The One Huge Flaw in 1968’s “Planet of the Apes”

planet_of_the_apes

“You speak very good English for a human!”

I’m going to follow up on my glowing Dawn of the Planet of the Apes review with just a little more ape talk. There’s something I’ve been needing to get off my chest regarding the classic 1968 film starring Charlton Heston. A pretty major flaw in the movie’s logic—I’ll get into it in a moment. As I’ve mentioned in my Dawn review, I’m a big-time fan of the original POTA film; I’ve seen it countless times and know much about the whole Apes mythology. I concede that the movie has aged quite a bit; it is likely to be judged “corny” and/or “boring” by the die-hard Transformers fans who represent the large part of the moviegoing public. I still think it’s great.

The ape make-up still holds up well enough, though this is one area where Tim Burton’s dreadful “reimagining” showed a marked improvement. The Franco-verse ape films bypassed makeup effects altogether and elected to make their apes 100% CGI—a bold but necessary move, considering how the general story lines placed the action in modern day San Francisco and not a New York City of 3000 years in the future.

The Franco apes had to look like apes you’d see at a zoo, not “evolved” apes played by portly humans in full-body gorilla suits. And I believe the filmmakers have pulled it off better than one could possibly dare to dream. Going back on the 1968 film after seeing these modern day ape movies can take some mental adjustment.

“Though the film holds up amazingly well, there’s one little detail that rocks the boat.”

Still, the original POTA, featuring cruder ape-makeup and less elaborate sets and much, much slower pacing than what a typical modern day Michael Bay fan would expect out of his or her blockbuster movie, holds up pretty damn well. Especially when you hear a baby boomer remind you that when that movie first came out—in an era before easy Internet word-of-mouth—nobody knew what they were in for. The shocking reveal at the end of the film was a total M. Night Shyamalan twist!

Some folks went into the movie having not even seen a single trailer, knowing only that the movie was titled “Planet of the Apes.” For these people, the moment when the first ape shows up on horseback was as shocking as it was for Charlton Heston’s beloved character, Astronaut George Taylor. And no one saw the surprise ending coming. I mean, imagine watching that movie and being genuinely shocked at that Statue of Liberty ending. It was Earth all along. Geez, it must have been absolutely mind-blowing to the audience of its day.

For a funny Apes reference, read my review of Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity.

It still holds up, especially when you mentally adjust for “movie-making inflation.” Crisp and lean writing, great acting, and absence of mindless twenty-minute action sequences for the sake of action sequences. The musical score—subtly emulated in the latest movie—nails it. Re-watching this original film puts me right back into what I call “ape mode.” I feel the need to watch the direct sequel, the controversial Beneath the Planet of the Apes, which picks up directly after the last scene in the first film. I may peruse some old ape comic books I’ve collected over the years. Usually ape mode would stop there, but, once I have my copy of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes on DVD, it’s going to be a welcome addition to the party.

But here’s the thing. I’ve come to realize—somewhat recently, despite years and years of watching this movie—that the original Planet of the Apes film suffers a blatant, glaring plot hole. Really, I’m embarrassed it took me so long to identify this perfectly obvious flaw. I think I figured it out a long time ago as a kid, but my mind wasn’t yet advanced enough to get really bent out of shape about it, and then I forgot it completely.

It’s been hiding there right in plain sight the whole time, and once I figured it out, it became hard to brush it off. A major, major logic gap, concerning the fact that Charlton Heston’s character didn’t know the world he’d crash-landed on was, in fact Earth. Perhaps a simple line of dialogue could have defused this bomb, but there’s no such line in the film—and I should know. This logic gap requires you to suspend your already-totally-suspended disbelief. Stop reading this right now if you want to preserve your Ape innocence.

Charlton Heston must be terrible at “Clue.”

