Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: War for the Planet of the Apes is likely to be the last film in that franchise for a good long while, sad to say. What better cue to spend a whole week revisiting that franchise's original incarnation?

Widespread Spoiler Warning: I'm going to assume you know how this one ends, because at this point, how couldn't you?

What a hell of a thing to be a completely transformative exemplar of everything that a genre can achieve, and still be only the second-best genre film within a given year. That's 1968 for you, one of the only years in the history of sci-fi cinema when Planet of the Apes could qualify as "the normal one". It premiered mere weeks in advance of 2001: A Space Odyssey, compared with which virtually everything ever made would look a bit old-hat, but that's the only context in which I could imagine calling it a disappointment. The films have somewhat of the same relationship as the same year's pair of epochal horror movies: Planet of the Apes, like Rosemary's Baby, is an extraordinary modernisation of something that had already been done, but never with such seriousness and aesthetic richness; 2001, like Night of the Living Dead, just blows everything right the fuck up to start from scratch. And while my heart will always belong with the second pair of movies, the former pair are masterpieces by any plausible reckoning I could imagine.

That being said, I concede that Planet of the Apes has a reputation for being a camp classic, as much as or more than being a classic-classic, and not without reason. One does not entirely avoid camp in any film starring Charlton Heston, his run of '60s & '70s sci-fi films doubly so (though this is actually one of my favorites among Heston's performances: there's a raw, fatigued quality to it that I love). And yes, the ape makeup looks hokey after nearly half a century, but Jesus Christ, half a century is a long time, and with even a modicum of willingness to meet the film halfway, that makeup is pretty goddamn impressive, allowing a spectacular range of facial expressions and genuinely subtle grace notes of acting. But it's early in the review for me to already have my hackles raised.

The film began life in the form of a satiric novel by French author Pierre Boulle, and turned into a rather different satire by Rod Serling, whose ambitious first draft was revised considerably by Michael Wilson (who had earlier won an Oscar - whilst on the blacklist - for adapting Boulle's The Bridge on the River Kwai). Though the Serling fingerprints are the most obvious, and not just because of the whammy of a twist ending, a Serling speciality for all five years of his groundbreaking television series The Twilight Zone. It's also in the thick layer of social commentary, and the specific choice of themes that the film elects to pursue. And that's quite a laundry list of broad concerns - militarism, science vs. religion, racism, ethnic cleansing, and class warfare are all touched on, with considerably more passion than delicacy - and an even longer list of specific manifestations of those concerns, so forgive me if I mostly just posit that they exist. Because I promise, if you've never seen it, you're not apt to walk out of Planet of the Apes without having a very clear understanding of the film's feelings about the use of religion as social control, for example.

That's an aspect of what makes the film such a singular piece of work: it is extraordinarily serious about what it's doing. I mean, there's nothing very unusual at all about the plot. Four American astronauts launched in 1972, for a mission whose details aren't wholly clear (it appears that they're the advance scouts for a colonisation team), but it doesn't matter; an accident cripples their spaceship and sends them crashing into a lake on an unknown world, 2006 years after they launched (thanks a combination of relativity and cryogenic sleep). Only three of them survive the accident: Taylor (Heston), Dodge (Jeff Burton), and Landon (Robert Gunner), with the mission's single woman, Stewart, dying when her cryogenic tube leaks. On this alien world, the three men struggle though a desert and rocky hills before discovering a race of extremely primitive humans, incapable even of speech. They also discover that humans are the only great apes on this planet suffering from that impediment: chimpanzees, orangutans, and gorillas with rather more human physiognomy than the ones we know on Earth have built a society roughly as advanced as Middle Ages Europe.

The details are fresh, but in the essentials, this is familiar stuff from God knows how many 1950s B-pictures. Earthmen on a strange planet with human beings, and nobody seems to think this odd, any odder than the fact that English is spoken perfectly. Of course, there are very good story reasons why the planet of the apes should have these distinctly Earth-like features, and part of what makes that twist ending work so well is that the film uses our knowledge of crappy '50s and '60s sci-fi movies against us. When Taylor drops the soul-rotten misanthropy he expresses in the first act - he left Earth mostly out of disgust at the venality of human beings, who he expects to kill themselves any day now - to become a proudly speciesist hero, it barely registers, since that's just how movie astronauts deal with non-human civilisations, much as the convention of English-speaking human aliens just feels like boilerplate. The real sucker punch isn't that it was Earth all the time, but that Taylor was exactly right in the beginning: we humans are basically awful, and left to our own devices, we are probably going to kill each other and our planet - a rosy message that hasn't ever really stopped being timely at any point since 1968. It's a typically Serling-esque bit of melodramatic messaging, but I'm terrifically enthused by it, in part because the twist is really that damn good, and that well-executed; it's right on par with the best Twilight Zone endings, and it's for good reason that it has survived five decades as one of the most famous endings in cinema.

