The Planet of the Apes Saga

Rather than do a separate review for each of the Planet of the Apes films, I figured I’d go economical (read: lazy) and combine them all into one gigantic review.  This will cover only the original Planet of the Apes films and not the Tim Burton remake.

It had been a very, very long time since I had seen any of the old Planet of the Apes films.  Originally these were movies that we would borrow from the Library’s very limited selection of VHS movies which included Planet of the Apes and Doctor Who and well I actually don’t remember them having anything other than those two.  For some reason I remembered the first movie being good, but I had this vague recollection that all of the sequels were kind of shitty direct to video style movies that weren’t very good. 

Happily I was wrong, all 5 of the Planet of the Apes films were in fact theatrical releases, shot in scope 35mm, and to these eyes all had more or less the same level of quality put into each film of the series.  Sure the sequels could skimp on budget by re-using sets and costumes from the first movie, but in a way I didn’t mind that there wasn’t much progression in the makeup or costumes from one movie to the next because it helped ensure a solid level of visual continuity for the series, which is something most movie series certainly fail to achieve.

So I’m sure everyone has seen at least the first movie, or has had the ending spoiled for them in some way or another.  It’s been spoofed in popular culture more than once, fuck Fox even put it on the damn cover of the DVD (idiots) and I feel safe in saying that even those who haven’t seen the movies have a pretty good idea what they’re basically about, so this review will contain various SPOILERS.  If you’re some sort of Troll and you’re reading this from your cave deep within the earth, underneath all sorts of large rocks and don’t know anything about Planet of the Apes and want to go in virginal: I recommend you stop here, dig yourself out of your hole and get your ass to a video store and rent these, or if you’re worried the sun will burn your now translucent skin or some shit, just download the fucking things.

Planet of the Apes

The original, and my second favorite out of the entire series (blasphemy you say, I just call ‘em as I see ‘em).  It cannot be denied that without Planet of the Apes we would not have ever seen the likes of other science fiction greats such as Star Wars (I’m betting the success of the Apes films for the still fledgling 20th Century Fox certainly played a role in them taking a risk with George Lucas’ at the time considered “sure to be unprofitable” space opera), Bladerunner and Alien.  It was an impressive combination of cutting edge special effects (the ape makeup is still seamless to this day, and I watched these in high definition) and social satire and it proved that science fiction didn’t have to be just pulp Buck Rodgers type shit, it could actually be smart, well acted, and still pack in the fantasy and excitement. It was also one of the first (to my knowledge anyway) sci-fi flicks where the future was dystopic and man was doomed instead of the mostly corny shit that was in most of the sci-fi before it.

Watching it now the performances are all pretty good, with Charlton Heston fairing the worst (hilariously enough considering he’s the fucking lead) and the apes (Cornelius, Zira and Dr. Zaius) fairing the best.  I really feel that I have to give credit to the actors portraying the apes because prosthetic makeup in 1968 was definitely not as expressive as the current cutting edge variety and yet each actor still managed to make the characters perfectly believable and you never feel like you’re staring at a talking mask.  Roddy McDowal (who would continue on throughout the rest of the apes films except number 2) as Cornelius is definitely tops here, giving his character these sort of nervous ape twitches, and really using his eyes to maximum effect to bring the makeup to life.  The only area that is a bit weak in these old films (especially when stacked against Rick Bakers masterful work in the remake) is that the mouths don’t really match all that well with what the actors are saying because it’s clear that they glued the ape snouts overtop of the actors mouths and the makeup really only picks up the opening and closing action from their faces.  Mechanical lips and animatronics had not yet been invented, but it’s really a small gripe that you forget about when you get involved with the story.

As I mentioned before Heston’s acting felt kind of forced to me, with his lines sounding like lines read directly from a script instead of any sort of natural dialogue, but it isn’t too bad, and it is pretty humorous to see this guy who basically claims to be a misanthrope basically getting what he wished for and realizing that the grass definitely ain’t greener on the other side (in this case it is in fact decidedly hairy, and mostly interested in lobotomizing him).

