Cinema and Media Studies Planet of the Apes
De Witt Douglas Kilgore
  • LAST REVIEWED: 31 July 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 July 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0318


Planet of the Apes, directed by Franklin J. Schaffner, was released in April 1968 and became an unexpected commercial success with modest critical support. That success inspired four sequels, two television series, comic books, toys, video games, and other merchandise. Thus it inspired the almost organic evolution of producing and exploiting popular film in a new way: the cultural business model we now call the franchise. The Apes franchise advanced into the 21st century with a 2001 remake of the first film by Tim Burton, succeeded by a reboot trilogy that has benefited from advances in performance capture acting: Rise of the Planet of the Apes (directed by Rupert Wyatt, 2011), Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (directed by Matt Reeves, 2014), and War for the Planet of the Apes (directed by Matt Reeves, 2017). The source of the inaugural film is Pierre Boulle’s novel La Planéte des singes, a satire that tests the pretensions of Western (as human) civilization against the achievements of a futuristic society of intelligent apes. The motion picture reshapes Boulle’s scenario into an allegory for the sociopolitical concerns of 1960s America. Issues such as civil rights, racial conflict, cold war militarism, women’s roles, and the generation gap all have a place in its estranged diegesis. Planet of the Apes follows Taylor (Charlton Heston), an astronaut who lands on a planet that flips the order between human beings and sentient apes. He becomes a caged beast, denied the dignity of membership in a dominant species. Escaping captivity, he is shocked to find a half-buried Statue of Liberty. He is not on some distant planet but in the future of his own world. Written by Michael Wilson and Rod Serling, this fantastic adventure continues to engage cultural critics as a grim allegory of the inevitable wages of racial conflict. Its persistence in American culture seems due to the nation’s irresolution about race, white male identity, and national destiny. What began as a modest exercise in French colonial critique (Boulle) is now a global cinematic phenomenon that forecasts the end of human (as white, Western, and male) primacy and its displacement by either another mode of being or universal destruction.

General Overviews

Scholarship on the Planet of the Apes uses Greene 1998 as its touchstone. It is an incisive study of the original film, its sequels, and franchise offshoots. Russo, et al. 2001 is a non-academic history that benefits from access to primary production materials and filmmaker interviews. Freeman 2015 updates the survey, framing the Apes franchise as the foundation of contemporary transmedia storytelling/world building. Huss 2013 is an interesting critical anthology covering a variety of cultural and theoretical approaches to the film series. Rinzler 2018 provides a definitive history of the 1960s Planet of the Apes production with generous use of archival sources. Forbidden Zone and Hunter’s Planet of the Apes Archive are the most reliable fan sites for the Planet of the Apes franchise.

  • Forbidden Zone.

    This is a fan-created miscellany of news, articles, trailers, film clips, screenplays, and interviews. It is valuable as a resource for items not archived in an easily accessible research library. Forbidden Zone is not an active discussion forum but it has been updated to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the first film.

  • Freeman, Matthew. “‘Who Knows about the Future? Perhaps Only the Dead’: Configuring the Transtemporal Timespace of Planet of the Apes as a Transmedia Saga.” In Time Travel in Popular Media: Essays on Film, Television, and Videogames. Edited by Matthew Jones and Joan Ormrod, 165–177. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2015.

    This essay offers a bird’s-eye view of the first Planet of the Apes series as a founding example of transmedia storytelling. The scholar uses Henry Jenkins’s formulation of transmedia world building to explicate the series’ complex time travel structure in relation to its political aesthetic and its broad commercial success. The piece is useful not only in organizing our understanding of the founding series’ structure but also in providing an analytical frame for approaching subsequent transmedia story worlds such as Star Wars.

  • Greene, Eric. Planet of the Apes as American Myth: Race, Politics, and Popular Culture. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1998.

    Since its publication this book has been the foundation of Apes studies. It remains the only academic monograph that submits the original Planet of the Apes franchise to rigorous analysis. Greene treats the series as political films thoughtfully engaged with the most salient domestic and international issue of the era: the revolt against white supremacy. In five chapters the book describes a thematic evolution from apocalyptic despair to an optimistic resolution secured by racial harmony.

  • Hunter’s Planet of the Apes Archive.

    This is a fan site hosting a wide variety of past and present Apes ephemera. The scope is international including material from the Americas, Asia, Australia, and Europe. Autographs, coloring books, fan art, movie scripts, sheet music, and video files are among the items shared by the site. Of particular note are links to the fanzines, Simian Scrolls (UK) and Ape Chronicles (Canada).

  • Huss, John, ed. Planet of the Apes and Philosophy: Great Apes Think Alike. Chicago: Open Court, 2013.

    This scholarly anthology is divided into nine sections covering the following topics: Ape Minds, Ape Science, Ape Equality, Ape Spacetime, Ape Politics, Ape Ethics, Ape Cinema, Ape Identity, and Planet. The variety of fields and perspectives represented offer a broad view of the Apes franchise as a popular generator of knowledge about the human animal as it is continually (re)shaped by political and scientific revolution. Since the book is pitched to a popular audience it lacks footnotes.

  • Rinzler, Jonathan. The Making of Planet of the Apes. New York: Harper Design, 2018.

    This is an invaluable and corrective production history of Planet of the Apes, strongly supported by archival research. It includes detailed summaries of the Serling and Wilson scripts, production illustrations and photographs, and a broad range of interviews covering all aspects of the film’s unique mise en scéne. The author provides welcome detail on how the filmmakers sought to balance political commentary with entertainment. The film’s production and reception are made sense of in relation to contemporary debates about race, class, and civilization.

  • Russo, Joe, Harry Landsman, and Edward Gross. Planet of the Apes Revisited. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2001.

    This is an ambitious survey that covers the first film series, its televisual spin-offs, and the preproduction phase of Tim Burton’s 2001 cinematic revival. The authors were the first to gain full access to the archives of Arthur P. Jacobs’s company, APJAC Productions. The book is distinguished by long interviews with prominent cast and crewmembers. The scholar will find it useful to compare particular statements with remarks made elsewhere as s/he seeks to correct for the vagaries of retrospective memory and individual perspective.

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