With the upcoming release of Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes (in cinemas here in the UK on 12th August) Flickfeast decided it would be appropriate to go a little bananas. For my part, I decided to watch the entire movie series of “Apes” movies to date and to cast my eye over the whole, enduring, franchise.
We have Pierre Boulle to thank for this landmark sci-fi series, thanks to his writing of “Monkey Planet”, the novel released to great acclaim in 1963 that was made into the original Planet Of The Apes movie a number of years later.
Who knew way back then that this ape-centric film would, ironically, climb to the top of the tree and lead to a number of different merchandising avenues. Comics, toys, a TV series, an animated TV series, books examining the universe that the stories inhabit and *spoiler warning* this magnificent Simpsons reference *spoiler warning* – that probably doesn’t even begin to cover all of the things that have been given added ape-appeal for fans to treasure.
For all UK fans of the series I highly suggest picking up this DVD set (in amazing ape-head packaging). As well as the movies, TV show and animated series you get a great documentary accompanying the original film, a number of commentary tracks on both the original film and the remake and a few easter eggs to find, if you can.
And without any more monkeying around (okay, okay, I’ll make that the last bad pun), let’s begin.
Planet Of The Apes (1968)
It is difficult to write a review of any movie without giving away any major plot details or revealing any twists, no matter how old or well-known the movie is. That becomes even more difficult when talking about Planet Of The Apes, a movie so popular, so frequently referenced elsewhere and so iconic that the astounding, mindbending final imagery of the film is nowadays even plastered on the cover of most DVD releases.
Despite the fact that everyone already knows all about the film and the ending, I shall endeavour not to spoil things for newcomers.
The plot sees a few astronauts (led by Taylor, played by Charlton Heston) crash-landing on a strange planet that they eventually realise is much like their own, with one major difference – the humans are mute savages and the apes are the intelligent, articulate rulers. Taylor is, understandably, perplexed by this and wants to get home to a planet he used to be eager to get/stay away from. Unfortunately, he is viewed as a mutant and an abomination by those in charge and so must be helped by the kindly Dr. Zira (Kim Hunter) and her husband Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) in his efforts to convince Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans) that his story is true and he should simply be allowed to leave captivity. A shadow of doubt is cast over long-held beliefs and tensions rise as things build to that amazing, iconic ending that I refuse to go into any more detail about.
Based on the novel “Monkey Planet” by Pierre Boulle, the script for the movie was developed by Rod Serling and Michael Wilson and does an excellent job of mixing thrills, tension and thought-provoking ideas. It’s a shame that even the title gives away a twist clearly aimed as a big reveal, the apes appear half an hour into the movie Otherwise, there is very little to fault in the script department – we get some great, swift characterisation and some enjoyable exchanges between man and ape.
The direction by Franklin J. Schaffner isn’t quite so impressive but certainly does the job. Planet Of The Apes is far from a perfectly executed movie but the core material, and that magnificent ending, is so strong that it remains one of the greatest sci-fi movies of all time. The pacing is perfect and there are some nice gags throughout (“human see, human do” being one particular gem but the favourite for most people is the one I won’t detail here that takes place during a hearing in which Taylor tries to defend his very presence).
Charlton Heston is an indisputable alpha male and certainly holds himself well onscreen, though I can’t help thinking that he has a few weaknesses as an actor (as opposed to his undeniable star power) and that perhaps, just perhaps, other interpretations of the role could have been a tad more interesting. Kim Hunter, Roddy McDowall and Maurice Evans are all fantastic under the impressive ape make-up. The other main performer would be Linda Harrison, playing the beautiful and mute Nova, and she also does a good job.
No review of Planet Of The Apes would be complete without mentioning the practical effects, the make-up here is a landmark of cinema and it’s no surprise that there were over 80 people in the make-up team (I’m amazed that it wasn’t double that number). The characters all look very real and it would only be the biggest nit-picker who would look to find faults with the final vision, a spectacle that holds up to this day.
Then there is the score from Jerry Goldsmith, another aspect that should be mentioned in every review ever. It’s strange, haunting, wonderful and one of the very best ever created. I can’t rave about it enough, and don’t know all of the musical terms required to ensure that my praise is all technically correct, so I’ll just remind everyone to fully open their ears to the delight of Goldsmith’s work.
What more can be said? Classic sci-fi.
Beneath The Planet Of The Apes (1970)
While it’s not surprising that they found a way to make a sequel to one of the biggest sci-fi hits of the time, Beneath The Planet Of The Apes DOES have a number of unexpected elements to it, not least of which is just how downbeat the whole thing is.
James Franciscus takes the centre stage this time as John Brent, an astronaut trying to follow the path taken by his predecessors and find out if they’re okay. Inevitably, it’s another crash landing and John soon finds himself in the middle of the monkey madness that we were introduced to in the first movie. He meets Nova (Linda Harrison reprising her role), Zira (Kim Hunter once more) and Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans also returning), he causes quite a stir and he also finds something underground that could end up being even more dangerous than the apes who want to find and destroy him.
