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Ape Shall Not Kill Ape: A Look at the Entire Apes Franchise

Few movies caught the imagination of my generation like the original “Planet of the Apes” (1968) and its follow-ups. Back in the day, each one of them felt like a huge event. something uniquely odd, creepy, and downright scary (just the right stuff for pre-teens to become obsessed with). It surely helped having watched them at the right age and during the right time period, when they looked like nothing that had ever come out before. The availability of movies in the ‘70s was not even close to what it is today, so you had catch each “Ape” entry any way you could, be it in theatrical openings, re-releases or TV showings, in whatever order you could find them. Having gone through all of them in sequence for the very first time ever in order to prepare for the coming “Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes,” some for the first time in decades, it came as a bit of a surprise that some actually are far from great, but you can still sense this was a series made with great passion and conviction.

Franklin Schaffner’s “Planet of the Apes” (1968) is still the best and most memorable “Ape” movie ever made, truly a classic. Three astronauts travel in time and space according to Eistein’s theory that claims the former accelerates when a body travels at great speed. They land on an upside-down world where talking apes are the leading species and humans are the subordinated mutes. George Taylor (Charlton Heston) gladly leaves the world of the 1960s, disillusioned by humanity, only to later find himself claiming its superiority in front of Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans). The thrust of the twist ending is that he discovers man never deserved defending in the first place. Schaffner does a great job of creating the right creepy mood and sense of anticipation by delivering the film’s surprises patiently. The one key aspect that helps enhance the impact of the movie is watching it through the eyes of Heston’s outsider—his own shocking reaction at facing this upside-down “madhouse,” and the ape’s own response when they realize what makes him unique among humans in what is perhaps the best moment in a series full of memorable ones. The ape makeup may feel a bit outdated, and these cinematic beings may not resemble the real creatures all that much, but there’s no doubt that the illusion works completely. Much like the shark in “Jaws” became exactly what a great-white looks like in the minds of audiences, the same applies here when it comes to a talking ape. When the end of the film arrives, Schaffner introduces the final image progressively. Identifying that certain monument becomes like solving a puzzle with pieces that are only recognizable little by little, giving shape to one of the greatest shock endings in cinema history. Not that there should have been that much surprise, after all, here you had a planet, with oxygen, vegetation and water, where all of the (talking) population spoke English. ****

The second entry, Ted Post’s “Beneath the Planet of the Apes” (1969) is one of the lesser films in the series. Another spaceship from the same time period as Heston’s lands on the Ape planet and the only survivor, astronaut Brent (James Franciscus), goes in search of Taylor in the midst of a push by the belligerent gorillas to attack the mythical “Forbidden Zone,” a place populated by a hidden society of humans that have lived underground for thousands of years. This second entry basically rehashes most of the same sets and tries to advance the story by involving a group of humans, unseen until then, something more than a little hard to believe. The fact that these lizard-looking people (affected by the radioactivity of a nuclear blast) communicate through telepathy, worship a nuclear bomb and have the ability to control the minds of other beings is a little bit too much to buy (even for a series that has been humorously described as “monkeys on horses”) and they belong in a different movie. Franciscus seems to have taken over Heston since he is the one actor who has his looks and mannerisms down to a “t” (the idea was for audiences not to miss the mostly absent Taylor character too much). The film’s apocalyptic ending works reasonably well, but if this sequel proved anything about the “Ape” world is that without the surprise factor, it loses quite a bit of impact. In the story of the ape society, what follows is just not as interesting as what happened before, and how we got to that point where apes came to rule Earth. **

The third entry in the series is Don Taylor’s “Escape from the Planet of the Apes” (1971). Just before Charlton Heston managed to detonate the nuclear warhead that destroyed Earth, the benevolent ape marriage of Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) and Zira (Kim Hunter) apparently managed to pull his spaceship from the lake where it landed, ran it backwards, and traveled back in time to the '70s where somebody was bound to wonder how exactly their ape society came to be. “Escape” is much smaller in scope than its predecessors. The idea was to save on the production of a third entry by having to apply the expensive ape make-up only on a handful of characters (they even land in LA to make things even easier for the producers). Even though not quite as ambitious as the two prior pictures, “Escape” is by far the best of the follow ups in the original pentalogy. By choosing to travel back in time and deal with how the apes came to rule the world (instead of trying to force another preposterous continuation to their society’s story) the rest of the movie practically writes itself. This was the first film to come up with the fascinating premise about how the killing of an unborn child could prevent/cause the end of the world as we know it, later used in the Terminator movies. In the original “Planet,” Charlton Heston’s character was the outsider through whose eyes we got to discover this new world, but from this third entry forward the audience will watch these movies from the point of view of the apes, which is just as fine, as the Zira and Cornelius characters are really likable, three-dimensional beings. Just like in the first two films we had the ape couple that was kind to humans, we now have a couple of humans sympathetic to the ape’s plight and even though the audience might end up on the ape’s side, the biggest quibble with the story is how it tries to downplay the fact that the Bradford Dillon and Ricardo Montalban characters will be directly responsible for the end of Earth as we know it. The last shot of a baby chimpanzee was clearly moved back and forth repeatedly to give the impression that it could actually talk just a few days after birth and yet this turns out to be another chilling, apocalyptic, great shot for the series, promising of great things to come that were only partially delivered. *** 1/2

