Critics often chide modern Hollywood as being bereft of new ideas, and relying on regurgitation to generate its profits. Which may indeed be true, but it is hardly a new phenomenon. Lest anyone think the idea of a sequel is some sort of recent invention, look no further than 1968's 'Planet of the Apes.' This sci-fi potboiler was originally intended as nothing more than a profit-generating B-picture, but its surprise success would go on to evolve into a cultural phenomenon that has now spanned four decades, five sequels, a TV series, and a big-budget remake. After all these years, the key to the appeal of 'Planet of the Apes' is simple -- it's not just a dated sci-fi yarn or an empty special effects blockbuster, but a still-potent racial allegory that remains as timely today as it ever was.
One of the many fascinating things about the original 'Planet of the Apes' is how inauspicious its beginnings were. What should have been an utterly laughable adaptation of questionable source material (even the author of the original novel, Pierre Boulle, considered it one of his lesser works) instead morphed into a sturdy action film buttressed by vivid thematic layers that gave it a complexity and intelligence rare for even the heady sci-fi genre. Like the best happy cinematic accidents, here was a film that all involved had far more belief in than the studio that produced it, which allowed it to rock the socks off of unsuspecting critics and audiences. Add to that some still-crafty "ape" make-up effects, a strong lead in Charlton Heston, and a stunner of a twist ending, and 'Apes' seemed to come out of nowhere and firmly lodge itself in the public consciousness almost by accident.
By now, the plot should be familiar to just about everyone. Marooned on a alien planet 700 hundred years in the future, Astronaut George Taylor finds himself suddenly at the opposite end of the evolutionary scale. In this strange world apes are in control, with humans existing as mere savages. But through the compassion of a pair of intellectual chimpanzees, Cornelius and Zira, Taylor has a slim chance to escape the cages of his oppressors. But is there more to this seemingly alien planet than meets the eye - and what secrets does it hold in Taylor's search for his long lost home?
The allegorical elements of 'Planet of the Apes' are obvious, even heavy-handed. Who can't see oppression, discrimination and prejudice in the apes treatment of man? But because the film so expertly constructs the social order of the apes, the world it creates is a three-dimensional and believable one. And even though Heston has never been my favorite actor (and his own Republican and NRA political leanings only underscore the irony of his casting in the film), he makes for a human hero whose predicament we can empathise with and root for. That our source of identification is then treated so unfairly, it's impossible not to examine our own shared prejudices and discriminatory impulses. It is this confrontation of the audience's own values that is 'Planet of the Apes' greatest asset.
Other elements of the film haven't held up so well. Effects-wise, it's hard not to guffaw often at the immobile facial expressions of the apes, and the phony hair and costumes. Roddy McDowall and Kim Hunter seemed to master the necessary skills to act through the groundbreaking prosthetics, but other actors aren't so lucky -- a fact which is obvious in the mouths of the apes, as some of them barely open when the character speaks. And as an action film, 'Planet of the Apes' is rather dull. It's talky and slow-paced, and lacking in visceral excitement. Despite a few still-cool visual effects, '2001' or 'Star Wars,' this is not.
And there's the film's now-legendary ending. Sadly, it's been all but ruined over the years (Fox even splayed all the secrets across the box covers of its video releases), but I won't spoil it here in case you are one of the few who still doesn't know how 'Apes' concludes. But the reason it is such a potent shocker is not just because we don't see it coming, but because it re-frames the entire film that preceded it in a whole new light. It's one of the rare twist endings that isn't just a random cheat, but essential to our understanding of the film's intended message. 'Planet of the Apes' may have suffered some wear and tear over the past forty years in terms of its effects and action quotient, but it remains a deserving classic of the science fiction genre and a must-see.
Fox has released 'Planet of the Apes' on standard DVD a number of times, and none have blown me away as a top-tier catalog remaster. The trend continues with this first-ever Blu-ray presentation, which upgrades the video to 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 (2.35:1) and offers a good but not fantastic improvement. Yes, 'Planet of the Apes' has never looked better, but this still doesn't quite match the better vintage restorations I've seen from other studios (particularly Warner).
Fox hasn't supplied any confirmation on a remaster for 'Apes,' so I wouldn't be surprised if this Blu-ray has been culled from the same master as before. It certainly appears the same, with a small if noticeable amount of dirt and blemishes on the print, but no major wear and tear. Softness is rampant, and overall visible detail enjoys an uptick over the DVD but not a monumental leap. Colors are solid and clean, but are not intensely vibrant -- 'Apes' in high-def still screams "'60s flick!" Black levels generally hold solid, and contrast is adequately balanced, but shadow delineation isn't superior and some darker scenes lack for definition. On the plus side, the encode is top-notch with no visible artifacts save for some noisy grain (which is indicative of the source). Make no mistake, 'Planet of the Apes' is still a very good transfer, just no revelation.
'Planet of the Apes' receives a DTS-HD Lossless Master Audio 5.1 Surround track (48kHz/16-bit), which is a bump up from the plain Dolby Digital tracks of the previous DVD releases. Too bad Fox probably needn't have bothered -- this sounds like the same Dolby mix simply ported over to DTS-MA with no improvement.
Surrounds are largely inactive. There are a few obviously-processed discrete effects here or there, but they stand out in the mix like a sore thumb rather than feeling natural and integrated. Forget any sustained ambiance, and even Jerry Goldsmith's memorable score is almost entirely front-directed. Taken as a stereo mix, however, this is more impressive, with a nice spread across the front soundstage. Dynamic range is fairly good for a 1968 film, and dialogue is clearer and more pronounced than I expected. Low bass is lacking in modern terms, but not bad. The source is also is free from distortion or other major age-related anomalies. Still, fans expecting a blistering high-res remaster for 'Planet of the Apes' will invariably be disappointed.
Fox really pulled out all the stops for 'Planet of the Apes' when it released the film as a two-disc special edition, and all of those impressive extras are back for Blu-ray. There's no real upgrade here (either in terms of the 480i/MPEG-2 video or new materials), but what we get is already so extensive there's little room for complaint.
'Planet of the Apes' is undeniably a science fiction classic, though how well it has held up over the past forty years remains debatable. The film is lacking in action and a bit talky, but its social implications still fascinate and challenge. This Blu-ray release is solid if not that huge an upgrade over the standard DVD, particularly the good-but-not-fantastic video and audio. The supplements and exclusives are extensive, however, so for the list price this is a no-brainer. If nothing else, 'Planet of the Apes' is worth a rental if you have never seen it.