Starting off as an inferior rerun of the first movie, Beneath The Planet Of The Apes may not be a bad film but begins to feel unnecessary and lazy but then things take a turn for the better in the second half of the film and more interesting ideas are put onscreen to take our hero in new directions.
Paul Dehn has the screenwriting duties this time around, working from a story he helped develop, and does okay. It’s probably unavoidable that the movie just doesn’t live up to the standard of the original but it tries hard in a number of places to work within the template and also provide something a bit different.
Ted Post directs and does a decent enough job of things but, once again, the main strength lies with the core of the material and the thought-provoking points that are made.
James Franciscus makes for a decent hero, Linda Harrison has a bigger role this time (and does well), Kim Hunter repeats a lot of what she did in the first movie, as does Maurice Evans, and David Watson tries to portray Cornelius in lieu of an otherwise-indisposed Roddy McDowall. Charlton Heston is shown onscreen again, albeit briefly, and there are numerous other characters who may not appear for all that long but still manage to make an impact.
When I first saw Beneath The Planet Of The Apes, many years ago, I remember thinking that it was a dull, inferior rerun of the first movie. It’s not. It’s an impressive, and impressively bleak, instalment of a franchise that would always try to engage the brain as well as provide some visceral thrills.
Escape From The Planet Of The Apes (1971)
Compared to the previous entry in the “Apes” franchise, this is, on the surface, a lighthearted and rather upbeat affair. Some may dislike it for that very reason but I love it, and would also argue that it’s only a light movie on the surface, with themes and story strands that carry a very dark tone and lead to an ending that’s quite brutal in many ways.
A spacecraft crash-lands on Earth and the pilots remove their helmets to reveal that they are, in fact, apes. Yep, it’s role reversal time as Zira (Kim Hunter), Cornelius (Roddy McDowall returning to the role) and a colleague named Milo (Sal Mineo) find themselves treated as simple primates while they look at the world that the humans have created for themselves. Once it becomes apparent that communication is possible, the apes befriend a couple of humans (doctors played by Bradford Dillman and Natalie Trundy) but also find some that seem devious and out to harm them (most notably, Dr. Hasslein played by Eric Braeden). Zira and Cornelius may be a threat to the human race as it stands despite their manner and how they try to warn everyone of future danger.
Paul Dehn returns to the scriptwriting duties, and would also write the next instalment, and does well with the balance of humour, potential horror and the central event of the movie that creates such an interesting paradox.
Ted Post is the director again and does well enough though, it has to be said, that this movie has dated more than any of the others (to be fair, it’s the only instalment to date to be set in a present day setting . . . . . . . . . and that “present day” was the early 70s). Post complements the writing by handling everything with a light touch that belies the real horror that only becomes apparent during the last act.
The cast are all great, perhaps the very best of the whole series, with Hunter and McDowall getting to be even more entertaining as they show a united front to the watching world, Dillman and Trunday making for extremely likeable leads and Braeden being equally smooth and loathsome as the baddie of the piece (a baddie with horrible ideas but legitimate grounds for thinking such things). And then we have a small role for the great Ricardo Montalban. Bonus.
Not a favourite for everyone but I think this second sequel sits just behind the first movie in the overall ranking of the franchise.
Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes (1972)
A plague has wiped out cats and dogs and so humans have taking to keeping apes as pets although many would argue that the animals have simply become enslaved, being trained to run many errands for their human masters and being conditioned before giving specific roles. And if any ape even looks close to uttering a syllable he or she will be taken away and swiftly dealt with for fear of an uprising. That’s why Caesar (Roddy McDowall) doesn’t speak in the presence of anyone except his trusted carer, Armando (Ricardo Montalban). Yet it only takes one slip of the tongue to get both in hot water and to start a chain of events that may just push Caesar towards leading a simian uprising.
Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes isn’t a bad movie but it does suffer in comparison with the films that have preceded it and from a severely limited budget (limited when considering what is being portrayed onscreen).
J. Lee Thompson directs and he does okay with the uneven material. There’s a good first reel as we see the way in which humans have begun to treat the apes but the middle section sags slightly before an ending that lacks a bit of the scale it deserves, though it tries hard.
Paul Dehn, returning to the writing duties, shares responsibility for the failings of the movie. A lot of the dialogue feels as if it covers stuff that we already know (either from this very movie or the previous instalments) and that makes it a bit less interesting. Of course, the skewed examination of slavery is interesting and throws up many individual moments worthy of consideration but the film doesn’t always balance that aspect with the important (in a film/franchise such as this) entertainment factor.
McDowall is as great as he always was in these movies and Ricardo Montalban is always worth watching, in my view, but the supporting cast don’t make much of an impression. Don Murray makes a half-decent baddie but the movie sorely misses the kind of complex “baddie” that the other movies benefited from. Hari Rhodes plays an upstanding sort but his character is a bit too bland and really only makes an impression in the big finale with an impassioned plea for some attempt at harmony.
The “Apes” movies are never less than interesting but it’s already clear by this stage that the first three movies were the high points of the franchise.
