Classic Planet Of The Apes Reviews Are From Different Science Fiction Era

Cornelius, Dr. Zira and Colonel Taylor in Planet of the Apes.
Cornelius, Dr. Zira and Colonel Taylor in Planet of the Apes. 20th Century Fox

War for the Planet of the Apes isn’t out until July 14, but it’s already drawn critical acclaim, with early reactions “buzzing,” “hydrating,” (cuz of the tears) “dumbstruck” and “gripped.” Whether, in the cold light of release, it’s still “one of the best movies of the year” remains to be seen, but there’s certainly no one cautious about their enthusiasm for this third entry in the rejuvenated Planet of the Apes series (which has a timeline twisty enough you could see it as ongoing, rather than rebooted, should you choose). Reviews were very different in 1968, when Planet of the Apes opened to long theater lines and critics abashed by just how much they liked it.

Reading throwback reviews for the original Planet of the Apes reveals a very different perspective on science fiction. Rather than the dominant mode — including superhero movies, half or more of the top 10 movies of 2014, 2015, 2016 are sci-fi — science fiction still sounds like a novelty to 60s critics (though it was unlikely to be for long — 2001: A Space Odyssey came out just a few weeks later). Some even dodged the words or qualified genre labels. Roger Ebert called it an “adventure thriller.” Variety, “a political-sociological allegory, cast in the mold of futuristic science-fiction.”

But the most common sentiment seems to be abashedness. Whereas critics today fall over themselves to praise War for the Planet of the Apes as a serious film with serious themes, 1968’s newspaper reviewers frequently buried their love of the movie under scathing critique. My favorite has to be Paul Helford’s review at The Daily Illini, the University of Illinois’ student newspaper, who wrote on being “undecided on whether or not it is a good film.” This leads to sharp turns like “as a satire, its overall effect is successful” careening, sentences later, into “satirical events are often childlike and ineffective.” He ends, “this is one of the better science fiction movies of the last few years.”

Roger Ebert’s review (in just his second year as a critic!) is addressed specifically to “those who wouldn’t be caught dead going to see anything called Planet of the Apes,” yet evinces its own snobbery of low expectations. “It is not great, or significant, or profound. Occasionally it is distractingly cute,” Ebert writes, but eventually comes to a very different conclusion:

“What I'm getting at, I guess, is that Planet of the Apes is much better than I expected it to be. It is quickly paced, completely entertaining, and its philosophical pretensions don't get in the way.

If you only condescend to see an adventure thriller on rare occasions, condescend this time. You have nothing to lower but your brow.”

On the more negative side, there was Renata Adler at The New York Times. Her breezy description of the plot is downright dismissive, but fun to read:

“[Colonel Taylor] falls in with the planet's only human inhabitants, some children who have lost the power of speech. They are raided and enslaved by the apes of the title – who seem to represent militarism, fascism and police brutality. The apes live in towns with Gaudi-like architecture. They have a religion and funerals with speeches like ‘I never met an ape I didn't like,’ and ‘He was a good model for all of us, a gorilla to remember.’ Some of them have grounds to believe, heretically, that apes evolved from men. They put Heston on trial, as men did the half-apes in Vercor's novel You Shall Know Them. All this leads to some dialogue that is funny, and some that tries to be. Also some that tries to be serious.”

Her conclusion is at the top — “It is no good at all, but fun, at moments, to watch.” Her review instead ends on a rhetorical flourish with a similar effect to a shrug delivered while walking away from something frivolous. “ Linda Harrison is cast as Heston's Neanderthal flower girl. She wiggles her hips when she wants to say something.”

Adler is the most interesting of the original Planets of the Apes reviews for at once being the most alien and most familiar. Her review embodies a variety of high society condescension that haunts critics and moviegoers to this day. Lofty, conceited critics like the CGI Anton Ego, who imperiously make judgments from atop mountaintops of good taste and conspicuous wealth, continue to dominate our popular conception of how movie critics operate. There’s one word that still pairs so nicely with movie critic to this day: “snob.”

Chances are good you’re not reading Renata Adlers. The cosmopolitan, patrician movie critic hasn’t been around for a long time. The New Yorker takes Captain America: Civil War just as seriously as Terrence Malick. And you’re more likely to be reading a greasy chud writing in his gym shorts than a Harvard comparative literature M.A. who studied structuralism at the Sorbonne under Claude Lévi-Strauss, as Adler did. Yet the world continues to be awfully defensive about imaginary Adlers, even as sci-fi has come to confer more praise than condescension.

Critics in 1968 did some careful situating, distancing themselves from the populist hype, like Ebert, who opens his Planet of the Apes review with “my highly reliable public opinion sampling system, consisting entirely of taking the word of taxi drivers for everything , leads me to the conclusion that Planet of the Apes is one of this year's most eagerly anticipated movies.” Today you’re more likely to find the opposite, with critics laboring to prove their genre bonafides. Still, the generally positive reviews for Planet of the Apes, like the lavish Hollywood Reporter review, indicate the universality of its appeal, regardless of the differences in critical atmosphere between 1968 and today.

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