The mega flaw: How can Charlton Heston’s character possibly not know the ape planet was Earth, when the apes all around him are not only speaking, but speaking English? Remember, Heston’s character believed that he’d crashed somewhere in the proximity of Alpha Centauri (the setting of Pierre Boulle’s original novel). I’m totally cool with the idea of eloquent, articulate apes. But why would these “alien” apes communicate with each other with a language invented on Planet Earth, light-years away?

[Warning: I’m about to go FULL GEEK]

Yes, you can submit that their distant ancestors, the humans of the Forbidden Zone, had somehow learned English by listening to radio waves sent out from Earth (a la the Jodie Foster Movie Contact), and then indirectly passed this knowledge down to their world’s post-apocolypic ape population. Though drawing this conclusion feels like doing a lot of homework for the writers of the film. Plus, the apes don’t even have an accent. They sound like your history teacher in high school talking about the Roman Empire.

We Americans don’t have to go very far on our own planet to find exotic variants of the English language. Ben Kingelsy invented his own weird future English accent in the recent film Ender’s Game. It was one of that film’s few inventive decisions. If the apes spoke with a similarly chaotic inflection, suggestive of many years of lingual evolution, I might be willing to buy the Contact theory. By the way—watch Contact. One of the greatest sci-fi films ever made.

Read my review of Ender’s Game

Another, better theory is that Heston’s Taylor, who spent an undisclosed amount of time as a prisoner in the apes’ hospital, had simply learned the ape’s own language. He was a smart enough guy. He was a freaking astronaut. It’s possible that the apes were actually communicating via some strange monkey language, which Taylor was able to slowly piece it together and, eventually, speak himself. In this case, the film’s English dialogue was merely for the benefit of the audience, like the Universal Translator conceit featured in all incarnations of Star Trek. I’m totally willing to throw the filmmakers a bone here. I feel their pain—you can’t have a whole movie of weird monkey language!

But Star Trek was smart enough to address the issue. Universal translators implanted in everybody’s ears—a somewhat wobbly storytelling crutch, granted, but much better than nothing at all. Once the issue was addressed, the audience was willing to shrug its collective shoulders and move on.

Because here’s my real problem with the Apes. By not addressing this blatant logic gap, the writers of the original Planet of the Apes film were either (temporarily) stupid themselves, or they thought their audience was (permanently) stupid, or they thought Heston’s character was (outrageously) stupid.

“Humans. English speaking. Earth-like terrain. I mean, Taylor, do I have to spell it out for ya?!?”

Most signs point to Taylor. He’s the real victim here. He looks pretty dumb when you think about it. How could he possibly be surprised when he finds the Statue of Liberty on the beach, when you really think about it. On top of everything else, he even knew that some version of “humans,” had ruled the ape planet in the distant past! Humans. English speaking. Earth-like terrain. I mean, Taylor, do I have to spell it out for ya?!?

A simple line of dialogue—ugly though it was sure to be—would have made this boo boo go away. “At first I was amazed you damn dirty apes spoke English,” Taylor could have said, “But then I understood: Radio waves!” OR: “Lucky for me, I was able to piece together your language during my year in the hospital. Now it’s like a second language to me.”

Of course, much of this is forgivable when you consider that this film was made in 1968. They still basically thought the moon was made of cheese back then. Brainy science fiction movies were a real novelty, with much lower standards of realism stemming, partly, from a smaller knowledge base vis a vi worlds beyond our own. The movie going public had nothing much to compare this movie to. The idea of humans and/or apes sprouting up, completely independent of Earth, on some faraway exo-planet surely didn’t seem as outlandish to the moviegoers of 1968 than it does to me, a well-versed sci-fi geek type dude.

In the end, I’ve learned to forgive Planet of the Apes this one glaring oversight. I’ve lost enough sleep over it, and I’m willing to chalk it up to a different standard of filmmaking. Still a better standard, too. Nowadays, if a sci-fi movie of such ambition and scope can keep its pool of mega-flaws down to single digits, it’s time to call up Criterion.