But the point I had started out to make wasn't about the themes and twist, which after all comes only at the end of a 112-minute film. And the whole damn film is a tremendous accomplishment; as I was trying to suggest, Planet of the Apes is idiot B-movie boilerplate, treated with great respect and care by an A-picture team; it is the late '60s as Alien is to the late '70s, and only slightly less impressive as a movie. Director Franklin J. Schaffner is nowhere near a Ridley Scott, to be sure, but in this, his best work as a filmmaker, he's managed to do a whole lot with the bones of so many drive-ins. Some of that comes from the simple act of letting the film linger: we're fully a half-hour into the movie by the time we see our first apes, and an hour before the real dramatic spine starts to fully assert itself. This is not a rushed movie by any stretch of the imagination, and while that doesn't quite benefit it in that second-half hour (how many scenes of the temporarily mute Taylor trying to communicate with the sympathetic chimpanzees before succeeding do we actually need?), it's terrific in the opening, which allows the horror of the situation to sink in fully.

Being lost an alien world is unusually consequential and scary here: the locations in the American Southwest (notably including Lake Powell and Glen Canyon, on the Colorado River) are well-chosen, and shot to maximise their inscrutable strangeness as dangerous, unnavigable terrains. The film has weight even before we have a real clue what the hell it is. And of course, once we do no what it is, it attains more weight, from the scope and depth of the questions it asks. These are not always necessarily very rewarding questions, and some of the film's social satire is a bit juvenile, though far more often, it's delectably subtle: Roddy McDowall's Cornelius as a figure of bourgeois comfort, the scientist who lets his career prospects trump his sense of right, is an impressive layered character with an exceptionally good performance, both the film's best, and one of the highlights of McDowall's career. What impresses me most of all is not the ideas that the film forwards, necessarily, but that it's willing to have so many ideas in the first place, and have nearly all of them speaking with direct focus on the concerns of America in 1968, tossed between the counter-culture, Vietnam, and the Cold War.

That makes me admire Planet of the Apes - what makes me love it is that for all its self-conscious thoughtfulness, it also works as that same B-grade sci-fi film. It's an adventure movie about talking apes, an extremely well-made one. Makeup designer John Chambers - winning an honorary Oscar for his efforts, years before Best Makeup was a competitive category - conceived of some thoroughly miraculous masks, and the best ape actors - also including Kim Hunter's fantastic performance as idealistic scientist Zira, and Maurice Evans's slow-burning work as Dr. Zaius, an apparent religious fanatic revealed to be a calculating, shrewd politician who's much more correct than his designated villain status would imply - are able to get some incredibly sophisticated flexibility from the latex eyes and mouths.

The film also contains one of the great sci-fi film scores, an early masterpiece for Jerry Goldsmith, who utilises some still-startling percussive orchestration and atonal motifs (alongside more discernible melodies here and there) to create a sense of musical alienation and constant danger that provide much of the emotional resonance of the piece. It's extremely tense and jarring throughout, and provided a template for the braver sci-fi composers to follow for years to come. And the set design, like clay beehives with a flowing, organic aspect, is suitably alien and somehow, perfectly simian - like this is what poking around termite mounts and playing with shiny stones turns into after the process of civilisation.

Not everything about it works - the cinematography uniformly errs on the side of too bright, and the intrusion of something like a love subplot makes no sense for the film or Taylor's character. But on the whole, this is one of the great treasures of Hollywood sci-fi: an exciting story that's also a methodical mood piece that's also a philosophical argument. Is it overbaked and heavy-handed and hammy? In some ways, sure, but gloriously so, and I'll never turn against anything with this much absolute commitment to a premise and to its ideas.

Reviews in this series
Planet of the Apes (Schaffner, 1968)
Beneath the Planet of the Apes (Post, 1970)
Escape from the Planet of the Apes (Taylor, 1971)
Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (Thompson, 1972)
Battle for the Planet of the Apes (Thompson, 1973)
Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Wyatt, 2011)
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Reeves, 2014)
War for the Planet of the Apes (Reeves, 2017)