1990s, Action-Adventure, Scifi, War

Starship Troopers (1997)

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Director: Paul Verhoeven
Screenwriter: Ed Neumeier

By Roderick Heath

Starship Troopers suffered from a serious case of bad timing. Starship Troopers saw Paul Verhoeven and Ed Neumeier, the creative hands behind RoboCop (1987), one of the signal cult hits of the 1980s, reteaming for another trip to the same well of genre thrills blended with high concept satire. Verhoeven had followed RoboCop’s success with Total Recall (1990) and Basic Instinct (1992), two more big, disreputable hits, but hit a career reef with the failure of Showgirls (1995), an attempt to marry acidic camp satire and exploitation movie precepts. Starship Troopers was supposed to reverse Verhoeven’s fortunes but finished up compounding his problems by also bombing at the box office, bewildering an audience expecting something more familiar and straightforwardly fun. RoboCop had nailed down the fetid mood of the late Reaganite era’s strange blend of conservatism and hedonism, and its spiky humour added zest to a classical tale of the hero triumphing over the corrupt and profane. But the mood of the late 1990s was at odds with Verhoeven’s new gambit in satirising war movies and militarism, a time of general peace and prosperity for much of the western world as well as eddying uncertainty, the paradigms that had shaped collective thinking for nearly a century suddenly irrelevant. Verhoeven’s sardonic call-backs to the gung-ho stylistics of World War II propaganda films and posters, a very retro-style frame, blended with violent, flashy contemporaneous filmmaking offered a strange and unstable aesthetic clue. At the time the burgeoning internet was still seen as a great new portal with a generally progressive application, whereas Verhoeven presented it as a new mode for propaganda and curated worldview manipulation.

The film’s chief relevance to its moment seemed to be in smartly identifying the general frustration for a lot of ‘90s youth that they’d never been given a great generation-defining task like war or, as for many of their parents, resistance to one, even whilst provoking with the warning to be careful what you wish for. It didn’t take long however for Starship Troopers to reveal its wicked prognosticative edge as the War on Terror commenced, when the narcotic-like addiction to macho imagery applied to great patriotic use became an entire political paradigm, the slow and painful weaning from which we’ve seen acted out in gruesome detail these past few years. Starship Troopers also came out at a moment when the kinds of social and political assumptions contained in a lot of classic Science Fiction as a genre was being investigated and critiqued by critics and scholars. The film’s approach to Robert A. Heinlein’s Hugo Award-winning source novel, published in 1959 and intended as a blood-and-thunder yarn for younger readers, was entirely in synch with this movement, and counted in itself as a radical act of genre criticism. The film also recognised the subtext in popularity for movies like Star Wars (1977), Aliens (1986), and Predator (1986) in refashioning the narrative patterns of old war movies and westerns for a new age absent any obvious and immediate geopolitical enemies to render as villains, and made sport of it.

Heinlein was long a leading sci-fi writer and one who wielded some sway as a thinker, particularly thanks to his novel Stranger In A Strange Land which served as a strong influence on the counterculture movement of the 1960s with its theme of an alien-raised human who returns to Earth and sets about remaking its culture. Heinlein had started off as a liberal but became a staunch libertarian, and his writing was often preoccupied by exploring social ideas. But his writing also represented a mishmash of political repercussions through articulating a need, commonly worked through in sci-fi, to celebrate a kind of transformative individualism. Starship Troopers told the story of some young heroes in a futuristic Earth society that’s become politically united but also reverted to a kind of Spartan state structure where citizenship is attendant on military participation, and prospective citizens are trained to the limit to become warriors resisting a war of species pitting humans against extra-terrestrial arachnids. In many ways Heinlein’s novel simply did what sci-fi is supposed to do: create a coherent vision not simply of dramatic events and technological concepts but to think through ideas of what society looks like it does and what form it takes in other situations. Heinlein had the then still-recent experience of mass mobilisation and indoctrination of World War II to draw on. But his vision was troubling regardless, and the fascistic undercurrent to the vision he and some other early sci-fi heroes often wielded had been noted and artistically reacted to by a subsequent generation of genre writers.

One aspect of the novel Verhoeven and Neumeier didn’t bother transferring, perhaps to avoid potential special effects difficulties or, more likely, so Verhoeven could sell his WW2 movie lampoon more easily, was abandoning his concept of mechanised armoured suits worn by his future soldiers, today a common trope and one Heinlein is generally seen as having popularised. Verhoeven rather makes the mismatch of the seemingly fearsome but actually insufficient machine guns his space warriors carry and their monster foes part of his own commentary on fascist precepts: a person in uniform with a mass-produced gun is at once the most cynically expendable and rhetorically exalted phenomenon in human society. That, or firing off “nukes” that provoke enormous and indiscriminate destruction. Verhoeven’s take on Heinlein becomes something of a moveable feast encompassing a multiplicity of genre mockeries that relentlessly disassemble their nominal purpose. Early scenes evoke the glossy glory of movies mythologising a high school experience, presenting good-looking young folk who play American Football (albeit some kind of weird, future indoor variety) and go to proms, highlighting a not-so-secret motive behind this mythology that goes back to the unadorned ambitions behind the founding of the Olympic Games: training a warrior generation through sports and competition. Then the film into an extended, extremist riff on films like Allan Dwan’s The Sands of Iwo Jima (1949) where some raw recruits are given harsh training and where eventually they emerge not only battle-readied, but intellectually persuaded of the rightness of their cause and duty, the once-dubious protagonist entirely indoctrinated into following in the footsteps of his hard mentor.

Where RoboCop had helped create context and weave in satire with the recurring motif of TV news reports, Starship Troopers commences and returns regularly to a kind of internet site on the “Federal Network” proffering clips of state-provided informercials and news stories that give insight to both the political and social moment, and punctuated by the recurring phrase, “Do you want to know more?” by the announcer (John Cunningham), which, notably, the person nominally surfing the site never does. Some clips offer seemingly benign factoids whilst another reassures the viewer with the vignette of a murderer “caught this morning and tried this afternoon,” with his execution scheduled for live viewing. The tone of the clips often segues within a blink from the broad and shiny tone of community service advertising and unadorned bloodlust-stoking. The opening recruiting commercial for the Mobile Infantry features ranks of soldiers, modelled after shots in Leni Riefenstahl’s The Triumph of the Will (1935), broken up by the sight of a pint-sized moppet gaining laughs from the soldiers when he claims, “I’m doing my part too!” The dig here at a very recognisable kind of cutesey-poo from advertising and TV is withering. Later Verhoeven offers the sight of kids stamping on more familiar insects in a ritual of patriotic involvement and killing, the words “Do Your Part!” flashing on screen whilst a mother cheers the kids on in hysterical fashion, in one of the most subtly disturbing scenes in mainstream cinema.

