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Thursday, August 4, 2011

Planet of the Apes Recap: From Chimpan-A to Chimpan-Zee



Last year I managed to snag the entire Planet of the Apes collection on Blu-ray thanks to an Amazon Gold Box deal.  On August 5, the newest installment in the series, a reboot/prequel/remake – Rise of the Planet of the Apes (that’s a mouthful) arrives in theaters.  Obviously this became a good reason to gather some friends and revisit this cult classic franchise.  Having now done so, I have decided to weigh in with some brief thoughts about each installment.  While not all of the films are great, I do have an appreciation for the series as a whole and enjoy the themes and ideas presented in each one of them.  Regardless of some of the silliness associated with the series (which includes the Ape masks that I actually really love), it is one that I really quite enjoy.


Planet of the Apes (1968):  4 ½ out of 5
George Taylor: A planet where apes evolved from men? There's got to be an answer.
Dr. Zaius: Don't look for it, Taylor. You may not like what you find.
The original and the only real classic of the franchise.  Charlton Heston stars as a spaceman who is stranded on a planet inhabited entirely by apes.  On this planet, it appears that the apes are in control, with humans being hunted for sport and research.  Additionally, the apes can all speak, while humans have seemingly no intelligence.  Things take a turn as Heston’s character rocks the ape world with his intellectual and speech abilities.  More reveals carry on from there, but the ultimate reveal is still one of the best film ending twists of all time.  This film is the kind that has been endlessly parodied due to the fact that it is so popular and well regarded.  I find that to be a very good thing in a way, because it continues to remain culturally relevant.  Regardless, the film is a classic sci-fi film with all of the right ingredients.  Heston is always cool, even under the pressure he faces here.  The story is wonderfully intriguing, as is the setting and ape characters.  Even the makeup design for the apes is something to make special note of, as it would come to define the series.  Finally, the wonderful score by Jerry Goldsmith is fantastic and fitting.  What once could have been just a great Twilight Zone episode managed to become a science fiction classic and the beginning of an enduring franchise.


Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970):  3 out of 5
Cornelius: If you are caught by the gorillas, you must remember one thing.
John Brent: What's that?
Cornelius: Never to speak!
John Brent: What the hell would I have to say to a gorilla?
Despite resistance from Charlton Heston, the ‘Apes’ proved to be too strong of a film for Fox to discontinue.  As a result, a sequel was made, which features Heston in a small supporting role, but mainly focuses on another astronaut, who was in search of Heston’s character.  Upon arriving, this new character, Brent (James Franciscus), encounters similar situations that Taylor faced in the first film.  It is only until Brent enters the forbidden zone that things become even more complicated, as a cult of humans living beneath the surface have some explosive ideas of their own.  As far as sequels go, things could be much worse I suppose.  While this film has a noticeable lack in quality compared to the first, while rehashing much of the first film during its first half, I was still on board with it thanks to what it builds up into.  The end of this film definitely continues to play up the dark ending scenarios that I quite enjoy in regards to this franchise.  Plus, Heston may have been reduced to a supporting character, but he is still around and does enough to keep me satisfied.  I am sure people were surprised to learn that another sequel would follow this one, given the ending (which Heston hoped would be a franchise killer), but I can at least be happy that this film, while flawed, presented some abstract ideas and would lead to the second best film in the series.


Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971):  4 out of 5
Dr. Lewis Dixon: Can you read a map?
Cornelius: I'm an archaeologist. I can even draw one!
Regardless of the past film’s events that would suggest a close to the series, the franchise continued with ‘Escape’, a film that skips around in time and puts forward Roddy McDowell as the new series headliner.  This film follows Dr. Cornelius and Zira, who have escaped the planet of the apes, only to arrive, back in time, on earth.  While, first treated as hostiles, the talking apes soon become accepted into society.  Good things of course don’t last, as the prospect of Zira giving birth to an intelligent ape child supports the idea of future disaster as far as the human race is concerned.  Bold steps will be taken by some in order to fight for what is believed to be in favor of the greater good.  I think I knew I was going to be pleased with this film right away when I saw that Jerry Goldsmith returned to score this film.  Along with that, ’Escape’ happens to have some incredibly interesting ideas involving the science of time travel and the world these characters live in, which provides a status check on the continuity of the series thus far.  The film also manages to not too subtly tackle social issues up to a point.  The series staple of dark endings continues as well here, as audiences continued to be challenged by the lack of a familiar happy ending.  And being the 70s, who can’t get over the wardrobe of that time mixed with the look of these apes in the modern world.  Seriously, I really enjoyed this film and the concepts and ideas that it introduced into the franchise.  