The movie does a good job of presenting all sorts of social topics underneath the guise of the science fiction adventure story, and thankfully doesn’t sacrifice quality in the story to try and shove a message down your throat (ahem, recent George A Romero comes to mind here).  Even if you don’t get the satire (which is unlikely unless your last name is Gump) the movie still stands as a solid, fast paced sci-fi adventure that actually holds up pretty well even today.  I think because it doesn’t try to be overly flashy with the special effects (which wouldn’t be too “special” today) and focuses instead on doing a solid job on the sets, costumes and makeup that the movie has aged more kindly than it could have.  But on top of it being a well made sci-fi flick the satire is what makes it a classic.  It’s a pro-animal rights message that isn’t sap but instead simply puts man in the position of an animal and shows it from that point of view.  You could argue that the apes were villainous in the movie, but is there anything they do in this movie that is worse than what we do to animals on a daily basis?  I think not.  You also get commentary on the foolishness of blindly following religion and leaders who use it to hold power, class systems, the youth movement which mirrors the hippy mentality around the time of the Vietnam war (“don’t trust anyone over 30), and of course the horrors of nuclear war when in what is possibly one of the greatest endings in cinematic history it’s revealed that Taylor (Heston) has actually been on Earth the whole time and that mankind had destroyed the world (likely via nuclear war); all with the reveal of a half buried, desiccated statue of liberty rising out of a beach.  “Damn you all to hell!” indeed.

If you’ve heard nothing but how cheesy and shitty the old Planet of the Apes is, and how much better the remake is, I am here to tell you that you are hearing it from people who have clearly never seen the original Planet of the Apes.  Is the makeup better in the remake?  Of course, modern production values will best something done in the 60’s any day of the week.  But the story and satire are definitely superior in the original, and it has an ending that actually makes sense so that’s also a plus.

Beneath the Planet of the Apes

Since Planet of the Apes was successful in the box office (it helped establish 20th Century Fox as a studio player back in the day), a sequel was sure to follow.  This time they didn’t have a book to base it off, so they tried to continue the story right from where the first one left off with an original screenplay.  I was pleased to see Heston returning here, but then he basically disappears for the whole movie until the end after falling into some sort of a hologram wall and we follow another astronaut who apparently was on a ship right behind Taylor’s through more or less the same sort of story as the first movie, but with a little more heavy handed satire, and an increased pace to try and pack more action in to it. 

Beneath the Planet of the Apes definitely falls under the category of sequels that are inferior to the original, but it’s still an entertaining flick.  For one thing, you get a slightly bigger scale here.  There are more apes, including a gorilla army (not the bushwacking kind, the furry kind), and you get to explore New York city which is now a buried subterranean ruin populated by telepathic radioactive mutants who worship a doomsday “Alpha & Omega” Nuclear missile with the power to destroy the entire planet.  So there’s definitely some good shit on display here.