These jolts of sleazy suggestion about the brutal and repressive underpinnings of the future society are given more dimension as the film’s central figure Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien) and his girlfriend Carmen Ibañez (Denise Richards) are properly introduced, in a high school class being lectured by their teacher Mr Rasczak (Michael Ironside) teaching civics. Rasczak proudly shows off the curtailed arm he received in military service and explains the basic philosophical presumptions of their world, including “Something given has no value” and “Naked force has resolved more issues throughout history than any other factor.” As in the novel, the characters are from Buenos Aires, and yet their modes of speech and culture have been entirely subsumed into caricatured all-Americanness, whilst the one-world government, the United Citizen Federation, restricts citizenship to only those who have served in the military. Humans have colonised much of the galaxy but are coming up against a truly ferocious enemy in the form of a society formed by multiple species of giant arachnid, or bugs as they’re usually called, whose apparent lack of higher intelligence doesn’t prevent them pursuing the same intergalactic habits of colonisation and territorial expansion.

The film’s opening proper after the first web break depicts an attempt by human soldiers to invade the bugs’ home planet of Klendathu as seen through the lens of a new crew for the Federation web service, a blur of bloodshed and mayhem as the soldiers seem to be routed by the rampaging monsters. Johnny is glimpsed as one of the soldiers being terribly wounded by one, collapsing before the dropped camera of the dead photographer, screaming him pain. This scene seems to have had an immediate impact on the subsequent burgeoning of the found-footage movie style, containing all its essential motifs as well as style. The shift into flashback explains what brought Johnny to such a fate, as he resolves to join the Federation mobile infantry in part to please Carmen, who has her heart set on joining the Federation space fleet to gain citizenship, but he can’t follow her there because his math skills are too lame. Nor can he kick along with his best friend Carl (Neil Patrick Harris), whose psychic talents lead him towards becoming a senior tactician.

Johnny’s decision to join the infantry stirs his parents’ (Christopher Curry and Lenore Kasdorf) concerns and he finds himself in a struggle to assert his independence, going through with joining up despite being cut off by his angry father. In Mobile Infantry boot camp he gains friends and allies in his training squad, including the brash Ace Levy (Jake Busey), ‘Kitten’ Smith (Matt Levin), Breckinridge (Eric Bruskotter), Katrina (Blake Lindsley), and Shujimi (Anthony Ruivivar). His former quarterback from high school football, Isabelle ‘Dizzy’ Flores (Dina Meyer) also enters the squad, and Johnny thinks she’s followed him into his training unit because of her long-unrequited crush. The squad must face the harsh, bordering on cruel, training methods utilised by Career Sergeant Zim (Clancy Brown), which include impaling Ace’s hand with a knife and almost throttling Dizzy when she and he have a bout to test his recruits’ hand-to-hand skills. Johnny is left depressed and unsure of what he’s doing when he gets a video message from Carmen telling him she loves the space fleet life so much she’s joining up for life. His physical prowess allows him, with some help from Dizzy, to shine during training. Johnny is made Squad Commander, but then a fatal accident during training gets one of his people killed and another drummed out. Johnny elects to take “administrative punishment” of ten public lashes, only to then decide to quit, but before he can go home Buenos Aires is destroyed by a meteorite propelled by the bugs, and the Mobile Infantry are mobilised for the Klendathu assault.

Verhoeven’s fork-tongued wit applies itself as much through style as storytelling detail. Part of his peculiar cachet as a director, the source of both his moments of great success and his ultimate failure in Hollywood, stemmed from the gusto with which he set out to nominally give audiences what they seemingly want, but piled on with a reckless excess quickly annexing camp and subversion. I’ve often felt that aspect of Verhoeven’s sensibility hampered the intelligent edge of Total Recall to a great extent, but it’s perfectly deployed here. Starship Troopers comes on with violence, gore, action, sex, nudity, piled up to the point of obviously becoming camp, whilst still working on a basic genre film level. Early scenes with their bright, glossy cinematography applied to handsomely angular young stars ape the broad tone of TV teen soap operas. Jokes nod to standard TV broadness, like Carmen vomiting as she and Johnny do some dissection for biology class, except Verhoeven distorts through excess, as they’re dissecting a bug carcass with Johnny enthusiastically dumping piles of innards into Carmen’s hands. Casting Harris at that time was a particularly dry touch, as he was still chiefly known for his show Doogie Howser M.D. , and soon enough Verhoeven has him swanning about in a kind of generic brand SS uniform. Rue McClanahan, star of the jolly, saccharine sitcom The Golden Girls, appears as a weird and haughty biology teacher who saunters about like some ballet grande dame with sunglasses and walking stick whilst instructing her students on the superiority of the bugs as a species. Meanwhile Van Dien and Richards suck face they look like they’re in danger of cutting each-other with their jutting facial features.

A football contest between Johnny and Dizzy’s high school team and some visitor present Johnny with a rival in both sport and love in the form of Lt Zander Barcalow (Patrick Muldoon), who has chemistry with Carmen and soon turns out to be her flight supervisor when she’s assigned as pilot to a space warship, the Rodger Young, commanded by Captain Deladier (Brenda Strong). When Johnny finally encounters them as a couple just before the assault on Klendathu, the two men have a brawl in a shipboard common room and are finally dragged apart by their respective service chums. The attack on Klendathu, seen again now from a familiar cinematic vantage, is revealed to be a total disaster where the humans are ambushed on the ground by hordes of the fearsome soldier arachnids and the fleet is badly damaged by the gigantic globules of superheated plasma huge bugs are able to fire into space: so effective is the bug response that people begin to theorise the arachnids have an intelligent caste of “brain bugs.” Johnny’s unit is wiped out save Ace and Dizzy, whilst Johnny takes a terrible wound that is repaired whilst he’s immersed in a stasis pod, mechanical arms stitching him fibre by fibre. After his recovery, the three are reassigned to a new unit whose fearsome commander is infamous but also saved their lives on Klendathu. This proves to be none other than Rasczak, who leads “Rasczak’s Roughnecks” with both a literal and metaphorical iron hand, and soon Johnny and his pals begin to find their feet as warriors, with Johnny promoted repeatedly by Rasczak for his displays of prowess whilst the people he replaces die.

Verhoeven’s formative experiences, as a child of World War II and someone who fell in love with movies in the 1950s, are apparent throughout Starship Troopers. The film contends with superficial jauntiness and a deeper level of queasiness with the matter of militarism, trying to understand the appeal of something that had laid waste to the world Verhoeven had grown up in. The movie influences are fonder, with many nods to the films of Byron Haskin, most obviously the infernal hues of The War of the Worlds (1953), and also his The Naked Jungle (1953) with its marauding insect hordes and Conquest of Space (1955), with a similar scene of the Rodger Young dodging a colossal meteor. Beyond those, a plethora of war and sci-fi movies. The hyperbolic recreation of a zillion movies about recruits being trained for combat pushes familiar motifs to ridiculous limits, climaxing in near-pornographic style with Johnny’s lashing, beefcake body spreadeagled in a frame and bloody trails carved in his back. When Johnny is inducted, a veteran lacking both legs and an arm processes his request, commenting that “the Mobile Infantry made me the man I am today!”, a scene close to one in All Quiet On The Western Front where the officer overseeing training is similarly war-mangled.

