This is the way “Planet of the Apes” should have been released originally on DVD: one disc with an anamorphic version of the film and three commentaries (two audio and one text) and one disc packed with all the special features a fan of the film could possibly want. However, I don’t believe this one has everything from in the “Behind the Planet of the Apes” 2-disc set released by Image in 1998 (it only contained documentary materials), so owners of that one may want to hold on to it until they’re able to compare the two, but those who bought the first bare bones release of this film should definitely upgrade to this edition.
If you’re not familiar with the film, or it’s been a decade or two since you saw it last, here’s what you need to know: Charlton Heston plays Taylor, an anti-social astronaut on a deep space mission with three others, one of whom dies when their mission goes awry. They crash on a planet where apes are in charge and humans exist only for hunting and as museum pieces. Captured by the apes and separated from his companions, Taylor finds himself at odds with Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans), the orangutan Minister of Science, but he’s able to befriend Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) and Zira (Kim Hunter), two inquisitive, science-oriented chimpanzees who want to understand why he speaks and exhibits intelligence when all the other humans on the planet don’t.
Dr. Zaius would rather see Taylor operated on and rendered a vegetable, though, and soon the film becomes a chase as the astronaut tries to escape with Nova, a female human he has become close to, and his chimpanzee friends. Heston does his best to out-bombast William Shatner during the course of the film, and of course there’s a definite late 60s feel to everything from the production values to the effects to the music to even the camera work, but “Planet of the Apes” still works as a sharp commentary on human nature disguised as a B sci-fi flick. And I say the effects still hold up 35 years later (actually, 36; I guess Fox missed the 35th anniversary but didn’t think a 36th Anniversary Edition would have sounded as good).
While many have discussed “Planet of the Apes” in terms of race relations, I haven’t seen much discussion of another obvious sub-text: religion versus science. Dr. Zaius, despite his scientific background, is clearly so enamored with the mythology laid out by his culture’s sacred scrolls that he not only refuses to deal with anything that contradicts that mythology, but he’s determined to destroy it so that he can live in blissful ignorance. In that regard he’s little different from a religious fundamentalist who reads the Bible so literally that he refuses to even allow others to learn about evolution.
Disc one also contains three commentaries: one with composer Jerry Goldsmith, one with McDowall, Hunter, actress Natalie Trundy, and make-up artist John Chambers, and a text commentary by writer Eric Greene, author of the book “Planet of the Apes as American Myth.” The first is an interesting look into the thoughts of a composer with a storied career and a definite preference for the older films that he’s worked on. The second is actually a pastiche of interviews, so it isn’t screen-specific, and some of it actually repeats comments made in the materials on the second disc. Both suffer from long stretches of silence, the group commentary more than Goldsmith’s. While I appreciate Fox’s desire to make the best of unused interview material, they should have stuck the entire group commentary at the beginning of the film and noted how long it lasts, so that you can switch over to the other one when it’s done.
Greene’s text commentary also has gaps in it. If you’ve read any of the dense text commentaries supplied by the Okudas for Paramount’s Star Trek special editions, you’ll find yourself a bit annoyed by this. Since much of it isn’t screen-specific anyway, perhaps an essay would have been better. Or maybe they could have gotten a fan to assemble the kind of minutiae that the Okudas put together and used it to supplement Greene’s work, which is certainly thought-provoking and worthy of inclusion but a bit sparse.
Over on disc two, the highlight is a two-hour documentary, “Behind the Planet of the Apes,” that covers the making of all five films in the series, although it spends a good deal of time on the first one. It’s hosted by Roddy McDowall and it’s the kind of in-depth documentary that I always enjoy watching. Also of interest is the original make-up test, complete with a prologue that tells the beginning of the tale with storyboards, that convinced Fox that it was possible to create believable apes. The video is in surprisingly good shape, given its age, and the test offers an interesting glimpse into an early version of the script, one in which the apes had a technologically advanced society.
The “Exploring the Apes” section of disc two also includes 20 minutes of Roddy McDowall’s home movies, which get a bit tedious after a while (the best bits are also shown in the documentary), another 20 minutes of silent outtakes and dailies that you can also safely fast-forward through, the 1967 presentation to NATO (not that one; the National Association of Theater Owners), a featurette from 1968, the 1972 featurette “A Look Behind the Planet of the Apes,” and videos that offer behind-the-scenes footage of Don Taylor and J. Lee Thompson directing “Escape From the Planet of the Apes” and “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes,” respectively.
The various featurettes are interesting, but they share a lot of material between them. For example, when you’re done you’ll probably be able to recite Heston’s speech about all the work that went into the film, which is repeated in the NATO presentation and the 1972 featurette, as well as in the original teaser trailer. They do offer glimpses of storyboards, however, and the NATO presentation has a slightly different beginning voice-over than the film does, which is neat from a historical perspective. In reality, though, you wouldn’t be missing anything if Fox had only included the two-hour documentary; the rest of it is for the completists who have to own everything, even if they’ll never watch it again.
Moving on, we have the teaser and full trailers for “Planet of the Apes” as well as full trailers for the other films in the series, reviews of the original film from The Hollywood Reporter and LIFE Magazine, film posters from around the world, and photo galleries of merchandise, props, sketches, storyboards, costumes, publicity shots, behind-the-scenes images, and more. Click around in the “Ape Phenomenon” menu for a neat Easter egg that plays an old ad for the Mego toys, which is sure to bring back fond memories if you’re a child of the 70s.
Finally, there’s DVD-ROM content that works on Macintosh and Windows computers, although the DVD itself says that it requires Windows 98 or higher. Double-click the disc after you place it in your drive and check out the Read Me instructions that explain how to open the file, which was created in Macromedia Director. It offers a timeline of everything ape-related, from the original films to the short-lived live-action and animated TV shows to Tim Burton’s awful “re-imagining,” and it features a variety of interesting trivia tidbits. Well done, and I’m glad it works on the Mac.
To sum it up, if you’re a fan of “Planet of the Apes,” this purchase is a no-brainer. If you’ve never seen the film before, though, give it a try as a rental before you dismiss it as nothing more than a bit of fluff. It really does have some interesting ideas floating beneath the surface of the story, something you don’t often see in genre films these days.