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Planet of the Apes at 50: An iconic sci-fi film raises timeless questions

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Photo:20th Century Fox
20th Century Fox

BONN (Deutsche Welle) – Are apes the better human beings? Or, put differently, are there good and evil members of every species? These are some of the timeless themes that “Planet of the Apes” grappled with when it hit theaters on February 8, 1968. It looked at questions of morality and ethics, humanity and the justifiable boundaries of science and research, as did many of the subsequent sequels, remakes and spinoffs.

The movie was based on the book “La Planète des singes” by French author Pierre Boulle, who wrote the work in 1963 after reportedly observing the human-like behaviour of gorillas at the zoo. It was first translated into English in 1964 under the title “Monkey Planet”. Only later did it receive the renowned title that it shares with the iconic movie: “Planet of the Apes”.

Director Franklin J. Schaffner created the film version of the book that starred Charlton Heston as Taylor, the main astronaut stranded on an ape-inhabited planet, and Kim Hunter, a psychologist from the simian planet. It was an immediate hit with both critics and audiences. Make-up artist John Chambers also received an Oscar for his groundbreaking prosthetic work.

The final post-apocalyptic scene in the 1968 film was one of the legendary movie moments of the decade: Taylor rides horseback with a little girl on a beach and comes across the remains of the Statue of Liberty. The realization that they’d been on an Earth devastated by nuclear war the whole time – and not on a far-away planet – was a shocking revelation for audiences living during the Cold War.

The success of the 1968 film led to four sequels: “Beneath the Planet of the Apes” (1970); “Escape from the Planet of the Apes” (1971); “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes” (1972); and “Battle for the Planet of the Apes” (1973). Two TV series were also broadcast in the 1970s. Decades later, Tim Burton directed a remake of the original in 2001 starring Mark Wahlberg.

After the remake, an entirely new concept was developed for the franchise: the story about the main chimpanzee in the original was reinvented by drawing on the contemporary advances in genetic engineering. The result was three new films. Part of the success behind the “Planet of the Apes” franchise has been its ability to combine present-day topics with exciting action and compelling characters.

The most recent movie in the rebooted series, “War for the Planet of the Apes”, was released in 2017. It is a prehistory of the original film tale that continued the focus on the chimpanzee Ceaser, a thoughtful and nuanced character. Like the 1968 original, the latest film also showcases war between humans and apes. Speculation abounds as to whether another reboot film is yet to come.

While another “Planet of the Apes” film may or may not hit the big screens in the future, the original has given audiences over five decades food for thought. It questions the meaning of life and considers the relationship between humans and animals. That human beings do not necessarily get higher marks than apes is only one surprising insight that viewers still gain when viewing the film today.

This article first appeared at http://www.dw.com

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