Such noble clichés as the chicken officer who freaks out, the commander who orders his subordinate to shoot him if he’s badly wounded, the key lines of patented tough talk handed on from one generation to another, and the soldier who dies heroically blowing himself up in a rear-guard battle make the grade, are purveyed with such intensity they become new again. Verhoeven also keeps intact from more generic WWII flicks the motif of the motley, multiracial gang of recruits, with the added twist that the Mobile Infantry unblinkingly includes women, leading to such odd sights as a group shower where everyone’s buck naked and chatting casually about their reasons for joining up. One quality that’s particularly shrewd about Starship Troopers in this fashion is that where a tinnier satire might avoid complicating its portrait, this one presents its future fascist-tinted state as one that’s also utopian in a lot of ways, lacking gender and racial prejudice, obliging a more ambivalent response that lies at the root of why the film made as many viewers uncomfortable as those who got the joke. Utopias are an old and ever-controversial subject of intellectual reverie and it’s a particular provenance for sci-fi as its creators can dream them up and pull them apart at whim. What’s particularly odd here is that in the 1990s and through today dystopias are, pop culture-wise, much more popular in sci-fi, dark portraits of glamorously decayed societies.

Starship Troopers actually tries to get at why such suspicion lingers, baiting the viewer with a shiny, inclusive, gutsy future world as if actively seeking to make people ache for such a world whilst constantly signalling its dark, cruel, iniquitous side: it offers a vision of such a society as that society would like to see itself, which is indeed what an awful lot of mainstream art provides. Of course, to be a human being in any society at any time means accepting as normal things that other humans in other times and societies might consider barbaric and evil. Whilst it’s hardly a direct parody, Starship Troopers can be described as Star Trek’s evil twin, with its vision of a future Federation conducting gunboat diplomacy in space, egalitarian in social make-up and yet conveniently unfolding in a setting still defined by militaristic hierarchy (although the Gene Roddenberry TV show might have been borrowing some ideas from Heinlein in the first place). In Starship Troopers a white Sky Marshall (Bruce Gray) takes the blame for the Klendathu disaster and resigns to be replaced by an African woman (Denise Dowse). The female characters in the film are strong and strident figures, particularly Dizzy, a top athlete and good soldier whose only foil is the torch she carries for Johnny. Meyer, who might rightly have expected have had a much better career after this, is terrific as Dizzy, able to be at once ferocious and smoulderingly sexual all at once in a manner few movie heroines have ever been allowed to be, as if Verhoeven was trying to conscientiously recreate the femme fatale figures Sharon Stone had played for him in Total Recall and Basic Instinct as a positive figure.

Nonetheless, perhaps with tongues in their cheek, Verhoeven and Neumeier said on their audio commentary for the film’s DVD release that they ultimately had Carmen survive and Dizzy die, despite a general audience sentiment preferring her, to be “good feminists.” The crucial difference between RoboCop and Starship Troopers lies ultimately in the attitude to the central characters and their relationship with their society. Whilst RoboCop presents the title character as a literal corporate construct and mercilessly teases its futuristic landscape, the storyline ultimately affirms Alex Murphy’s regaining of self, in tension with the powers that create him, standing up for a set of values that exist distinct from an increasingly debased society. Whereas in Starship Troopers there’s no such reassuring message cutting across the grain of the invented society’s mores. Rather on the contrary, Johnny, Carmen, Carl and others all learn how to become better conformists as the story unfolds. They fully embody undoubtedly heroic traits of bravery, self-sacrifice, fervent camaraderie, and leadership, but these are ultimately streamlined to the Federation’s needs, as they’re served up as claw fodder. Carl berates Johnny and Carmen for being appalled at his cynicism when it’s revealed he sent the Roughnecks into danger to lure out the brain bugs, countered with “You don’t approve? Well too bad. We’re in this for the species, girls and boys!”

Meanwhile Ironside, who had done good villain work for Verohoven in Total Recall after graduating from David Cronenberg’s Canadian films, gives an inspired performance that works on a level not that dissimilar to all those old B-movie faces in Airplane! (1980), somehow managing to utter a line like “They sucked his brains out!” in all seriousness but with the finest thread of camp knowing attached. Rasczak amusingly transfers authority from the classroom into the real world, merely amplifying the mix of brutality and pedagogy he wielded in the former setting once unleashed as a commander in the field. The bloodcurdling tenor to the violence as Verhoeven presents humans ripped to shreds by arachnids and having the flesh burned off their bones by their plasma expulsions is alternatively amusingly gross and properly horrifying. What’s notable here is Verhoeven takes advantage of the fantastical-absurd context to confront physical horror as often elided in war movies, as well as trying to animate the cringe-inducing possibilities of warfare with an inherently different survey of species. These range from the soldier arachnids with their huge, torso-bifurcating mandibles to flying bugs with lance-like limbs and the huge plasma-spraying tanker bugs, one of which Johnny manages to take out singlehandedly by leaping onto its back, penetrating its armour with his machine gun, and throwing a grenade into the wound that blows it to pieces. This act of warrior grit marks the beginning of Johnny’s rehabilitation and ascent up the ranks.

Part of what makes Starship Troopers still work as entertainment despite its insidious subtexts and satirical nudges is the way Verhoeven invests even the most absurdly cliché character moments with a weird seriousness. Such moments range from Johnny’s father betraying his ultimate pride in his son despite all his objections – just before being annihilated by the Buenos Aires meteor – by asking over a video link where his uniform is, to Johnny’s register of offence when he sees Carmen and Zander as a couple, and Rasczak’s earnest advice to Johnny never to pass up a good thing when he notices Dizzy’s ongoing flirtation with him. The portrayal of the young soldiers as a community full of cheeky good-humour recalls the respect Verhoeven gave the police in RoboCop as the human edge of the corrupt wedge, as when they mercilessly tease Johnny as he records a video message to Carmen. The Roughnecks’ celebration after a battle offers the oddly delightful sight of Rasczak handing out beer and sports equipment to his soldiers who immediately improvise a kegger-hoedown. Ace happily sawing away on an electric violin to regale his comrades, tipping a hat to the Western genre roots of so much space opera fare whilst giving it all a space-age sheen. The party sees Johnny and Dizzy finally hooking up in one of Verhoeven’s patented sex scenes, notable for their being actually sexy, as here when the two kiss passionately with Dizzy’s shirt pulled halfway up over her face. They’re interrupted by Rasczak who tells them they have to mobilise again in ten minutes, only to extend it to twenty minutes to give them time to get down to it.

The subtler but pervasive aspect of this whole sequence is how smartly Verhoeven nails down the tenor of adolescent fantasy as most essentially one of belonging, Verhoeven’s highly mobile camerawork and the careful weaving of the actors in choreography helping create the impression of group unity and high spirits as well as the kindling at last of good old-fashioned sexual energy. That appeal, to the need to belong, to be embraced by community, is key to both the consumption of much popular entertainment and also to political propaganda, and it’s a correlation Verhoeven strikes insistently. Ultimately arriving too early to catch the wave of new affection for hunky leading men, Van Dien nonetheless expertly conveyed the right spirit Verhoeven required here, playing Johnny in an old-fashioned manner, never less than the perfect budding Aryan superman in looks but still struggling to overcome character flaws before finally arriving as a leader figure filled with sardonic stoicism. Busey’s angular gregariousness as Ace, with his grin like the xenomorph queen in Aliens, provides a likeably eccentric counterpoint as Ace, ambitious at first but happy to simply serve after fouling up as squad leader on Klendathu.