Despite its clever concept, the fourth entry in the series, J. Lee Thompson’s “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes” (1973) isn’t a very good movie.  A grown-up Caesar, son of Zira and Cornelius, lives in a futuristic society where humans exploit apes by using them as servants and pets. After his kind friend Armando (Ricardo Montalban) is tortured and killed by the repressing police (literally dressed like Nazis) he will lead his fellow apes in revolt. Caesar is basically the exact same character as Cornelius, with Roddy McDowall playing both father and son, sporting the same ape mask and personality. The movie has a great premise that’s fully described in the last picture but in retrospect, it sounded more interesting than what we got on screen. The film doesn’t even bother dealing with such crucial matters as why human beings lost their ability to speak and based on what we get on-screen it would seem that Caesar eventually transmitted the ability to speak not only to his descendant chimpanzees but also to gorillas and orangutans. The futuristic look of the movie is mostly cheesy and for the first time in the series, the illusion that we are watching actual apes just doesn’t hold up. When it comes to action sequences all we get are endless shots of the same group of apes running around the same city block causing mayhem, saved from the merciless humans in the nick of time by one of them hidden in the shadows (over and over again). The whole production feels improvised to the point. that Caesar’s endless, closing speech was clearly added in post-production and we are meant to believe Earth has been taken over by apes because they basically took over a couple of blocks of futuristic L.A. ** 1/2

The fifth entry of the first series, Battle for the Planet of the Apes(1973) was also directed by Thompson, and it is surely the weakest and least ambitious feature in the fifty years or so of the “Ape” series. In the not-so-distant future of the 21st century apes and humans live side by side until a new group of survivors (who look like misfits out of a Mad Max movie) is accidentally found under the rubble of a city destroyed by a nuclear blast. Again, the blueprint of the story here is not that bad, but the production values have diminished with each new entry to a point where “Battle” has a TV movie-of-the-week look, including a standard TV score taking the place of the usual, great Jerry Goldsmith “Apes” music. Most of the film has to do with Caesar trying to keep the peace between humans and apes despite the best efforts of the belligerent gorilla Aldo, played by Claude Akins. It’s only worth seeing for the sight of singer Paul Williams and legendary director John Houston, both easily recognizable despite playing orangutans. Despite its many shortcomings, this is the “Ape” entry that provided the most memorable use of “ape shall not kill ape,” and the first time we get to witness the shocking reaction at a human uttering the word “no” at them, two matters that became an integral part of the “Ape” lore in the second trilogy of the series. The biggest problem with this sequel might be its mildness, like the decision to provide the series with a happy ending where Apes and humans will live together happily ever after, instead of the usual apocalyptic conclusion, one of the things that the series had done best up to this point. **

When the original “Ape” pentalogy ended, the studio followed up their story with a “Planet of the Apes” weekly TV series (1974), set more than a thousand years into the future under the same conditions as “Battle,” with Apes the dominant species and humans the oppressed kind. When astronauts Virdon (Ron Harper) and Burke (James Naughton) land on the “Ape” planet, they are befriended by Galen, another chimpanzee played by Roddy McDowell with the exact same benevolent disposition, personality traits (and ape mask) as Cornelius and Caesar. The three become fugitives on the run from brutal gorilla Urko (Mark Leonard), basically an Aldo clone. This was an episodic show with more or less the same format as other contemporaries like “The Fugitive,” “The Incredible Hulk,” and “Kung Fu,” best described by Samuel L. Jackson to John Travolta in the “Pulp Fiction” diner scene as: “Walking the Earth, walking from place to place, meeting people, getting into adventures”. The show was rather popular outside the U.S. but it lasted only half a season, partly because humans had the ability to talk and reason, but they never seemed to matter in the plot all that much. For the first time the subject matter started feeling tired and mundane and the series’ lack of success meant another quarter of a century would have to pass before it was to be rebooted, again promoted as a major event (though not necessarily living up to the hype).

Tim Burton’s own “Planet of the Apes” (2001) came decades later, and it is basically just a remake of the first “Ape” entry with Captain Leo Anderson (Mark Wahlberg) in search of a test astronaut chimpanzee that accidentally traveled to a planet ruled by talking apes that incidentally don’t resemble it all that much. Burton displays none of Shaffner’s patience in creating any suspense and he drops the equivalent of a barrel full of monkeys on the audience (so to speak) right away. The main problem with his film is that if humans in this new world are intelligent and have the ability to speak, there is no real reason why they should dress like caveman and be ruled by apes in the first place, meaning there can be no memorable moment when either species realizes that a member of the other has the ability to talk as well. The humans here serve little purpose to the plot to the point that Wahlberg doesn’t even bother taking along his supermodel looking love interest when he finally leaves the planet (I’m not even sure which species Burton’s film wants the audience to identify with). There has clearly been some progress with Rick Baker’s Ape makeup since the series’ Roddy McDowell days, but this was never an issue with the older movies to begin with. In a nutshell, there is no real reason for this new entry to exist. It might have sounded like a good idea to portray the apes with superior physical abilities than humans but their repetitive jumping across rooms on trampolines and wires gets old in a hurry, as does Thade’s (Tim Roth) scary disposition, that goes from angrier to angriest, time and time again. The sets are much too artificial looking and feel like something out of Disneyland’s Jungle Cruise or Tiki Room. The so-called shock surprise ending is basically just a variation of the first movie. Burton’s new version provided very little to the Apes folklore and once we got new entries in the coming years with phenomenal new technology, it was forgotten in a hurry. **

