50 years ago this week, two of the greatest sci-fi films of all time were released
Planet of the Apes is, obviously, about a planet full of apes. Most of the movie takes place on this planet, where a society run by talking simians are in charge. The film, however, begins on a technologically advanced spaceship. The ship is piloted by George Taylor (Charlton Heston), and along with a small crew George is returning from a unknown space mission set hundreds of years in the future. A crash landing soon awakens his crew, leaving them stranded on this strange planet.
2001: A Space Odyssey is, obviously, about a space odyssey. Most of the movie takes place in outer space, revolving around a mysterious mission to the moon and, later, Jupiter. The film, however, begins with “the dawn of man,” and follows the lives of early apes as they learn to gather resources, use weapons, and develop a tribal nature. The apes eventually come into contact with an unexplained large, black, rectangular obelisk. From there the movie jumps forward to the lunar mission, where scientists and world leaders are investigating the appearance of a similar object on the moon’s surface.
There is a strange symbiosis between these two films in their beginnings: the film about apes begins on a spaceship, and the film about a space mission begins with apes. The connection between these two movies doesn’t stop there. Both films came out 50 years ago this week, in the first week of April, 1968. Both are considered all-time sci-fi classics; both are technical achievements that signaled a turning point in the craft of movie-making.
But above all, what is most significant about these two films is that they are still significant. 50 years is a long time for a movie to be remembered. To have two released in the same week be some of the most memorable in history is remarkable.
I don’t think what’s made these movies last, though, is their technical mastery. 2001: A Space Odyssey and Planet of the Apes remain relevant in the cultural zeitgeist because they still have something to say about the modern world. So 50 years after their initial release, let’s look back at these films, and consider why they still stick with us today.
It’s jarring how much time is spent with the monkeys at the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Following an intro with music playing over a black screen for a solid few minutes, director Stanley Kubrick begins his space epic with apes learning how to live in a society. We don’t learn much about them, but what we do learn about them at these earliest stages in man’s development suggests that these tendencies lie within man at his most fundamental level.
What we learn of the apes behavior is, primarily, self-interest and fear. The monkeys cower in fear at night, hiding away from strange noises, and they have no idea how to respond to the obelisk. When the first ape discovers how to use an animal bone as a tool, he uses it not to build or create, but to antagonize. The apes use bones as clubs to kill other animals for their meat, or to beat the leader of another pack of apes to assert their dominance.
After the apes, Kubrick jumps the story to a space station. Humans, it seems, have moved beyond the exploration of their home planet and are now technologically advanced enough to explore the moon (this film came out the year before Armstrong made his giant leap). But like the apes before them, these humans marvel incredulously at the mysterious obelisk that appears on the moon.
Kubrick then jumps the film forward again, although this time, it is just 18 months ahead. Drs. Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) are on a mission to Jupiter, the purpose of which even they are not really sure of. Along for the ride with them is Hal 9000, an AI that both runs the spaceship and serves as the third active member of the crew. Although we are told early on that the Hal computers have never made a mistake, Hal 9000 does: he incorrectly determines that a space pod will soon fail. When Dave and Frank question Hal, he calmly delivers the film’s most memorable line: “This sort of thing can only be attributable to human error.”
Not wanting to risk further errors, Dave and Frank plot to turn Hal’s higher functions off, leaving the machine to only keep the ship running. Hal overhears this plan, and, having developed what seems to be a consciousness, refuses to go along with it. He kills Dave and Frank’s hibernating crew members, and refuses to let Dave and Frank come back into the ship from the outside. Dave eventually manages to break back in and turn Hal off, as the machine pleads for him not to. It’s a thrilling, crushing, and terrifying sequence. Hal developed a mind of its own, and callously killed members of the crew. But it only did so out of self-preservation, the same impulse we see is inherent in the apes at the beginning of the film. Can we really blame Hal? He is, after all, just a composite of the humans who made him.
As Dave goes to turn Hal off the machine’s voice becomes softer, desperate and fearful of what it means to be turned off (at least, that’s what it sounds like it’s feeling). Once Dave does turn Hal off, a video message is triggered, alerting him of the mission’s true purpose: the obelisk discovered on the moon suggested intelligent life outside of Earth, and it seemed the object had somehow communicated with Jupiter.
The ending of 2001 finds Dave traveling to Jupiter, I think. It’s the most indecipherable part of the movie: there’s a long string of shifting bright lights reminiscent of a Mac screensaver. There are older versions of Dave in an opulent living room, in which the obelisk makes a return. And there is some sort of glowing fetus (apparently known as Star Child) overlooking Earth to close out the film.