When they’re next deployed on Planet ‘P’ the Roughnecks investigate an outpost that sent out a distress signal and find their fortified position has been overrun and everyone slaughtered except for a General (Marshall Bell) who escaped by hiding in a freezer, and raves about the insects getting inside people’s heads and forcing them to send the distress signal, a grotesque possibility that seems born out when the Roughnecks find corpses with punctured and emptied skulls. Rasczak realises they’ve been lured into a trap and the Roughnecks fight a desperate battle against an overwhelming arachnid attack. Both Rasczak and Dizzy are fatally wounded – Johnny has to shoot his commander and has a mangled and gore-spurting Dizzy die in his arms confessing her gratitude they were together at the end, leaving Johnny the Roughnecks’ commander after he and the scant other survivors are rescued by Carmen and Zander. The Roughnecks’ battle in the fort plainly references many a Western forebear as the bugs come swarming out and over the ramparts, unleashing a giddy massacre of severed heads, punctured bodies, roasted flesh, and blasted bug parts. After barely being rescued the team is then sent back to Planet P to locate the malignant intelligence that set up the ambush Carl believes is present there: a brain bug.

Not the least quality of Starship Troopers is the still amazing special effects work, with input from Industrial Light and Magic and former stop motion animation wizard Phil Tippet, offering a then-cutting-edge fusion of model work, digital effects, and puppetry. Over twenty years later a lot of this still looks incredibly good, better indeed than most of the digital sludge in blockbusters, and working equally well in the contrasting visions of space fleets and rampaging animals, the latter reaching an apogee when the Roughnecks behold a seeming sea of rampaging bugs charging the fort. The quality of the effects matches Verhoeven’s familiar shooting style with its bright palette and forcefully mobile camera, knitting a comic book-like graphic clarity throughout, at odds with the oncoming style of heavily edited action and visual gimmickry just coming into vogue thanks to directors like Michael Bay but certainly not antiquated-seeming. Verhoeven and his effects team offer startlingly great action scenes almost casually, like Johnny’s Ahab-like ride on the tanker bug’s back in trying to kill it, and the destruction of the Rodger Young amidst a fusillade of plasma spurts, slicing the great spaceship in half, a sequence that stands readily with anything seen in the Star Wars movies. The edge of blackly comic excess is never far away though, as Verhoeven has Deladier get crushed under a sliding bulkhead in another vignette of gory, heroic hyperbole, commander still bawling out orders in concern for her crew even as she’s cut in two.

The climax sees Carmen and Zander managing to escape the Rodger Young only to crash-land on P and find themselves at the mercy of the monstrous, many-eyed, vaguely penile brain bug and its horde of helpers, whilst Johnny, unknowingly given psychic nudges where to find them by Carl, leads Ace and fellow Roughneck Sugar Watkins (Seth Gilliam) to track them down. Here Starship Troopers notably collapses any sense of ironic distance between the travails of the individual characters and their function as members of a militarised society, a final dissolution made explicit by Zander as, just before he has his brains gruesomely imbibed by the brain bug. He declares, “Someday someone like me is going to kill you and your whole fucking race,” a line of bravado that signifies humans achieving the same negation of individual identity as the bugs. Carmen manages to hack off the brain bug’s brain-sucking organ and Johnny arrives to fend it off by threatening to let off a nuke blast before Watkins, fatally wounded, lets off the nuke in his last stand. Finally, in a final nod to the material’s B-movie roots, Zim is hailed as a hero having reduced himself to a Private’s rank to get in on the fighting and finally captures the brain bug as it tries to escape.

For all the heroic sturm-und-drang of this battle for pure survival, Verhoeven returns to sounding queasy absurdism. Carl swans in with his increasingly Nazi-like uniform and uses his psychic powers to diagnose the captured brain bug as finally having learned fear of the humans, and exultantly announces it to the cheering assembly of troops, a moment of pure fascist sentiment. Carmen, despite having a colossal bug claw in her body a few minutes earlier, cheerily embraces Johnny and Carl. Despite making the brain bug utterly horrendous in appearance and behaviour, Verhoeven nonetheless obliges a level of sympathy for it in allowing the special effects artists to make it register as much or more emotion as the humans in its quivering vulnerability once stripped of its fellow arachnids, with final glimpses of the cringing creature being mercilessly tortured by human scientists under the guise of research. In a return to the propaganda reel style of the opening, our heroes are finally glimpsed riding out to battle again, with the last titles announcing confidently, “They’ll Keep Fighting — And They’ll Win!” It’s certainly tempting to say that by this point Starship Troopers has become what it countenances. But that neglects what’s ultimately most pertinent about its form and function, trying to articulate something a more earnest take would miss: indeed, would be obliged to miss. The sliver of black diamond deep in its cold, evil heart knows well the narcotic appeal of such things, and refuses to let us off the hook.

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1960s, Action-Adventure, Comedy, Scifi

Planet of the Apes (1968)

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Director: Franklin J. Schaffner
Screenwriters: Rod Serling, Michael Wilson

By Roderick Heath

Although overshadowed in appreciation amongst high cinephiles by Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, 2018 brings the fiftieth anniversary of another hugely popular and influential science fiction film: Franklin J. Schaffner’s Planet of the Apes. 1968 was a pivotal year for sci-fi cinema, as the success of the two films coincided with Ralph Nelson’s Oscar-winning Charly, helping to make a genre which had known a vogue in the 1950s, but remained generally regarded as trashy and negligible, suddenly gain a level of respect. These films also helped inaugurate a new phase in the genre, and Planet of the Apes arguably had the greatest impact on the following decade or so of sci-fi films. Thanks to its heavy emphasis on satirically tinted speculation about where the human race had come from and where it was going, the film helped provoke an age of allegoric, often dystopian sci-fi that was to a certain extent drowned out by the arrival of Star Wars (1977) but which has never really gone away. The Apollonian, transcendental fantasia that was 2001: A Space Odyssey gained its shaggy, cynical sibling in Planet of the Apes, a more overtly popular approach to genre that nonetheless squarely struck the zeitgeist and proved a huge hit, spawning four immediate sequels, a 2001 remake helmed by Tim Burton, and then a new series of acclaimed variations on the original film’s string of sequels, inaugurated by Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011).

