This month brings the conclusion of the PLANET OF THE APES trilogy. To commemorate, ComicsVerse is going Ape! We’ll be focusing on all things simian by looking at some of our favorite pop culture primates. For more articles in this series, click here!

Today, Justin Peterson takes a look back at what makes the original PLANET OF THE APES such a classic.


Science-fiction is a film genre that has been booming since the fifties. It was a time of paranoia and discontent — the Cold War was heating up and wouldn’t end until the nineties. Science fiction was a way for people to explore the resulting sociological issues in creative ways. Shows like THE TWILIGHT ZONE and films like 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY offered unique releases that were not only entertaining but thought provoking. And in 1968, one of the most important films in sci-fi premiered: PLANET OF THE APES.

Since its release, there have been countless stories that mimic the film’s common theme. There was even a reboot from Tim Burton fans try to forget. Now the apes are back in the spotlight with the current trilogy of APE films that somehow made an old idea fresh again. But what makes the original film so important in science fiction is also what makes it an all-time classic outside of the genre: it tells a story that rings just as true today as it did in 1968.

Genius At Work

Sitting down and watching the original PLANET OF THE APES can feel somewhat familiar. Not in that you’ve seen it before, but that it feels like a giant episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE. Obviously, this comparison might apply to any film from the era. Practical sets, cheesy costumes, and over-the-top acting are all staples of sixties sci-fi. But what makes PLANET OF THE APES so similar to THE TWILIGHT ZONE is the writing from the legendary Rod Serling.

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Serling is not only responsible for that beautiful baritone introduction to each episode, but he also wrote some of the series’ best entries. Which is saying something, given THE TWILIGHT ZONE is one of the best examples of great writing in television. Serling could draw excellent comparisons from sociological issues without sacrificing the pure entertainment sci-fi provides. Episodes like “Eye of the Beholder” and “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?” are not only still revered today — they reflect issues that are just as prevalent now as they were in the 1960s.

After writing 92 (of 156!) episodes of THE TWILIGHT ZONE, Serling sold the rights to CBS and moved on to bigger and better things. So came PLANET OF THE APES, and yet again Serling was able to capture magic in his script. The sci-fi epic was not only a classic adventure story, but it told a tale of humanity’s destruction long before nuclear paranoia set in during the Cold War. Whether you know it or not, PLANET OF THE APES was one of the first dystopian films. Serling was able to write a blockbuster that not only challenged how people thought of their own lives but entertained them at the same time.

A Truly Timeless Plot

What makes PLANET OF THE APES still important is the timeless theme. The plot spends its time the entire film beating into audience’s heads that these astronauts are not on Earth. The place they happen upon is a dead world, one in which apes evolved from humans. Serling expertly guides the characters through the horrific planet until the final scene, in which everything suddenly comes together in one of the most classic endings in film.

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Astronaut George Taylor’s (Charlton Heston) revelation that he is, in fact, on Earth, is nothing short of brilliant. The irony of not even being able to recognize Earth, his character’s reaction when he realizes humanity’s error, it’s all expertly done. Humanity destroying Earth is a concept that will never be out of date. In this case, the demise is a nuclear war. Dystopian film and fiction has often borrowed and changed Serling’s concept from a nuclear disaster into different scenarios that fit the era. An environmental catastrophe is probably the most popular today, with over-population a close second. Serling knew that humanity would never cease to be destructive, but he probably didn’t know that PLANET OF THE APES would still be this important almost fifty years later.

Get Your Paws Off Me!

If you’ve ever seen an episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE, you know that Serling’s writing could get incredibly dark. Episodes often ended poorly for his protagonists, who usually succumbed to their own hubris. Heston’s Taylor is a pretty archetypal Serling character. From the first scene, you can tell Taylor is almost unstable — monologuing to himself in an empty cockpit. His interactions with Landon, a homesick astronaut, indicate he is glad to be away from Earth. He is a man with a seemingly shady past and something to run from, and joining the mission is his way of getting off the planet entirely.

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Therein lies the irony. Taylor goes through a lot over the course of the film. He is shot in the neck, resulting in the apes caging him up, unaware of his advanced intellect. He is put on a leash and collar, and witnesses the unfortunate demise of both his astronaut compatriots. But in the end, he rides into the sunset with the beautiful girl, cocksure as he was at the beginning of the film. He’s finally able to start his new life, free from any obligations on Earth. The realization that he never left destroys whatever idea of paradise came into his head.

Heston’s acting seals the deal; his delivery of Taylor’s revelation when seeing the Statue of Liberty is over-the-top in all the best ways. “God damn you all to hell!” and “Get your paws off me you damn dirty ape!” are iconic lines that wouldn’t be the same without Heston’s delivery. Then there’s that twist ending. Audiences had seen nothing like it up to that point. It changed film and now twist endings are the norm in many science fiction films. It wasn’t afraid to get dark, and boy did PLANET OF THE APES end on a bleak note.

Comparing Apes

Moving past the four sequels PLANET OF THE APES spawned, then forgetting Tim Burton’s mess of a remake, we come to the current APES films. RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES was a surprise hit — far from perfect, but a solid start to something great. Andy Serkis proved once again his motion capture skills were inimitable, and his Caesar was the absolute highlight of the film. Sequel DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES resulted in the best film in the franchise since the 1968 original.

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They might share the same name, but the new franchise doesn’t take a whole lot from the original film. It smartly doesn’t try to mimic the original simply, nor does it rely on a twist ending. The apes in the original were the result of evolution, wherein the new films it’s the result of scientific experimentation. But there are some familiar names here and there, most importantly lead ape, Caesar. In the third sequel to PLANET OF THE APES, CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, main characters from the original have a child who becomes Caesar. CONQUEST was a surprisingly good entry into the series, and also showed that the original’s dark tendencies remained in the sequels. Humanity’s destruction is never-ending in the APES universe.

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There is also a similar point in the middle of each film, which may or may not be intentional. Caesar first speaking, when he yells “NO!” at the humans attacking him, is probably the best scene from RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES. A similar moment occurs in PLANET OF THE APES when Heston delivers his iconic line: “Get your paws off me you damn dirty ape!” Both scenes are earned after prolonged silence — although to be fair, Caesar hadn’t talked up to that point. It may just be a coincidence, but both scenes act as mid-film climaxes for the respective film.

A True Classic

The original PLANET OF THE APES was a huge breakthrough for science fiction. From the twist ending to the thought-provoking themes, the film continues to hold up decades later. Rod Serling’s brilliant script and Charlton Heston’s engaging lead performance created a classic work of science fiction, rivaling even some of Serling’s best work on THE TWILIGHT ZONE. Many films owe a lot to PLANET OF THE APES, not just the sequels and reboots that have come since its premiere. It’s a dark, exciting film that holds a message that may never cease to be relevant.

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