In one of his most famous roles, Charlton Heston plays an astronaut named George Taylor who is marooned when his spacecraft crash lands on a distant and remote planet. When Taylor emerges from the wreckage, he finds a planet very much like the Earth he left behind, with breathable oxygen in the atmosphere, plenty of flora and fauna, and plenty of lakes and streams scattered about.
Soon though, Taylor realizes that things are not as they seem and in an ironic twist, he finds that man, while present on this planet, is most definitely not the dominant species and that this world is in fact ruled by an intelligent society of apes. Indeed, after he's captured, Taylor finds out the hard way that not only is man not in control here, he's actually enslaved under the apes rule.
When some of the more compassionate members of ape society find out that Taylor is capable of speech (something the other humans are not) he's taken in as a guinea pig, but all the while he plans his escape and along the way falls for a scantily clad looker named Nova (Linda Harrison).
Save for some of the make up and prosthetic special effects, Planet Of The Apes holds up remarkably well. Its obvious social messages against discrimination and the preconceived notions it's so easy to carry around about others is just as pertinent today as it was when the film was made back in the tumultuous sixties, if not more so.
Director Franklin J. Schaffner had worked with Heston a few years before on 1965's The Warlord (a film I find personally much too ignored) and here manages to pull from the granite faced actor one of his finest performances. As Taylor, Heston is both heroic and sympathetic but at the same time it's easy for us to see that he's just as flawed, and human, as the rest of us. He's a believable hero and one who is easy to get behind as the film progresses.
Heston's performance aside however, the real stars of the show are the apes themselves (and obviously, those underneath the make up as well). Roddy McDowell and Kim Hunter as Cornelius and Zira respectively are excellent as the sympathetic ape scientists, while Maurice Evens as Dr. Zaius is equally as good in his role.
The new anamorphic 2.35.1 widescreen transfer is a marked improvement over the first release that Fox put out a few years ago. Print damage, while present, isn't a major issue and the source material used appears to have been well preserved. Some of the effects shots look a little less convincing due to the enhanced clarity on this release but that's to be expected to an extent. Contrast levels are quite well balanced though and the blacks are rich and deep and don't break up at all. Color reproduction is accurate and well rendered and overall this is a very pleasing transfer that is sure to make fans of the film happy.
Aside from the Spanish Mono track and the French Dolby Digital 2.0 track, there are two new English language options on this DVD – a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix and a DTS 5.1 mix. While these didn't really hit it out of the park, they're still solid and clean mixes and the only real problem is that there are a few times where it seems like the channel separation is off with effects coming from the wrong angles in a couple of spots. Most of the activity takes place in the front center channels and the rears are used quite sparingly. It's not that these tracks are terrible – they're not, they're clean and easy to understand – it's just that they could have been a lot more. For those who want to experience the film in it's original audio mix, Fox has also thankfully included an English Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo track on this release as well, quality is about the same – slightly flat and tinny in a few spots, but overall, it's decent.
Good news and bad news in regards to the supplements on this release. The good news? It's stacked. There's a ton of material here for POTA fans. The bad news? If you are a serious POTA fan, you've seen most of it before on either the first Fox boxed set or the Image two disc Behind The Planet Of The Apes release.
Three commentaries are the principal extras on the first disc. The first track, featuring stars Kim Hunter, Roddy McDowell, Natalie Trundy and make up artist John Chambers, is the weakest. The information given is okay (though repetitive when compared to the documentary feature) but there is way too much dead air. Combined, all four participants probably talk for no more than forty-five minutes, and the constant blank spots on the track get really dull really fast. Thankfully, the second track, which features Jerry Goldsmith speaking during the quiet parts of his isolated classic score for the film, is quite interesting. Goldsmith has been around long enough that he very obviously knows his stuff and this track is interesting with a lot of great information that isn't really touched in the other features in the set. The third commentary is in text form only and is supplied by Eric Greene, the author of The Planet Of The Apes As American Myth. While it takes a very academic approach to the films and it's themes, it's an equally interesting piece that might open your eyes for a few different aspects of the movie.
Moving on to the second disc, we find almost all of the material from the aforementioned Image release of Behind The Planet Of The Apes in a section entitled Exploring The Apes. The two hour American Movie Classics documentary is the main highlight of this section and, especially if you've never seen it before, it's a fascinating look at not only the first film but the entire series of Planet Of The Apes movies. Hosted by Roddy McDowell himself, it's an extremely comprehensive piece that explores all aspects of the series from casting to make up to special visual effects to social and political messages. If you've yet to catch this fascinating look behind the scenes of one of Hollywood's most beloved science fiction series, you owe it to yourself to watch this from start to finish. Most of the cast and crew members are interviewed here and it's great to see them as they were when the films were made.
Rounding out the Exploring The Apes section of the second disc are a few other interesting features that detail the making of the film. The 1967 NATO Presentation is a great look at the marketing of the film. While the majority of its ten minutes is a glorified trailer, it does conclude with a wild-eyed Charlton Heston pitching the film to prospective investors and is worth watching for that segment alone. The segment from 1968 that runs five minutes simply entitled The 1968 Featurette is also included here in it's entirety and while this is probably one of the most oft seen POTA behind the scenes clips, it's also a good one and is comprised mainly of make up test footage and some great production sketch material. Charlton Heston hosts the fifteen minute A Look Behind The Planet Of The Apes from 1972. This promotional piece hasn't aged well and is definitely a product of its time but it's kind of fun to kick back and give it a look, as Heston is always interesting to watch. Most of the material on this section relates to the make up and special effects. Finally, finishing off this section is a plethora of Making Of Footage which includes clips of Don Taylor and J. Lee Thompson directing Escape From The Planet Of The Apes and Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes respectively as well as Edward G. Robinson's make up test for the first film, eighteen minutes worth of Planet Of The Apes outtakes and dailies (presented without any audio), and finally, twenty minutes worth of home movies shot on the set by Roddy McDowell capturing some of the more memorable scenes being filmed as well as more make up footage.
A Publicity section follows and contains theatrical trailers for the original five films in the series, in anamorphic widescreen, (conspicuously absent is any mention of Tim Burton's 're-imagining') as well as a teaser for the first film in the series. A collection of graphics focusing mainly on international promotional art is included here, as well as a two reviews of the original film in text format.
The final section on this disc is entitled Galleries, and as one would expect, it contains promotional sketches, actor/ape make up test comparison photos, production stills, publicity stills, and a collection of vintage Planet Of The Apes merchandise and memorabilia, all in convenient still gallery format.
While it's nice to have all of these supplements in the same package as the first, and best, film in the series, it's lamentable that Fox didn't do more to supply the die hard fans with some more unique extra features than those that turned up here. For those who haven't seen this material before, however, this selection should prove to be a nice addition and it does compliment the feature nicely. A fold out booklet included inside the keepcase details the history of the Planet Of The Apes as a pop culture phenomena.
Fox makes up for their mediocre first release of this classic science fiction film by giving us an excellent two disc special edition with great audio and video and plenty of extra features at a fair price. Highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.