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Planet of the Apes owes its status in turn to the peculiar battery of creative hands who made it, and the way it remixed some familiar genre modes into something new. Author Pierre Boulle was best-known outside France in the 1960s for penning the novel Le Pont de la rivière Kwaï, a book based loosely on true events and inspired by Boulle’s own time as a prisoner of the Japanese military during the war. The novel provided the basis for David Lean’s 1957 epic film The Bridge on the River Kwai, for which Boulle himself was awarded an Oscar for its screenplay, although the script had actually been penned by blacklisted writers Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson. In spite of the seemingly wide conceptual gulf between that novel’s recent, worldly concerns and the fantastical territory annexed by Boulle’s 1963 book La Planète des singes, the similarities are telling in the emphasis on captivity, mutually uncomprehending cultures, and shoe-on-the-other foot reversals of imperialist domain and dominance. Boulle took on a basic sci-fi what-if conceit, in this case, the notion that the relative place on the power scale of homo sapiens and other great apes was reversed.

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Rod Serling, who had gained rare standing as a TV dramatist even before he created and hosted the weird fiction anthology show The Twilight Zone, loved those kinds of inverted familiarities, and his famous show is still a by-word for ironic, sting-in-the-tail narrative punch-lines. Arthur P. Jacobs, an up-and-coming producing talent at Twentieth Century Fox, had seen potential in Boulle’s novel and hired Serling to adapt it. Serling’s unique ideas were retained although Wilson was later hired to revise the script, in part because Serling’s script reproduced Boulle’s concept of a sophisticated ape society, which would have been too expensive to film. Wilson’s revisions strengthened the project overall, however, in part because he found clever ways to dovetail the mercenary needs of budget with the conceptual grafts Serling had made to Boulle’s basis. Charlton Heston, looking to escape the treadmill of outsized historical epics he had become synonymous with, became interested in the project, and he recommended Schaffner to helm it, as he had directed Heston in the sober, dramatically intimate medieval tale The War Lord (1965). Schaffner had served in World War II and was an unlikely filmmaker to appeal to the counterculture-inflected pop culture of the era. But his fascination and affinity with characters violently at odds with a greater society was another factor that allowed him to put Planet of the Apes across to the crowd. Most of his subsequent films revolve around prickly protagonists who have become detached from civilisation around them due to a blend of both exterior hostility and interior rebellion, and who are left trying to knit together their identity and sense of meaning in the face of ruination.

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In Planet of the Apes, Taylor (Heston) perfectly exemplifies this figure, a misanthrope who ponders at the outset whether “Man still makes war upon his brother” and who ventures into space in search of “something better than Man.” A prologue strikes a meditative, even dreamy note, as Taylor prepares for his great trip, that is, about to enter cryogenic stasis to sleep away his craft’s long voyage through space, along with three other astronauts, Landon (Robert Gunner), Dodge (Jeff Burton), and Stewart (Dianne Stanley). “Time bends,” Taylor notes: “Space is boundless. It squashes a man’s ego. I feel lonely.” Taylor, as we learn in good time, is a man both at odds with his world, his species, his nature, and an apt representative of such; his reaction against a universe that weighs upon identity and a rival species that denies it is to kick back with ripe arrogance, all the traits he condemned coming out with instinctive readiness. The space voyage, unfolding behind credits in pulses of energy and colour, betrays an impulse identical to that shared by 1968 brethren 2001: A Space Odyssey and Barbarella, in conflating space travel with psychedelic voyaging. Here it’s most explicitly treated as a trip into the self, to emerge in what Taylor will eventually call a madhouse. The astronauts have been sent out to colonise the stars with their mobile, in-the-name-of-science orgy: “She was to be the new Eve,” Taylor later states, “With our hot and eager help of course.”

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Awakening is rude indeed. The spaceship plunges into the atmosphere of whatever planet it’s stumbled upon in its wanderings, and crash-lands in a lake, in the heart of a desolately beautiful landscape. Stewart is dead, a withered corpse thanks to a crack in her cryogenic capsule: the sight of her ghastly remains is accompanied with a weird screeching sound, and for a split second we’re in one of Roger Corman’s Poe films, the encased body of the departed feminine emitting a creepy memento mori. But the sound proves to actually be a different malediction, as seals fail and the lake water comes pouring in: the oneiric is invoked only to be displaced by the palpable. The three men paddle ashore after watching their last link to the world they’ve left sink, and begin a trek across lifeless and barren surrounds. Taylor is quietly exultant to be at loose in the great unknown and teases the all-American Landon, whilst Dodge “would walk naked into a live volcano if thought he could learn something no other man knew.” Eventually the men encounter a beautiful totem, a single growing plant, close to where menacing scarecrow-like figures have been set up, confirming something intelligent lives on the planet and wants to defend it domain. The astronauts enter the fringe of a verdant tropical area that might as well be Eden. Eden has its inhabitants, wild, harmless-seeming, mute humans who steal the astronauts’ clothes as they bathe. “If this is the best they’ve got around here, in six months we’ll be running this planet,” Taylor announces.

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Famous last words. The humans stand still and listen as if alerted with some preternatural instinct. A strange and terrible sound echoes out of the underbrush. A wild and violent hunt begins. The hunt sequence is a masterful bit of cinema, tying together the graphic clarity of Leon Shamroy’s photography, Hugh S. Fowler’s editing, Jerry Goldsmith’s percussive, jangling scoring, and Schaffner’s shaping. The first half-hour’s general air of ambling mystery and punch-drunk discovery, where the framing of the three survivors often sees them threatening to ossify into the landscape of jagged stone like Tolkien’s trolls, gives way to a sudden assault of precise violence and surging threat: the shock of fight-or-flight necessity gives new, ironic potency to the question of survival where before the trio of discoveries barely knew whether it was worthwhile staying alive. The sequence builds to its big reveal, the sight of an anthropomorphic gorilla riding on horseback, armed with a gun, captured in a zoom shot reproducing Taylor’s viewpoint with both a sense of conveyed shock as well as iconic exactitude. Dodge is shot dead, Landon hauled away in a net, and Taylor shot in the neck. “Smile!” one of the gorillas tells his fellows in the hunt as they pose for a photo, provoking ironic laughter as the inversion is complete, the dead humans trophies for smugly triumphant hunters. Taylor’s bedraggled shorts, made of strange material, attracts assessing eyes, saving him from the usual fate of captive human specimens: gruff, workaday doctor Galen (Wright King) saves his life by giving him a transfusion from a human female, at the request of inquisitive scientist Zira (Kim Hunter).

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Part of the success of Planet of the Apes, in terms of audience appeal, lies in its familiar aspects. High-minded notions and stinging satirical ideas are grafted on a narrative that has obvious affinities with any number of exotic adventure tales by the likes of H. Rider Haggard or Edgar Rice Burroughs. A heroic explorer is plunged into a strange land and tormented, and must survive with his wits and forge alliances to survive. Many such stories already had a faint through-a-glass-darkly qualities as they zeroed in on fantastically framed metaphors for social structures, with heroes who encounter fanatical high priests or swaggering warmongers, often in a way that caricatured “primitive” civilisations being encountered by imperial colonisers but which also attempted to comprehend the similarities and often arbitrary differentiations between different societies’ ways of knowing. Planet of the Apes satisfies on the basic level even as it tries to be more rigorous and overt in presenting the ape society as a mocking mirror of familiar things. This is partly justified by the way the ape society is defined on a most fundamental level entirely by reaction.

