Let’s do a retrospective on Planet of the Apes, the new movie is coming soon and people like these things.
Planet of the Apes (1968)
The one that started it all: A team of astronauts travel to test out a means of traveling near light speed, but things go wrong and they end up on a strange planet where humans are speechless savages and apes rule with their own civilization. Without giving too much away, I saw it again recently and it must be said that the movie holds up well even to this very day. Planet of the Apes is a classic for good reason. I also have to remark that Dr. Zaius is a good antagonist: He comes off at first as a run of the mill fundamentalist, but it turns out he has the best understanding of Taylor (Charlton Heston’s character), genuinely fears the implications of his arrival, and in the shocking twist ending his fears are justified. Even if the end has been given away to you by parodies, it’s one of those films a human being should see at least once.
Beneath the Planet of the Apes
While Battle for the Planet of the Apes is considered the weakest of the sequels, I have to insist this one was the worst of the bunch. It’s a textbook example of sequelitis, the studio wanted another movie because the first one was a runaway success. Heston didn’t really want to do it, but agreed to it only if he played a small role, his pay given to charity, and Taylor was killed off so he’d never have to do another one. So we got a bland new guy as out main character who was sent to rescue Taylor (and in a classic case of bad writing, seemed to know Taylor was the only one alive). There is a convention of science fiction and fantasy to have one normal guy as the dummy who gets everything explained to him for the benefit of the audience, but if they were going to bring in a new human from then present day Earth he should have been a cosmonaut.
Seriously, think about it, two guys from warring nations long gone and the apes just want them both dead. At least it would have made the new main character note worthy for something. Then there were the underground, mutated, psychic, doomsday bomb worshipping humans. The movie completely jumped the shark and was so painfully 70s that it hurt. As for the ending itself, it was like a bad fanfiction. There was something thematically appropriate about the exchange leading up to the final moments, but the ending still sucked.
Escape from the Planet of the Apes
Funny that the worst of the sequels would be immediately followed by the best sequel and a great example of how to do a sequel. Against the odds, Zira, Cornelius, and Dr. Plotdevice escaped certain doom and found themselves in 1970s Earth where Taylor came from. Take established characters and shake up their status quo, it’s a great premise and sprinkling more humor was a welcome departure from the bleakness of the prior two films. One of my favorite exchanges in the franchise comes from this particular film.
Eventually a very big cat comes out of the bag, and the humans deal accept this revelation with grace and levelheadedness… just kidding, they do the absolute worst thing that they can possibly do like figures of Greek myth when they hear ominous prophecy. You figure someone would say, “With these rare insights, maybe we can take charge and not do the dumb things which directly result in the bad ending,” but alas human nature sets the tone for ape nature down the line. Then again, without hubris and human foibles we wouldn’t have much of a story.
Given the setup, the film was able to make the smaller budget work and the story also set up another pretty good sequel.
Conquest of the Planet of the Apes
The ending of the previous film was intended to bring everything full circle, but the brand was still strong enough to justify another film in the eyes of the studio. This time around the main character was Caesar, the ape child with a heavy burden on his shoulders as he would be murdered if others found out he could speak. In a harsh world for ape kind, and separated from the only family he knows, Caesar eventually decides to live up to his namesake.
While the earlier films had a certain bleakness from the cruel revelations and twists of fate, Conquest is definitely one of the darker films in the franchise (though the original draft of the ending was waaay darker) and it reflected a lot of the unrest at the time. There weren’t a lot of surprises this time, but Beneath the Planet of the Apes got too silly in a desperate bid to outdo its predecessor in shocking the audience, so the movie probably should get a little slack for not blowing minds. Regardless, there was excitement to be had when the revolt went under way in full force.