Chimps talking perfectly English? I’ll deal with it.

What about you, reader? Fan of the original Apes film? What’s your take on the “mega flaw?”

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9 Responses to The One Huge Flaw in 1968’s “Planet of the Apes”

  1. I saw the first film and kind of thought it jumped the shark as soon as the ape ‘evolved’. I heard the second one was supposed to be great but I have a hard time buying the further evolution of the apes. My son saw it and liked it. But then again, I’m not big into sci-fi, so who am I to judge?

    • Bill Carson says:

      you kinda have to be into sci-fi and/or apes in order to really love these movies, I think. But I will say that the new one is, indeed, an unexpectedly major upgrade from the lame 2011 one.

  2. ginjuh says:

    I hate it when the original Planet if the Apes comes on because it highjacks my day and I get nothing done. And I’m not sure why I love it, because science fiction is generally not my thing. Anyway, I’m okay with the English thing. I’ll admit it never occurred to me, but maybe people in the future had achieved a universal (interplanetary) language? And I just asked my husband hus thoughts on this plot hole, and he said “maybe he didn’t think about it; he had a lot of shit going on.”

  3. ginjuh says:

    But Heston wasn’t suppose to think he was in the future. Never mind. I suck ah sci fi.

    • Bill Carson says:

      Actually, Heston knew he was 3000 years in the future by way of convenient computer readout in his recently crashed space ship. Really, your husband’s explanation ain’t bad. I suppose if I was confronted by horse-riding talking apes, I’d be so disorientated I wouldn’t worry so much about how they were able to speak English. Your universal interplanetary language theory seems sound too—it kinda plays along with my Jodie Foster radio waves theory, where other planets are able to hear our radio waves and eventually learn our language. Or, possibly in the 3000 year time gap, Earthlings spread out in the galaxy and took English with them.

      These theories pretty much work — though I’d have loved for Charlton to at least have registered momentary surprise at their language of choice.

      Oh well, thanks for taking part in the debate!

  4. jonathan grant says:

    The one flaw i hated in the original was when the second ship crashed while trying to rescue Taylor and they find Nova! according to both captains; Taylor landed in 3978 AD and was in captivity for 1 year with Nova (making it 3979 AD) but Bret landed in 3955 AD
    So Bret either had to wait 23 years to save a guy who hadnt gone missing yet or was there the whole time yet didnt stop Taylor being captured in the first place!!!

    • Bill Carson says:

      yeah, that kind of non-research on the part of the screenwriters really angers me too. How hard would it have been just to double-check the digital time readout on Taylor’s ship before establishing the time-frame of the sequel? Although i just write this off as a malfunction in either Taylor’s or Brent’s console readout, which is semi-believable because both ships crashed and were likely to have technical problems. Anyway, good eye!

  5. Guys, it was a simply a social commentary meant for its day. I love the original POTA films from beginning to end because they run parallel to the struggles that people like Gloria Steinem, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King the Black Panthers had to endure during that same time frame. The Civil Rights Movement of the Sixties and Seventies runs as a golden thread through these films. So, any such so-called flaws or inadequacies are of little to no importance compared to the bigger picture that you are supposed to be paying attention to. Remember, these kind of films were meant to be raw, rugged, untamed and on the edge unlike the modern film industry. They intentionally stuck to the basics and really didn’t give a damn about the details that the anal types of today squander their time arguing over. Bottom line: Can you see the forest for the trees? That has always been the resounding theme of all these older classics.

    • Earl Hatsby says:

      Great comment! I agree that this “flaw” doesn’t at all diminish the film or the film’s message. Just a fun example of “spot the goof.” In my opinion, an ambitious, ahead-of-its-time film like POTA more than earns the right to gloss over certain aspects of the plot for the sake of swifter storytelling. I can’t say the same for many modern sci-fis, which are often unambitious AND eager to sell out.

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