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Planet of the Apes has an evident basis in a very European style of satirical comedy, one that revels in perversions of social practices and expectations: there is, for instance, a certain similarity in effect to Luis Bunuel’s surrealist comedies where a bourgeois family might invert habits of eating and defecating, or the tradition of Rabelais where priestly orders could be founded to explore sin in all its most delightfully vulgar dimensions. Serling and Wilson’s revisions and Schaffner’s visualisations didn’t just make the tale more cinematic and popular, however, but also repositioned it in a more distinctly American tradition. Indeed, they helped create perhaps the best-known and popular version of a theme that had been explored in Thomas Cole’s “Course of Empire” series of paintings which depicted the rise of a society from aboriginal hut dwellers to high civilisation to decaying, shattered ruins. Cole helped defined a peculiar brand of morbidly ecstatic fascination with the notion that national greatness was a finite thing, a state of mind that dogs the American political imagination (tellingly, the film’s sequels extended the Americanisation by rendering them more and clearly as parables for race). Planet of the Apes hit upon a narrative structure that allowed all stages to be seen at once: the prelapsarian simplicity of the humans, the inquisitive, Aristotelian minds of Zira and her husband Cornelius (Roddy McDowall), the hypocritical self-righteousness and stolidity of most of the mature ape society, and the mocking, burned-out husk of the old world Taylor stumbles upon, that singular, crystallising image which makes sense of everything that has come before.

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The ape society is explored in quick, deft strokes, but solidifies to the point where it quickly begins to feel intimately familiar, in its prejudices, its outlook, its wilful blind spots and its sophistications. The apes are defined by a general blend of accomplishment and strange lacks – the apes are superlative at surgery and ballistics but believe flight impossible and maintain intense taboos, like their avoidance of the wasteland the astronauts landed in, which the apes call the Forbidden Zone, ostensibly because of its desolateness but also because the bones of the past poke out of the ground there. Their chief scientist, Dr Zaius (Maurice Evans), is also their “Defender of the Faith,” a priestly enforcer of orthodoxy. The apes’ stature as cruel masters of the apparently simple and harmlessly devolved humans is not just reflexive arrogance but an official aspect of their communal identity, defined by their legendary Lawgiver who handed down his Sacred Scrolls, filled with imprecations against man and unhealthy forms of knowledge. Cornelius, an archaeologist, is already flirting with blasphemy when he’s confronted with Taylor, as his ventures into the Forbidden Zone to make exploratory digs have turned up the remains of an advanced civilisation filled with to obscure relics. When Taylor finally sees these, he recognises the craftsmanship of his own species, defined by both its arts and its weaknesses. One of the film’s longest, drollest sequences sees Taylor, Zira, and Cornelius hauled before a panel of officials, all staffed by pompously mandarin orang-utans including Zaius and a chairman (James Whitmore) who orders Taylor gagged when he tries to explain himself.

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Sequences in which the apes use both overt physical brutality and a battery of cultural and linguistic cudgels, like the extended use of circular logic from a state prosecutor, to keep Taylor silent reveal the film as still razor-sharp in analysing and depicting the manner in which hegemonies are enforced over subaltern voices, and closed loops of pseudo-logic wielded to dismiss disturbances to them. The scene’s punch-line, improvised by Schaffner on set, sees the orang-utan adjudicators reproducing the proverbial figuration of the three monkeys who hear, speak, and see no evil. Taylor suffers for some time before he can even compel his captors to that degree, as his injury leaves him mute for a time, trying to communicate with Zira, who dubs him “Bright Eyes” for his eager, communicative expressions. Taylor’s efforts to establish contact include writing his name in the sand when he’s jammed into an exterior pen, only for his fellow humans to foil him in their clueless mimicry and ready violence. Zaius completes the act by erasing a remaining portion of Taylor’s words, a clear signal that he knows a lot more about Taylor and what he represents than he’s letting on. Zaius, nimbly played by Evans, plays Grand Inquisitor protecting his kind from transgressing in the same ways that humans have, when they progressed out of what Cole called the “Arcadian or Pastoral State” stage of civilisation, the one considered ideal by many Enlightenment thinkers. The Lawgiver stands as a Moses figure wielding stern and intractable laws, although the film’s sequels would eventually circle around to a point where Cornelius and Zira’s son Caesar would emerge first as a Maccabee and then as a Christ figure, embodying the chance of reconciliation and evolution, and also the eternal pain of the idealist before the persistence of base instinct.

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Cornelius and Zira are two of the best-realised characters in sci-fi cinema and one of the most appealing couples in movies in general, with McDowall and Hunter ingeniously projecting enough intelligence, humour, and foibles onto their characters to render them more human than human. Many kids who love this film, like myself back when, perhaps did so because they’re almost a perfect concept of what you hope your parents might be like – open, eternally curious, loving and, whilst hardly unafraid of the expectations of the world beyond, nonetheless finally sufficient unto themselves in their convictions and will. They appeal through their curiosity, their openness to where thought and experience lead them, their familiarity as a loving couple – constantly bickering and yet gripping each-other’s hands in moments of fate – and as individuals facing severe crises in facing breaks with their society. Zira is the more intransigent of the pair, the bolder, the one whose outspokenness Cornelius is compelled to try and dampen down: they’re conceived as a pair of young campus academicians where the wife’s attraction to radical causes is counterbalanced by the husband’s circumspection. His very reasonable anxiety gains political inferences as they’re both faced with punishment for taking their mutual discoveries to logical conclusions, evoking both the bygone days of religious heresy tribunals and the much more recent phenomena of McCarthyism. Cornelius is both a bold and visionary being in his field but also one with a notably timorous anxiety, an awareness of how one wrong word or gesture could trash his and Zira’s future together.

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Speech is a afforded status as a weapon of power and identity with singular force in the film: Taylor’s famously outraged cry as he dangles in a net, “Get your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!”, are his first since being taken prisoner. The cry shocks and astounds his captors and rocks the very presumptions their world is based on to their foundations, and similar moments resounded through the follow-ups, like Nova crying out Taylor’s name, suggesting when it’s already too late that humans can rise again from their waned and pathetic state, and Cornelius recounting the fateful moment when an ape slave emitted the word “No” to his human masters. Taylor forms an attachment with the human woman whose blood he received when Galen saved his life, dubbing her Nova (Linda Harrison). Nova is a mute and uncomprehending yet expressive being, fluidic in her in reactive empathy. Confronted by the unexpected annoyance of a man of her species speaking, she presses her fingers to his lips. Of course, power is measured by more direct scales too. Taylor is beaten, netted, shackled, stripped. His understandable response is nonetheless tinged with aspects of hypocrisy, as he takes Zaius captive and painfully binds him, stoking protest from Zira and Cornelius, on the grounds that Taylor was assumed to be inferior whereas Taylor knows well Zaius is a very intelligent being. Then again, real hate and real contempt can only be evinced between the intelligent, and Taylor knows something Cornelius and Zira do not, that Zaius knew well what he was, and did not care.

