In an ongoing series, Lumière asks a diverse range of film critics about the movie(s) that got them into movies.

PHILIP MATTHEWS: You can learn a lot watching television. I know that I first heard the word “lobotomy” during a broadcast of Planet of the Apes sometime in the late 70s. Those who know the movie recognise the moment: Charlton Heston’s astronaut Taylor addresses his lost pal, Landon, and Landon looks like a dumb beast. I think I asked my folks what lobotomy meant and got the terrible answer: they can open up your head and take out your power of speech.

Meaning that Planet of the Apes might be unique as intelligent sci-fi with ideas that kids can grasp. Solaris or 2001 go over kids’ heads; Logan’s Run or Star Wars don’t really contain ideas. But any ten-year-old can watch Planet of the Apes and get the allusions to animal welfare, slavery, nuclear war. It isn’t polemical either – writers Rod Serling and Michael Wilson, and director Franklin J. Schaffner, merely set up a simple, brutal scenario and carry it through with nightmarish consistency. The plot is shock after shock as we realise what Taylor realises. The Statue of Liberty image at the end is still a shock big enough to destabilise any unprepared viewer, but there are others: the apes on horseback hunting men in fields, the casual reversal of  both science and religion’s “natural” order that has animals dominating and exploiting humans, the sad discovery of human artefacts in a cave, late in the movie.

Apparently, early versions of the screenplay had the apes living on a planet as technologically advanced as “ours”. It was a much better idea to dial it all back and have the apes living in a primitive world. It’s pre-modern, pre-industrial, and I’ve wondered if this world – all wood, straw and clay; no cars, no pollution – is itself a satire of 60s ideas about going back to nature. For me, those sets and the hot desert locations – and Charlton Moses Heston himself – also make it feel like an ancient-world epic, maybe with the apes as Rome and the humans as Christians rounded up for sport. I doubt that Heston would blanch at the messianism implicit in that idea, or be anything but flattered by the weird eroticism of the image of the oiled-up hero and his mute human girlfriend (meaningfully named Nova) setting out on horseback to repopulate the planet, like a second Adam and Eve.

Philip Matthews is a film critic for the NZ Listener.