Fifty years ago, something huge and important seemed to be happening to science fiction cinema.
The year 1968 was a high point for the genre, thanks to just two films: 2001: A Space Odyssey and Planet of the Apes.
They were movies that made science fiction seem important, even respectable, in mainstream culture. As mankind readied itself to shoot for the moon, it seemed film studios were ready to throw sizeable budgets at SF. The resulting movies garnered plenty of critical claim and even registered with the Oscar voters.
Planet of the Apes, of course, was the one that started a franchise, in a way no SF film ever had. It spawned four sequels, two TV series, a remake and then a rebooted trilogy for the 21st century.
As I’ve written before, the popularity of the Apes series gave us a foretaste of the ubiquity Star Wars would enjoy in popular culture a few years later. As a kid, I had the comic books, the board game, the action figures and more, and I was reluctant to consign the franchise to history when George Lucas’s space adventure came along.
Apes was a phenomenon, but at the root of it all was a movie which achieved that rare feat of uniting young audiences and mature ones. It was a film with something to say about civil rights, nuclear weapons and the way we treat those who share the Earth with us. And of course, it gave us possibly the most famous twist ending ever filmed.
But besides all this, Apes was a bold concept. It tried something big and weird, at the risk of being laughed out of cinemas. Not only did it put talking apes on screen, but it put them in a bizarre, almost iron-age world where the apes have primitive homes and technologies, yet carry hunting rifles. It’s not hard to see why critics spotted the influence of Jonathan Swift in Charlton Heston’s journey through this topsy-turvy civilisation.
Apes was stylistically bold, too, with its panoramic views of vast, unsettling landscapes, and Jerry Goldsmith’s strange and unsettling music.
We can find fault with Apes today, and plenty did at the time. Perhaps it’s too talky, perhaps the satire is heavy-handed at times, and we could wonder why Heston and his fellow astronauts are so slow to consider the possibility that they never left Earth. But the whole movie sees SF cinema stepping into new and surprising territory, just as its astronauts do.
Just two months after Planet of the Apes was released, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey reached the screen after a lengthy and painstaking production process.
Kubrick’s film was both admired and derided at the time, but both those reactions were a sign that no one had seen anything like it. It presented an almost obsessively detailed vision of a feasible future, in stunning Super Panavision 70. But at its climax, it also tried to imagine, and put on screen, experiences beyond human comprehension, without spelling them out for the audience. It is this combination of approaches that surely prompted Arthur Schlesinger to complain that the film was “an infuriating combination of exactitude on small parts and incoherence on large ones”.
Whether or not you went along with Kubrick and co-writer Arthur C. Clarke’s conceits, there was no doubting that 2001 was a major effort to take science fiction somewhere new.
Science fiction cinema would have another golden year in 1977, when Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind were released within a few months of each other. From then on, everyone wanted to hit the jackpot by finding the next Star Wars.
Today, genre movies dominate the box office, and there is plenty of imagination and intelligence at work in them. But with a handful of franchises hogging so much of the attention, it is hard to imagine anyone taking the kind of giant leap that the genre took half a century ago.