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When he manages to stage a breakout from the holding pens, Schaffner uses the ensuing chase scene not just to give the film’s long middle act a jolt of action, but also to give further insight into the ape society, as Taylor crashes a funeral for “an ape to remember” and eludes pursuers in the halls of a museum where stuffed humans are set up in illustrative dioramas, and Dodge’s body is now one of the exhibits. The style of the ape city conflates Mediterranean city-state acropolis and adobe architecture, suggesting a sophisticated, intimate society that has remained purposefully close to roots in natural forms, and Schaffner’s camera explores it with dynamism, dollying and weaving its way along with his actors through columned spaces and striking vertiginous angles in observing the frantic tussles of bodies, human and ape. Part of the success of Planet of the Apes, of course, stemmed from the groundbreaking prosthetic makeup created by John Chambers. Where Kubrick’s labours on 2001: A Space Odyssey invented a newly convincing argot for portraying space travel, Chambers managed something similar on a far more intimate scale, creating a convincing non-human set of characters that nonetheless allowed the actors to mediate and transform their performances: although today the media has advanced to the point where the makeup looks a bit rubbery in blu-ray prints, it’s still invaluable in creating the context of this illusion, the feeling that Zira, Cornelius, Zaius and the rest are real and palpable beings.

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Schaffner’s work on Planet of the Apes vaulted him into Hollywood’s upper echelons. After making the interesting if facile political study The Best Man (1964), a film that might have earmarked Schaffner for a career similar to John Frankenheimer’s, Schaffner revealed here a great eye and talent for evoking space and scale on the cinema screen that soon earned him comparisons to David Lean, although his approach to dramatic essentials remained rather more conventional. His 1970 Best Picture champ Patton (1970) is dotted with moments of raw visual power achieved with fearlessly wielded big movie infrastructure, but more often feels like the kind of TV play Schaffner had begun his career making, greatly inflated. Soon he was helming big-budget epics like the unwieldy Nicholas and Alexandra (1971) and Papillon (1973), which rivals Planet of the Apes as his best film. Schaffner’s stature as a maker of big-budget epics and studio flagship films during an unsettled, rambunctiously creative era in Hollywood earned him a critical lethargy that’s never really dispelled, and it is true he settled into making entertaining but heavy-footed prestige pictures like his academic take on Islands in the Stream (1976) and the fun but lumpy thrillers The Boys From Brazil (1978) and Sphinx (1980).

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And yet Schaffner earned his stature marrying the lightest edge of New Wave-era and pop art-influenced optical inventiveness to the familiar, architectural solidity and straightforwardness of big-budget Hollywood film on Planet of the Apes. This is evident in its opening scenes, with visions of deep space and time travel expostulated through vaguely trippy light and colour effects, a crash-landing that’s depicted in a series of dizzying, spiralling, point-of-view shots, and of course the very last shot, an encapsulating visual ideogram that functions as a perfect pop-art emblem. Something of the same spirit is also visible in Patton’s famous opening with its hero presented as a free-floating placard before a colossal American flag. Schaffner’s energetic camerawork here is another plus, like the spectacular helicopter shots that punctuate the crash scene, wheeling away from the downed spaceship as it sinks into the lake, its metal hull a glistening obelisk of manufactured beauty in the midst of a red, rugged landscape of great rock forms, an image that locates the nexus between the western, as Schaffner evokes John Ford’s vistas, and sci-fi. The film’s connection with the western genre, just beginning to wane at the time precisely because the revisionist urge taking hold of academia and culture creators was starting to press some uncomfortable points in the genre’s basic appeal, is an aspect of Planet of the Apes signalled in Schaffner’s annexation of Ford’s landscapes. In keeping with the film’s cinematic translation of Cole into genre film terms, Planet of the Apes portrays what could be called a radical decolonisation of the American landscape, delivering it up to the apes who, as the series continued, became a catch-all metaphoric emblem, ranging from Catholic dogmatists to black power militants.

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The casting of Heston as Taylor was one of the film’s great coups, and not just because as a big, strong, intelligent actor he could retain bristling force even when his character is voiceless and unclothed. Heston brought with him a strong association with a squarer genre of film he was trying to get out of. By this time in his career every step he took carried with it the memory of Moses and Judah Ben-Hur and El Cid, titanic protagonists who stood as interlocutors between the human and divine and the individual and the historic. Heston had been trying to work his way around this image, playing a very ordinary man caught up in big events in 55 Days in Peking (1963) and crumbling he-man in Major Dundee (1965). But none of those roles quite played on it as deftly and cruelly as Planet of the Apes, where Taylor is eventually compelled to see his own powerless triviality in the face of biblical-scale evidence of Armageddon and reapportioning of Creation. Taylor’s swaggering arrogance at the outset stems not from certainty that he’s a fit representative of a noble race but rather his status as self-appointed rebel and critic. It requires being treated like chattel to move him to defend his species: “He was here before you – and he was better than you!” he accosts Zaius as they explore the relics of the old civilisation – only then to be forced to behold just how right he was at first, victim of a cosmic-scale joke. Taylor’s various eruptions of rage, including his climactic bellow of “Damn you all to hell!”, hinge upon Heston’s ability to play great twisted masses of muscle and emotion right out of a Michelangelo painting. Heston had just played Michelangelo, in Carol Reed’s The Agony and the Ecstasy (1966), and several scenes here almost play as parodies of that film and Ben-Hur (1959). Where the great artist travelled out alone into the landscape in Reed’s film and saw the elements of his great artistic parable etched out in the sky, communicating divine will to a translator Genesis, here Taylor beholds rather the wreckage of his own civilisation, the rescinded will and proof of his own, perfect impotence.

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The Planet of the Apes series stands out as perhaps the most pointedly and thoroughly misanthropic major sci-fi property proffered by a major Hollywood film studio. The series was driven along by the conviction that humankind is doomed not merely to destroy itself but then repeat its mistakes when given the chance to avoid them, whilst the apes are our possibly, morally superior inheritors, but still evince the same grim traits even after all efforts to suppress and retard them. Although the series eventually circled around to a point of ambiguous optimism, the problems of will to power are diagnosed as the true original sin, something generations and species try to claw out of their makeup without sure success. The series leavened the bitterness by several means. The apes are usually attractive in their ability to seem both rather cute and nobly charismatic even when they’re being obnoxious or destructive, whilst the first film in particular offers a lot of humour. The more self-conscious comedy injected into the script, with dialogue like “Human see, human do,” and introducing Zira’s hippie nephew Lucius (Lou Wagner), who throws out lines like, “You can’t trust the older generation!” and “Beards? I don’t go in for fads,” was reportedly provided by uncredited writer John T. Kelley. These supply the film with a self-lampooning edge, and although it nudges it towards flippancy now and then, it might well have helped to sell it to a mass audience in taking care of the humour value inherent in the storyline on the film’s own terms, as well as giving the film extra appeal to the young audience of 1968. Superior jots of humour come more from the fruitful coincidence of character and situation, as with Zira’s admission that Taylor is “so damn ugly” before allowing him to kiss her in gratitude – and the hiss of jealousy Cornelius gives as they do. Or my favourite off-hand moment, the ape priest officiating at the funeral Taylor crashes, left staggering in bewilderment as all hell breaks loose in the midst of a solemn ceremony.