I’m not sure what any of this means, but I’m not sure that I'm supposed to, either. Arthur C. Clarke, who wrote the story on which Kubrick based 2001, said of the film, “If you understand 2001 completely, we failed. We wanted to raise far more questions than we answered.” The film isn’t ‘about’ anything in the way we typically say movies are about something, because the film has no definite lesson it wants the audience to learn.
Instead, Kubrick gives us a meditation on what it means to be human. We begin the film just with music, and as the audience we find ourselves starting off the movie washed in our own sensory experience. We watch apes develop a society, and wonder what the difference is between them and us. We watch an artificially intelligent computer square off against real humans, and wonder about the difference between man and machine, and the dangers of AI. And through it all, we are given the obelisk, a persistent reminder that as we try to understand our version of life, there are boundless possibilities of life beyond our own.
If 2001: A Space Odyssey is trying to raise questions, Planet of the Apes is trying to give answers. It’s a schlocky movie, much more blunt in its exposition and meaning. It lacks the sleek presentation of 2001, and Heston hams it up in every moment on screen. But having watched the two films back-to-back, I found Apes to be no less insightful.
After the crash landing, George and his crew explore the uncharted land. Apparently they had been traveling across light years, and just before the ship sank, George spotted the date: they had landed in the year 3978, roughly 2000 years from the present they knew on Earth. With the few resources they were able to salvage from the ship, the crew sets off across a barren wasteland.
After much bickering and on-the-nose character exposition, the crew stumbles upon a waterfall, where they strip down and enjoy the water until their clothes are stolen. (Side note: the waterfall scene is incredibly distracting, and impressive, in the elaborate effort to not show anyone’s dick. It reminded me very much of this wonderful scene from The Simpsons Movie.)
The chase-down to retrieve their clothes leads the crew to an open field of what appears to be humans. They are dressed in tatters and scavenging for food, though, and don’t appear able to speak. We quickly learn the standing of these humans on this planet as apes parade through the field on horseback, attempting to capture or kill the humans. The primates eventually nab George, who loses sight of the rest of his crew.
George is taken to captivity, where the apes plan to perform experiments on him. When a couple of forward-thinking scientists discover that George has more capabilities than the rest of the humans, it seems to confirm their hypothesis: apes evolved from man. But the idea proves dangerous to the fabric of their society, particularly to Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans), who acts as both the society’s scientific and religious leader.
I was surprised re-watching Planet of the Apes just how much of the movie is a straightforward movie about the battle between religion and the Theory of Evolution. The ape society elders put George on trial and the scientists who back the Theory of Evolution are accused of heresy, in a scene straight out of Inherit the Wind. George and the scientists lose the trial, and George eventually takes Dr. Zaius captive as the scientists try to prove to him that the evidence for evolution is irrefutable. Dr. Zaius, however, already knows evolution is real. He destroys the evidence, believing the theory will destroy the basis on which the ape society is founded.
George eventually finagles his way out of the whole situation, setting out on horseback with one of the primitive humans who was with him in captivity, Nova (Linda Harrison). (Another side note: Nova is given no lines in Planet of the Apes, and serves no narrative purpose other than being a total babe that can drape herself around Heston. Like I said, this movie is not on the same level of sophistication as 2001: A Space Odyssey.)
As he gallops across the shoreline, George comes across a familiar landmark: the Statue of Liberty. The implication of this symbol instantly dawns on him: George has been on Earth the whole time. The human race fell to the apes, and the two essentially switched roles on the planet. And in this way, despite their nearly opposite narrative arcs, the ending to Apes solidifies the film as a thematic companion of 2001. In 2001 we watch humans evolve from primates to humans, gaining greater technological capacity but always maintaining the flaws that make them who they are. In Apes, we see a society once ruled by man fall to apes, with the implication that it was human action that brought it all down. As Dr. Zaius says: “I have always known about man. From the evidence, I believe his wisdom must walk hand and hand with his idiocy.” And yet Zaius himself, full of hubris, is repeating the same mistakes the human society made before him. 2001 and Apes both capture the height of man’s potential, and the inevitable nature of his fallibility.
The first part of that quote from Dr. Zaius is key: I have always known about man. It captures the essence of what makes both of these films great: they communicate something about the potential of humankind that is universal, and can exist beyond a certain moment in time. They are movies about the possibility of what it means to be human, for better or for worse. And in that sense, these films don’t really have anything to say about 2018, because they have just as much to say about 2068. If I’m still around in another 50 years, I can’t wait to watch these films again, and reflect on just how relevant they remain to what reality looks like then.