One thing that I dug about this movie is that it’s actually kinda mean spirited in its treatment of the protagonist.  Taylor had a rough go in the original, but in this one Brent gets it even worse!  He wakes up to his space ship's crash landing (on some nice rocks instead of the cushy water landing Taylor and co. enjoyed the first time around), realizes it's 3955 and everyone he ever knew except his skipper is dead...then skipper dies too.  He quickly discovers that apes rule, then gets shot by said apes.  Then he gets some nice white, stinging "vet" powder plentifully poured on his (still bleeding) gunshot wound (Comet anyone?) by Zira; which is about as nice of treatment as he gets to see from the ol’ apes). Then he’s captured and sentenced to ape target practice; en route he tries to escape and gets the shit beat out of him by a gorilla who has a strong desire to pull his arm off. Then he gets shot at some more while trying to escape by apes on horseback with Nova (Taylor’s woman from part 1). Taylor and Nova then go underground and he realizes “oh shit, I’m on Earth” when he recognizes it as the ruins of a subway station he used to visit.  Then it seems that they can’t get out of the subway tunnel because those pesky apes don’t seem to want to move on from the cave entrance, and they have no water (the cave drippings apparently taste foul, and I’m going with nasty polluted for the flavor here).  He pushes onward into the underground ruins of what was once New York, where he meets a bunch of wacko subterranean mutants with telepathic powers who repeatedly use mind control to force him to attempt to murder Nova and also to terrify him with hallucinations, fry his ear drums with high pitch sound waves, and thought-project agonizing, searing pain that contorts his whole body and again. He’s then forced to sit through a demented mass where the mutants spout a bunch of insane shit about their “god” which just happens to be a doomsday nuclear missile with the power to destroy the whole earth and then he’s thrown in a cell with Taylor.  But since the mutants figure both of these guys aren’t “with the program” so to speak, the reunion turns from happy to not so happy in a hurry as the mutants use mind control to force Taylor to fight Brent.  Brent has a not so fun time with Taylor kicking him in the face and chest, strangling him, shoving his back into cell bars with long sharp spikes sticking out, mercilessly stepping on his face, strangling him some more and delivering some shattering right hooks to the jaw.  Things start to look up briefly though when they manage to kill the mutant, but then they realize they're about 100 yards away from an active bomb, and the mutants figure now’s the time to take their worship to the next level (by blowing up the world).  The gorilla army shows up and starts attacking and Brent witnesses Taylor (after spending the whole movie trying to locate him) get fatally shot, knows he's now alone and goes on a one man kamikaze assault with his one puny rifle against 100 gorilla sub machine guns.   If that ain't enough, then he runs out of ammo and gets pumped full of several rounds from the gorilla machine guns, does the ”machine gun cha-cha” and dies.  Then Taylor gives one last “Fuck you all” and sets off the bomb.  End of movie.  And this is rated G.  Children had nightmares thanks to this, guaranteed, which is pretty awesome.

You could never make a movie with all of that shit in it, and have it end with the whole world blowing up and rate it G nowadays, and people say old movies are lame.

Escape from the Planet of the Apes

OK, things start to become a stretch here.  Fox is known for taking their successful franchises and making sequels long after they should’ve stopped, and this is more or less that point.  However, strangely enough after this one things get better again.

My main problem with this movie is the premise is such a stretch that I simply can’t suspend my disbelief enough for it to work.  In the first movie the apes made it quite clear that they had no knowledge whatsoever of flight when they said “flight is impossible” to Taylor and then looked amazed when he was able to get a paper air plane to fly across the room.  That seemed pretty definitive to me. But now we’re supposed to believe that these same apes are able to salvage Taylor’s sunken spaceship that crash landed in the forbidden zone, repair it and make it space travel worthy, and then take off from the planet to escape it’s destruction at the hands of the Doomsday bomb in the time span of what, a couple of weeks?  A month tops?  So they just skip the whole airplane thing and jump right to space travel?  How the fuck did they even get it out of the water?  Man those apes are crafty.

This glaring plot whole aside, I’ll give Escape from the Planet of the Apes some credit for its bizzaro world style premise: apes are the outsiders in a human world in this outing, so it's cool to see the series not simp-ly rehashing itself again.  Also Roddy McDowal does return as Cornelius here, so that’s a plus too.

Essentially this movie is used to set up the next two Apes films, and the final three films starting with this one act as sort of a prequel story to the original Planet of the Apes, detailing how the apes end up as the dominant species on earth.  Escape from the Planet of the Apes focuses on Zira and Cornelius as they’re first treated like celebrities, but soon things end up going badly.  Zira has become pregnant, but a government doctor and the CIA discover the truth about where the apes come from and the eventual future of the human race. It’s then decided by a government committee that while the apes can remain alive, their child will be aborted and Cornelius and Zira will be sterilized to prevent future births.  Sort of a Skynet style solution to the problem so to speak.