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The darker aspects of the tale are hardly obscured. Humans are ruthlessly slaughtered, vivisected, and grotesquely maimed by the apes. Even kindly Zira makes a living cutting up specimens, her humanitarian interests placed nonetheless at the service of a genocide-minded, theologically-justified state program. Taylor is appalled when he finds Landon has been rendered an idiot by Zaius’ brain surgery, a deft move by the Chief Scientist and Defender of the Faith to get rid of a troubling specimen after another makes himself known to the whole city. Taylor himself is aware his attraction to Nova could be considered something close to bestiality as he tries to puzzle out just how awareness is left in his species (“Do you love, I wonder? Can you love?”), whilst his caging and separation from Nova, the closest thing he has nonetheless to a companion, wickedly reproduces the state of general alienation (“Lots of lovemaking, no love.”) that is his recollection of his own world. Zaius is at once aggravating in his stiff-necked self-righteousness and magnetic in his assured authority, thanks in large part to Evans’ canny performance. The upshot of the entire storyline eventually demonstrates that he is, if not right, then operating from a very reasonable point of view: there really is good cause for the apes to fear humans, to maintain a regime of wilfully repressed knowledge in the fear that one day apes will follow in their footsteps, like a medieval theocrat frightened of what new fields of horror new worlds and new ideas will open up.

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Taylor helps Cornelius and Zira prove their notion that the planet was inhabited by a human civilisation before apes as they flee authority and enter the Forbidden Zone’s wastes, pursued by Zaius and his gun-wielding fellows. He even manages to outwit Zaius and use him as leverage to ensure his own escape. But Zaius calmly reclaims authority and condemns his young colleagues to trial and disgrace anyway, in the belief that he might just be saving their future. Meanwhile Taylor rides away with Nova into the sunset, only to be confronted a great, rusted, blasted hunk of metal that mocks everything he’s done: the Statue of Liberty jutting from the beach sand. This was hardly the first time such an image had been deployed, but it still wields incredible power thanks to the way Schaffner deploys it, leaving it until the very last shot until just what has humiliated Taylor so vividly is seen, and seen, tellingly, through Nova’s blank, estranged gaze, before the fade-out comes with only the sound of breaking waves playing on the soundtrack, evoking one of those counterculture-era albums where the band mockingly remains silent “on the anniversary of World War III.” It’s one of those rare twists that makes perfect sense of what has been seen before – really, Taylor was pretty thick not to realise it before – and also an improvement on Boulle’s ending, an ending which Burton restored to his remake only to be met with dim stares of bemusement.

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In the days before franchising became so common in moviemaking, Planet of the Apes spawned a string of sequels fuelled by a fervent fan base. The first sequel, Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970), takes up where the first film ends. Although entirely watchable, the whole project has a rushed and clumsy feel, as if the film was shot before anyone thought it out properly, whilst Ted Post’s direction lacked personality. The episode’s best aspect was its most novel, offering a society of terribly scarred, psychic human mutants who live in the ruins of old New York and whose literal worship of the atomic bomb presented a clever tweak on the apes’ abhorring theology. Heston’s limited involvement saw James Franciscus cast as Brent, a bland fill-in for much of the running time, and Cornelius and Zira only feature briefly (with David Watson filling in for the absent McDowall). The nihilistic climax has a certain aptness in taking the series’ themes to their grimmest possible consummation, whilst restaging the end of Bridge on the River Kwai on an apocalyptic scale, as Taylor avenges the murdered Nova and Brent and dies cursing Zaius by igniting the mutants’ cherished doomsday bomb. This conclusion also took to a limit the apocalyptic note found in immediate precursor films of the age like The Wild Bunch and Castle Keep (both 1969). But it all plays out in a rushed, impatient manner, like the production ran out of time and money, and the filmmakers just decided to kill everyone, whilst the ban-the-bomb motif swallowed up all dramatic and satiric nuances.

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The third episode, Escape From the Planet of the Apes (1971), was faced with the unenviable task of giving the series new life. The British screenwriter Paul Dehn, who had written Beneath…, brought something of the British sci-fi tradition with its distinctive fascination for social dynamics to the series, and he managed to extend it through the clever ruse of having Cornelius (played again by McDowall) and Zira revealed to have escaped the Earth’s destruction thanks to a fellow savant, Milo (Sal Mineo), who found and repaired Taylor’s spaceship, and accidentally travel back in time to the human age. Competently directed by former actor Don Taylor, Escape… is good fun as it observes the impact of the two simian harbingers upon 1970s Earth society, with great jokes like Zira finding accord with feminists, and Eric Braeden’s villain mirrors Zaius in his conscientious but covertly hysterical choice to perform monstrous acts. The film turns tragic as the beloved couple are murdered in the name of heading off ape dominance, although the impact is blunted by the rather predictable way it all plays out, in an entry that fails to wield anything like the conceptual breadth of the first two entries. The final reveal that their infant son Milo has found haven with a kindly circus owner Armando (Ricardo Montalban) opened the door for a fourth film, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972), which saw hardy old pro J. Lee Thompson take over as director and bring some real muscularity to proceedings, and Dehn filled out a scenario sketched out in the previous film describing how apes came to be first domesticated, enslaved, and then quickly evolve into thinking beings and begin revolting.

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Although lacking the furtive wit of the earlier movies, Conquest… proves perhaps the ballsiest and the most urgent: Thompson’s energetic direction subversively recreated news footage of urban riot and revolt and links it justified rage over the legacy of slavery and oppression. The now-grown Milo (also played by McDowall) rechristens himself Caesar and leads his fellows in insurrection after Armando is killed by an increasingly fascistic state. A reshot finale took some of the edge off, but did again allow a fifth episode to be made. Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973) is set after war has devastated the old human cities: now Caesar oversees an uneasy cooperative commune peopled by both apes and put-upon humans. As thuggish gorilla warrior Aldo (Claude Akins) stirs up prejudice and conflict, a gang of armed, radiation-scarred human survivors attacks the commune, sparking a fight that feels, very appropriately, like an attempt to portray the last war of history as looking a lot like the first, a tribal squabble fought with any weapon at hand. This under-budgeted entry tries to ply an okay script in the face of a scrappy production, with a rushed climax. The grand narrative ends on a note of tentative optimism, as Aldo’s carnage convinces Caesar that apes share the same dark heart as humans, denying any species’ exceptionalism. Centuries later, the Lawgiver (John Huston) is seen speaking to an audience of both species, suggesting that the timeline has been successfully deviated. But the ultimate weapon still lies in the hands of the mutants (as shown in an initially excised, later restored scene), and the last shot depicts Caesar’s venerated bust releasing a solitary tear, in fear the warlike impulse will never be entirely extinguished. This very capstone to the series is a bit corny, but does finally annex the metaphysical zone the series had long evoked. Whilst the individual entries were certainly uneven, as a whole the Planet of the Apes series still stands as near-unique in mainstream sci-fi cinema, as a cycle that stood assured on very human foundations whilst following its ideas through with weirdness, toughness, and intelligence.

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