Battle For The Planet Of The Apes (1973)
The last instalment of the original film series, Battle For The Planet Of The Apes shows the difficulties in setting up and maintaining a peaceful way of life after a turbulent period of animosity, if not outright war, between two sides.
Roddy McDowall returns as the wise leader, Caesar, and the movie focuses on a very specific moment in the timeline of the planet: there is not only division between apes and humans but also between different species of apes themselves. Caesar may be the only one who can show those involved the best way forward but will he be able to do that while he and his family are personally attacked? And will it be worthwhile visiting a nearby ruined city to find archival footage of his parents speaking or will this reveal further dangers?
J. Lee Thompson returns to the director’s chair for this outing but there’s not a lot that he can do to elevate the weak material that puts forward nothing we haven’t already seen in the preceding four movies. This film is easily the most insignificant of them all and, almost quite literally, ends at exactly the same point it begins.
John William Corrington and Joyce Hooper Corrington wrote the screenplay, based on a story by Paul Dehn, and fail to put enough intelligence or excitement into the final treatment.
McDowall is excellent once again in the central role, making you forget that you’re watching a man in ape make-up, while the rest of the cast do quite well with what they get. Natalie Trundy returns as Lisa, Claude Akins is very good as the aggressive General Aldo and young Bobby Porter is the bright but naïve Cornelius, son of Caesar and Lisa. Paul Williams plays wise Virgil well and then we have Austin Stoker and Noah Keen as two friendly humans. John Huston plays The Lawgiver and the more eagle-eyed viewers can try to spot John Landis in an early role.
It’s a shame that the series moved from such a promising start, and let’s not forget the Pierre Boulle novel that it all stemmed from, to this lacklustre effort. A few fight scenes don’t hold interest and some moralising in the last act just feels tacked on and without any heart. As is so often the case, this film franchise just limped on for one more movie that should never have been.
Planet Of The Apes (2001)
If there’s one thing we should all know about Tim Burton by now it’s that he shouldn’t be trusted with remakes/reboots/reimaginings/re-whatever you want to call them. The reaction to his interpretation of Planet Of The Apes should have been enough to stop him misfiring with both Charlie & The Chocolate Factory and Alice In Wonderland. Having said that, I’ve never had the problem with this film that many others have. I think it’s a decent, fun update that doesn’t sit side by side with the original but doesn’t disgrace itself either.
Mark Wahlberg gets the leading role, as Captain Leo Davidson, and finds himself on a planet full of apes where humans are treated with derision and abuse. He is soon cosying up to the lovely Daena, played by Estelle Warren, and enlisting the help of Ari (Helena Bonham Carter’s character, an ape who sympathises with the plight of the humans) to help him try to make his way back home. This incurs the wrath of Thade (Tim Roth) and his strong and aggressive second-in-command Attar (Michael Clarke Duncan).
Planet Of The Apes has quite a few plus points, for those willing to give it a try. The script (collaborated on by three writers) is okay, though severely lacking in comparison to the classic original, but the main strengths are the design work, to be expected from a Tim Burton movie, and the performances of Tim Roth, Michael Clarke Duncan and a fun Paul Giamatti. A lot of people dislike Wahlberg but I’ve always enjoyed his film work and think he makes for a convincing reluctant hero. Burton handles the sci-fi visuals surprisingly well and it would be nice to see him tackle an original story within the genre.
But what of the many negatives? There’s a lot of great practical FX and make-up on display but the job done on Helena Bonham Carter is a disappointing mix of human and ape and leaves her looking like an escapee from Who-ville. This wouldn’t be so bad if her performance wasn’t also overly humanised. It’s a telling sign that Ari is a single female, allowing the film-makers to add an unwarranted and bizarre attempt at chemistry between ape and man.
Burton also seems to get carried away with little touches that he clearly finds amusing and these details make some scenes just feel far too comedic to be anything other than jarring when viewers are wanting to consider the ideas and themes that the franchise explores. I don’t need to see apes playing musical instruments or one grinding an organ while a human holds a hat out for money. Admittedly, these are slightly amusing sight gags but the fact that the whole planet it one big role-reversal is enough of a “gag” in itself.
Then there’s an ending that seemed to infuriate and perplex people in equal measure. It’s clear that the ending was always going to be a big obstacle to overcome. Could anything ever top that original ending? The answer is a resounding no but kudos to those who created the ending here as it IS a good one and it DOES make sense to those careful enough to follow the little details placed throughout the movie.
It will never be embraced by fans of the original movie series, and it doesn’t necessarily deserve to be, but if you revisit Tim Burton’s tale of superior apes you may just be surprised to find that it’s not as bad as you one thought it was.
And there you have the story so far. The evolution, if you will, of a sci-fi franchise that has never been less than interesting, even in the instalments that don’t really rate all that highly. What will Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes bring us? I’m not too sure but, after seeing this extended trailer, I’m actually looking forward to the latest movie featuring some more prime time primates.
Artwork by Connie Deng.