On paper this sounds pretty good, and the latter half of the movie does pick up and climaxes with a surprisingly violent ending (the apes all get shot, even the baby! And it’s G again!), but the first half drags and has too much bad comedy in it.  See the apes dress up in human clothes, ha ha, that’s so funny.  Now have the apes drink wine and get drunk (they call it some cutesy shit like grape juice plus), hilarious.  It isn’t totally horrible, and the scenes where the apes are questioned in the government commission meeting where pretty good (watching a bunch of tight ass old suites squirm in their suites while an ape talks was pretty entertaining stuff).  The social satire elements are maintained here, this time mixing in the ongoing themes of racism, Government conspiracy and it had a definite Elephant Man vibe to a lot of it as well.  What I mean by that is that just like in The Elephant Man most of the people in this story are nice to the apes not because they truly accept them, but because they’re different from the rest of humanity and by making nice with them it makes them look better.  In reality the apes might as well be in a zoo behind bars, because the supposed “friends” who surround them at almost every turn are clearly insincere, leaving Zira and Cornelius as nothing more than specimens caged in luxury and false pretense instead of metal bars.

I also liked how the villain doesn’t see himself as a villain in this one, but the only person who cares and he’ll do whatever he has to do in order to save the human race from its future destruction at the supposed hands of the apes.  It’s cool when movies have characters that aren’t necessarily clear cut ”bad” or “good” archetypes, and even though you’re clearly rooting for the apes in the movie, if it was in real life and you actually consider the motivations at work here I think a great deal of us would be siding with the doc, the government and the CIA when it comes to the extermination of the human race.

Production value wise I don’t think this one is quite up to par with the first two films, but I think the complaints that it looks like a TV movie are definitely exaggerated.  It’s still shot on film and in widescreen.  The cinematography isn’t as large in scope here, but the movie is a smaller, more character driven story so it seems fitting.  Also, even though you only really have the two main apes, the makeup is every bit as good as the first two films.

Not my favorite of the series, but you need it there to get the whole story, so definitely don’t skip it.

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes

I’m sure many will disagree with me on this, but despite its flaws this was my favorite film in the series.  The movie is set in an alternate “future” of 1991 caused by the arrival of Cornelius and Zira in the third film.  A strange virus has killed off all of the dogs and cats in the world, so humanity has domesticated apes as their pets.  In the process it was discovered that apes were capable of far more than the simple tricks dogs and cats could be taught, and soon the apes were enslaved.

Roddy McDowal returns here, this time playing the son of Cornlieus and Zira, Caesar.  Caesar has been living in hiding with Armando, a circus owner who helped out his parents in Escape from the Planet of the Apes.  He’s just as intelligent as his parents were, but he has anger boiling inside him at the unjust treatment his fellow apes have to endure as slaves.  Through a series of events Armando ends up being arrested and Caesar has no choice but to go into hiding within Ape Management and try to pass as an ordinary slave ape.

The fear that the assassination of the apes at the end of the previous movie was not entirely successful and that the son of the talking apes was somewhere still alive has continued even 20 years later. The villain this time is a Governer who also doubles as the head of Ape Management (maybe Ape Management is a big enough franchise in this future that they ARE the government, I dunno, Ape Walmart?) and he's dead set on finding and killing this threat.  Caesar eventually starts taking the place down from the inside and gets his fellow apes, whom he is able to seemingly control just by looking at them, to collect weapons in a basement to start his ape revolution.  The film culminates in a pretty impressive riot sequence where the slave apes turn on their masters to fight for their freedom and do a lot of bludgeoning with rifle butts, good times.