Battle for the Planet of the Apes
Widely thought of as the lousiest of the bunch and there’s plenty of good reasons to justify that assertion. First and foremost the lower budget is painfully obvious and the whole film feels made for TV. Second, a good chunk of the movie is devoted to Caesar learning info that the everyone else is well aware of as a shoddy excuse to facilitate and generate conflict. Worse, there’s nothing that happens to give the audience the impression that the revelations he sought gave him any special insights on how to avert the tragedy he and his people are heading toward. Not even a message like, “Hey son, there’s a doomsday device somewhere in the Forbidden Zone. Try to make peace with the Morlocks and then disassemble the device in your time. Good luck, and please don’t cause a whole other series of paradoxes by accidentally setting it off. Peace out.”
While getting the info to Caesar in a believable way would have been tricky, getting him to save the future would have raised the stakes far more than his faffing around. Then again, the ambiguous ending was later clarified by people who worked on it to mean that Caesar recognized he failed to put the world on a new course. Giving the audience cause for hope was not an item on the agenda.
Another pet peeve is Aldo, the general and principle antagonist. We are clearly not supposed to like him because he is part of the military and therefore is a bad person. As part of the insurgency he was totally good, but taking on an official role with specific duties and a chain of command means he’s now cartoonishly evil. Honestly, I think the writers really stopped trying and just phoned it in.
The TV Show and Cartoon
Didn’t see the cartoon, but I imagine it aged like milk. I think it was the Tim Burton version which prompted the Sci-Fi Channel to air episodes of the live action series. Given that we hardly ever talk about them probably tells you everything you need to know about how good they were. From what I did see of the live show, I saw a pattern: The two astronauts do the Incredible Hulk thing of wandering around to evade capture while solving other people’s problems. They mostly do their problem solving with bits factoids they recall from their home and a little common sense. In short, it was like watching a tedious version of Idiocracy without the humor or satire, but with talking monkeys.
Planet of the Apes (2001)
This may be an odd thing to say, but I didn’t completely hate the Tim Burton version of Planet of the Apes. Yes, plots and Tim Burton go together like Capcom and plots, or oil and cats, but it was interesting to look at with the distinct visual style. It’s more like one of those movies you’ll leave on if you’re channel surfing and looking for something to put in the background as you do household chores.
Once again, I must harp on the lousy antagonist, who of course is a power hungry general with an inexplicable following despite walking around with a sign which reads, “I am a villain.” Then there was the dinner scene where he paraphrases a quote associated with Barry Goldwater of all people. Not Napoleon, not Alexander the Great, not Attila the Hun, but Barry frickin’ Goldwater, a man as intimidating as Drake… and I’ll wager good money the writers had no idea that the quote originated from Cicero.
On a side note, it’s comical to watch the leaps and bounds of the apes. I get that the idea was to have the apes be more primal, but the effects in retrospect look like someone wanted to do Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and failed miserably. And true to form with the plot being a rare combination of a royal mess and a heap of white noise, the twist ending was so embarrassing in its corniness that you almost forget it makes no sense.
And don’t get me started on the main chimpanzee girl, too late. Zira was a strong independent chimp who didn’t need no man, though she did love her chimpanzee fiancé. In the reboot we get a cliché so painful that the filmmakers might have unwittingly stepped into self satire. She’s also a character who exists for no other reason that being the daughter of someone important in ape society. Reboot girl also wants to fuck Marky Mark, and just barely loses to Oldboy when it comes to making the stomach churn.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes
In this day and age a reboot done right is not like finding a unicorn, but finding a unicorn-zebra hybrid that can also travel through time and sing songs about being nice to people. If you haven’t already seen it, I’ve seen ads for double features where you can see this one and the upcoming sequel. Trust me, the patience is rewarded and seeing the pay off on the big screen is a treat. I really get the feeling that this particular reboot was a labor of love, and I think that gets communicated through the film. The movie also deserves major props for taking a risk with much of the screentime devoted to a character who is both not human and an effect. Transformers and Godzilla shoved uninteresting and unappealing humans in our face, meanwhile Rise asks us to go along with an ape’s emotional arc and character development.
That about covers the Planet of the Apes franchise on the big and small screen. Hopefully we’ll have a review of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes up shortly after one of us here at the CCA gets to see it in the theater. So wait with bated breath, or not, it might be a little while to gather all the thoughts coherently and distractions happen.