. "A maa-aad-house!!!" (So what are you saying, Chuck? Do you think you're in a madhouse?) And just so everybody knows this is the '60s, when Schaffner isn't playing around with trippy lens flares, he leans on his zoom like it's a car horn. What elevates Planet of the Apes beyond '60s schlock is its rather high-concept story, one that is written with real skill and handled in wondrously economical fashion. For all of its silly histrionics and timpani drums, Apes offers a precise allegory of mankind's worst impulses — our history of fear and superstition, and how civilizations have used such forces to discredit rational scientific inquiry — so that the imprisonment of Taylor and his absurd, Kafkaesque trial can fill the viewer with righteous indignity. Considering that the prosecutors are all wearing monkey-masks, that's quite an achievement. Fox's DVD edition of Planet of the Apes features a letterbox widescreen transfer (2.35:1 - not anamorphic) from a nearly pristine source print that is rich with color and very pleasant to watch, while audio is in Dolby 2.0 Surround or a new DD 5.1 mix. Photo gallery, conceptual art, trailers for all five films in the Planet of the Apes series. Keep-case.
—Alexandra DuPont

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