The original version of this movie was seen as too dark and violent after the studio screened it for test audiences, so sadly Fox decided to soften it by cutting some of the bloodier scenes and tacking on a happier ending.  I watched the director’s cut, and after reading about what was cut/added to the theatrical version I’m glad I did because it was a much better film in its original form. Well mostly original form, one scene which sets the stage for the ape revolt couldn’t be restored, likely due to the negatives being lost, it’s only mentioned in dialogue in both versions. In the lost scene an ape turns on his master and kills him, and is then shot by the ape police, but when the body is examined they discover savage bruising all over it, so the ape was clearly abused by his master.  This is the only movie in the apes series that did not get a G rating in either form.

Right off the bat this movie has a grittier look than its predecessors.  I’m sure that this may be partially due to a smaller budget (cheaper film stock?), but I actually thought it worked in the movie’s favor.  The whole film has a much darker and hopeless tone than the previous films, and is entirely devoid of the light hearted comedy found in the third film.  There are also a pretty impressive number of extras here, with large crowds of apes in many scenes.  I also liked the locations they used, it really did feel like some sort of futuristic city (the future of 1991!!), and reminded me a lot of the scenes on earth in Total Recall, all concrete and utilitarian.

The violence in this film was actually fairly brutal and bloody (although the blood was the typical über-fake looking red paint that was popular in the 60’s and 70’s), and the ending is yet again excellent (the Apes films definitely did well in the endings department) with Caesar leading an ape riot against Ape Management and then giving a revolutionary-but-soon-to-be-dictator style speech about how it was now man’s turn to be slaves at the ends of those who they had enslaved.  I guess in the theatrical cut they inserted some additional close up shots of Caesar’s eyes and dubbed in lines about how the apes and men would work together to be equals, but I definitely prefer this darker ending.  Maybe the doctor in the third movie was right to want to kill the baby after all?  I dig it when movies can actually make you question things like “does the end justify the means”.

The issues I had with this movie were partially due to the fact that in a mere 20 years we’re supposed to accept that all cats and dogs on earth died, and this entire infrastructure built around domesticating apes just sprang out of nowhere.  Why apes anyway?  Nobody likes hamsters or reptiles or rabbits or guinea pigs or birds in this alternate future?  No we just jump right to apes.  Last time I checked, it isn’t like the jungles of the world are overflowing with thousands of apes to ship to all 4 corners of the earth in order to be used as pets.  I suppose they could be bread like we do with pets now, but the movie seemed to imply that they were just bringing them in from the jungles, running them through a quick conditioning course and sending them to the customers.

Also, why is it that all of these supposed regular apes look like the evolved apes from the other movies?  I understand that on the budget it would be impossible to expect the filmmakers to have an army of real trained chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans running around, but it does require some suspension of the ol’ disbelief.  This is a case where I think a remake could actually really be a great idea.  The story isn’t bullet proof in terms of logic, but it is unique and interesting and with modern day visual effects and makeup (just put some kids in Rick Baker’s makeup from the Tim Burton remake and they’d make some pretty believable apes me thinks) it could make for an awesome movie.  So when I read they were making an Apes prequel/re-boot and it would have Caesar and tell about how the apes rose to power, I actually got pretty excited because it looks like they actually are re-doing this thing in one form or another.  Nice!

Battle for the Planet of the Apes

The 5th and final installment in the original Planet of the Apes saga continues what seems like a couple of decades after the last film.  Battle for the Planet of the Apes isn’t the greatest of Apes films, and after such a strong 4th entry I was a little disappointed by it.  It’s pretty clear that this movie is a continuation of the events in the theatrical version of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes as Caesar is now the benevolent leader of both man and ape and although the humans do essentially work as slaves to the apes more or less, they certainly aren’t mistreated like the apes were by the humans in the past.  In this one Caesar says he dreams of a day when ape and man can trust each other enough to be equals, and the whole ape village feels like a cross between Swiss family Robinson and a hippy commune.