Ten years later, a new “Apes” trilogy came along. Not only was it technologically innovative but it also provided full service to the original pentalogy and considerably improved on the similar stories they shared. Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) is basically a remake of “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes” and it goes as far as showing how the older, mediocre movie should have been done in the first place: taking the time to tell Caesar’s story in detail. The movie takes place almost 30 years after the events of “Conquest,” but, unlike the latter, it doesn’t try look futuristic. And what a difference between the ending battles in the first movie and those here in the streets of San Francisco that, if anything, tend to go a bit too far, as we get to see apes do things that they could never do in real life, such as jump through thick windows and throw themselves into helicopters by the side of the Golden Gate Bridge. But this is a minor quibble. These CGI originated apes are not the creepy, humanoid things we got to know before but rather real looking animals with their own chilliest of intelligent looks, something we had never seen in any movie up to that point. Andy Serkis creates one of the greatest CGI characters, one so identifiable to the audience and of such depth that none of the humans in the picture can keep up with him. It is through his eyes that the audience will watch this new trilogy. ***

“Rise” was followed by Matt ReevesDawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014), the best “Ape” movie since the Charlton Heston original. Caesar (Andy Serkis) and Malcolm (Jason Clarke) have to stop the members of their own species from getting into all-out war when the remaining humans that survived the virus are forced to enter ape domain, while trigger happy Koba and Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) are obsessed with attacking before the other side does. Caesar has to juggle a deranged Koba and avoid clashing with the heavily armed humans, all while some of his own kind feel he is much too sympathetic to them. Just like “Rise” was an improvement over “Conquest” (its inspiration), “Dawn” turns out to be a very superior remake of “Battle”. Instead of the superficially mean gorilla Aldo we now have the terrifying Koba, whose tragic, long story with humans makes for a much more interesting feature. The blueprint of both films may be basically the same but what a difference in the end result. Instead of the cheesy camps where humans were interred in in the middle of a plain field in “Battle” and an unremarkable confrontation using 1960s tanks and school buses, we now get a fantastic, apocalyptic San Francisco, a terrifically crafted attack by Koba and other apes on horseback, and a fantastic final duel between Caesar and Koba on top of an unfinished skyscraper. It is ironic that the very worst sequel in the original pentalogy was able to inspire the very best follow up in this later trilogy but as someone once said, “It’s not what the movie is about …”  *** 1/2

The final entry in this trilogy “War of the Planet of the Apes” (2017) was also directed by Matt Reeves and it is just about as good as “Dawn” and even a little better than “Rise”. Early on, when Caesar’s family is murdered by the psychotic Colonel (Woody Harrelson), it looks like this will become a simple revenge flick, but eventually he will have to look beyond his hate to rescue his fellow apes and lead them to freedom. The story in “War” is mostly original when it comes to past entries—it seems to have been inspired by “Schindler’s List” with the sight of the title characters in a freezing concentration camp, a sadistic commander tormenting them as he watches from his barracks high above. They are later lead by Caesar to their own promised land, while their tormentors get their full due. One of the best things about “War” is that the filmmakers finally had the good sense to answer the one question that the original series inexcusably omitted in “Conquest” and “Battle” about how humans became mute in this world (thanks James Franco!). By portraying the Colonel’s sadistic attitude toward the initial victims of the muting virus in what could have been just another example of the “Twilight Zone” bigot character getting his due, the film provides a poignant closure for Caesar and the Woody Harrelson character. “War” concludes the new trilogy but knowing what was about to follow for this group of apes made leaving things at that point (just when they are about to build their city) a bit frustrating. It seems this is precisely where “Kingdom” will pick things up. Overall, these newer films are better and more detailed than most of the entries in the original pentalogy, but the older ones have a creepiness and an originality that was just too tough to replicate, especially these days when there is so much going on when it comes to special effects and cinematic creatures (be it talking racoons or even bears addicted to drugs). *** 1/2

 

Gerardo Valero

Gerardo Valero is lives in Mexico City with his wife Monica. Since 2011 he's been writing a daily blog about film clichés and flubs (in Spanish) on Mexico's Cine-Premiere Magazine. His contributions to "Ebert's Little Movie Glossary" were included in the last twelve editions of "Roger Ebert's Movie Yearbook."

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