At first glance, the two films on display here have little in common other than, of course, being classic works of cinematic science fiction. But the commonalities are there. They were both based on bestselling novels which give the films a solid and literate grounding. The respective films both spawned remakes and sequels and reboots on into the 21st century. And they both address social concerns of the day. All of these elements and more combine to make them genre touchstones and cinematic landmarks.
Don Siegel’s adaptation of Jack Finney’s classic novel, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, is one of the best and best known science fiction films of the 1950s. Kevin McCarthy plays a doctor, who, upon his return from a medical convention, finds his hometown disturbingly different and quickly discovers the cause: an invasion of parasitic aliens (in the form of giant pods) that have the power to replace humans with soulless replicas. Shot in a sober visual style that becomes more energetic as the film progresses, and using real locations for the fictional California town of Santa Mira, the first half of the film creates a strong sense of unease that turns to outright terror in the second half as the good citizens of Santa Mira start to send the pods across the country.
At the heart of the film is the terrible mystery of the process of the take-over, which is marvelously realized in a scene where McCarthy and his girlfriend (Wynter) are shown by Belice (Donovan) and his wife the blank pod that will become him, if he goes to sleep. McCarthy’s instinctive reaction to this vision of “otherness” is simple and straightforward: kill it with a pitchfork. But the pod can’t move and it’s beginning to look human, which adds to the effectiveness of the sequence.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers ranks as one of Siegel’s best films, despite studio interference. Against his wishes, in order to make the film more positive, a prologue and epilogue were added and much of the humorous dialogue of the first half of the film (some of which was written by Sam Peckinpah) was excised. These alterations, however, don’t diminish the power of Siegel’s own ending, with McCarthy staring wild-eyed into the camera and shouting “You’re next!” as cars and trucks with blank-faced drivers whiz by, taking no notice of his warning. Some critics have termed the film a sly indictment of ‘50s McCarthyism (the notorious Senator Joe, not actor Kevin).
Invasion of the Body Snatchers has, remarkably, been remade three times, first as Invasion of the Body Snatchers in 1978, then as Body Snatchers in 1994 and in 2007 as simply Invasion. Perhaps at some future date we’ll be treated to yet another iteration entitled Snatchers. But no matter how many more versions of this story are filmed, it will be difficult to top the shock and suspense of the first film, which stands as a genre masterpiece.
Released the same year as Stanley Kubrick’s groundbreaking 2001: A Space Odyssey, Planet of the Apes combined thought-provoking social commentary with action and adventure to produce a terrific film. In the far future, a spaceship carrying three astronauts from earth, crash lands on a distant planet. The lone survivor, Taylor (Heston), soon discovers that the humans on the planet exist in a primitive, wild, non-verbal state while the real rulers of the world are intelligent apes, specifically gorillas (army/police), chimpanzees (doctors/scientists) and orangutans (priests/philosophers). This clash of cultures provides great drama and genre catch phrases: “Take your stinking paws off of me, you damn dirty ape!”
Taylor finds sympathy from Zira (Hunter) and Cornelius (McDowall) who recognize that this human who can speak and think is something special and different. Against the wishes of Dr. Zaius (Evans) the trio set out to explore the “forbidden zone” where they discover the truth about the planet of the apes in one of the greatest final shots in film history.
Screenwriters Michael Wilson and Rod Serling adapted Pierre Boulle’s novel giving the script a decidedly Twilight Zone feel and director Franklin J. Schaffner skillfully orchestrates the action. The make-up by John Chambers earned a special Academy Award and the film was nominated for two other Oscars: Best Score and Best Costume Design.
The film became a cultural touchstone launching 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). There was also a Saturday morning animated series and a prime time network television series on CBS in 1974. At the height of “ape-mania” there were POTA toys, action figures, model kits, comic books and other paraphernalia. Tim Burton remade Planet of the Apes in 2001 but the film was a resounding failure despite the preponderance of CGI effects. It wasn’t until last year’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes that new blood was pumped into the franchise. The film was a critical and commercial success and promises more installments to come in this movie franchise that simply will not die.
And it shouldn’t. Planet of the Apes is a remarkably imaginative concept and the idea has been for the most part well-executed over the years. Still, the first film remains the best of the bunch, a genre classic that shocked and amazed audiences in 1968 and still has the power to do so in 2012.