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972):  3 ½ out of 5
Caesar: Where there is fire, there is smoke. And in that smoke, from this day forward, my people will crouch and conspire and plot and plan for the inevitable day of Man's downfall - the day when he finally and self-destructively turns his weapons against his own kind. The day of the writing in the sky, when your cities lie buried under radioactive rubble! When the sea is a dead sea and the land is a wasteland out of which I will lead my people from their captivity! And we will build our own cities in which there will be no place for humans except to serve our ends! And we shall found our own armies, our own religion, our own dynasty! And that day is upon you... now!
‘Apes’ franchise devotee Roddy McDowell returns as a new character for this fourth entry in the series as Caesar, the young chimpanzee horseback rider who would go on to lead a revolution.  This film takes place in the shocking future that is 1991!  Apes are now everywhere, but used as servants for humans.  With Caesar possessing actual intelligence, including the ability to speak, it will be up to him to stand up for what is right as far as Ape rights are concerned.  I should note that I watched the unrated cut of this film, which is notable because an already dark franchise managed to get a bit darker given some of the violent and graphic imagery shown in this film.  Torture, beatings, and a large scale, deadly revolt; this film gets a lot done in the span of just over 90 minutes.  While this film easily straddles the line of silliness on a frequent level, given its desire to commit to having parallels to social issues with no care for subtlety, I do enjoy the bleakness of it all.  I am not sure why I get so much joy out of seeing the downfall of humans, thanks to a group of people in prosthetic ape masks, but maybe it’s just the whole 70s vibe of it all.  Come to think of it, I forgot to mention the work of Ricardo Montalban, who added a small level of tenderness to an otherwise very dark film.  It is an angry entry into the franchise, but essentially provides the only real climax for the series, as the next is merely a way to tie things up in the timeline.

Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973):  2 ½ out of 5
The Lawgiver: In the beginning God created beast and man so that both might live in friendship and share dominion over a world of peace. But in the fullness of time evil men betrayed God's trust and in disobedience to His holy word waged bloody wars, not only against their own kind, but against the apes, whom they reduced to slavery. Then God in his wrath sent the world a savior, miraculously born of two apes who descended on Earth from Earth's own future and man was afraid for both parent apes possessed the power of speech.
Following the conquest of the planet, it is now time to battle for its survival in a sense.  In the early 21st century, after Caesar has lead the ape revolt against mankind, it is now necessary to attempt to maintain a peace between the remaining humans and apes.  While Caesar has his hopes, the Gorilla General Aldo has different views on how things should work.  Additionally, another group of human survivors, still living in bombed out area that used to be a major metropolis, learn of the ape presence nearby and plan to take back civilization for themselves.  It is unfortunate that I could not like this film as much as I would have liked to.  It would have been nice to enjoy all of these films through and through, silliness and all, but this is the one that just feels unnecessary.  Battle functions more like a film that has enough plot elements to serve as an epilogue to the franchise, tying up a few loose ends, but then also has an additional action finale to justify its existence for the masses.  There is an issue involving the time travel element and how that is resolved in this film universe that I appreciate, but other than that, I find this entry to be the weakest in the original series of films.  Once again, I did watch the extended cut of this film, which is a bit more graphic, but I was still surprised to see an ending which may have been the happiest of the series.  Not with a bang, but a whimper for the Planet of the Apes series, but it was still a commendable effort to get this far.


Final Thoughts

Not much left to say, but as you can see, my ranking of the films goes: Planet, Escape, Conquest, Beneath, and Battle.  The films each have something unique to offer in their own way and mostly have a lot of fun playing around in the Ape universe.  I decided not to revisit the Burton re-imagining of Planet of the Apes, as I just did not have any desire to watch it again.  While I like Burton, Walhberg (for the most part), and great makeup effects, that was a film plagued by many problems, which I have learned mostly stemmed from studio interference.  Still, regardless of that messy film, I admire this franchise and the way it has carried on (there were two television series based on Planet of the Apes as well).  While not nearly as monumental as something like Star Wars, as far as big sci-fi franchises go, Planet of the Apes has a great cult appeal, which I had a very positive response to and could appreciate in retrospect.  


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