Once again logic must be ignored as now all apes are intelligent, though not so much as Caesar, at least not in the case of the warlike gorillas lead by General Aldo.  Which brings me to something that bugged me about the whole Planet of the Apes series.  In all of the films, the Gorillas are always portrayed as the soldiers, warriors and enforcers.  Throughout the first three movies it is repeatedly mentioned in dialogue or visually that the chimpanzees are the peaceful, intelligent, new age thinking apes, the orangutans are the intelligent and scientific, but dogmatic and conservative apes, and the gorillas are the stupid war mongers.  Last I checked, Gorillas are one of the most peaceful of the great apes, and it is in fact the chimpanzee that is one of, if not the most violent ape.  I even watched a nature special onetime where they said chimpanzees where the only ape on earth that actually formed war parties and attacked and killed other chimps in neighboring territories to expand their own territory and not for food or any other reason.  It was in this way that they were the most human like of all of the apes on earth.   I guess when you’re talking about accepting a movie about evolved talking apes in the year three thousand something it isn’t too much to ask to buy this poor bit of scientific fallacy, but it did bug me.  That was one thing I liked about the remake, General Thade was the most war like and human-hating of the whole bunch and he was a chimpanzee.  The gorillas were still soldiers but they played up the more noble side of things which sort of fits gorillas a little better.

Apparently this film was also cut in its initial release.  And I’m happy to have seen the extended version once again as it ties up the series quite nicely in many respects with this footage left in.  See Caesar doesn’t know that he was prophesized to cause the downfall of man and by extension the inevitable end of the world, but his human companion MacDonald, brother of the MacDonald who helped him in his rebellion in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, tells him that there are recordings of his parents in the radioactive ruins of the human city.  They find them, but they also find a band of crazy, cabin fever suffering mutated humans living beneath the city lead by Kolp, who was the villainous inspector in the previous film.  Kolp is pretty nuts, and not too happy about the current state of affairs what with the radioactivity and living in a shitty sewer so he decides to make war on the apes (hence the “battle” in the title).  What was cut was that Kolp and his men have the doomsday missile as seen in the second film, and at the end of the movie you realize that the remaining humans that didn’t go to war would eventually become the telepathic, nuke worshipping mutants in Beneath the Planet of the Apes.  I thought that was cool.

The battle itself was pretty good too, with lots of sweet explosions.  But it wasn’t anywhere near as brutal as the riot in the fourth film (this one went back to the family friendly G rating) so for me it was a letdown in that sense.  In fact despite how the description in the paragraph above sounds the movie felt a bit too light for my tastes, and I wish they’d have gone with a more visceral style building off of Conquest for the Planet of the Apes.  Oh well.

I did think the look of the sets for the melted city were pretty cool (you can see where James Cameron must’ve gotten some of his ideas for the post apocalyptic futures in the first two Terminator films), although the matte paintings used to expand its scope were pretty obvious.  The ape makeup was as solid as always, especially Caesar.  The mutants themselves were pretty disappointing thought.  Caesar calls them “malformed” as if they were CHUDs or something, but most of them just looked like dirty hobos with a few scars.  Once again, I think this movie could be remade with better technology and with some pretty frightening looking radioactive mutants, so I hope they do well with this new reboot and maybe it’ll happen.

One thing that was interesting about the movie was how the conflict with the humans almost plays second fiddle to the conflict among the different factions of the apes themselves, and I thought that was a pretty good parallel between how people actually act, even in the face of a common enemy.  We’re always trying to fuck each other over just to get on top and have the most power.  In the end Caesar realizes that perhaps the apes are no better than the humans they overthrew, and they were heading down the same war like path, but not until his rage drives him to seek vengeance for the death of his son at the hands of Aldo, the brutal but stupid gorilla General.

In conclusion:

Some people have mistakenly thought that the changes to events described in the first and second film to what occurred in the 3rd to 5th film with regards to the rise of the apes were sloppy writing, but I thought it was pretty clear that Zira and Cornelius (and the other ape who gets killed right away) travelling back in time had caused an alternate future to occur, and accelerated the events that caused the eventual downfall of the human race (it’s hinted that the astronauts who brought back the virus that killed all of the cats and dogs were in fact the three apes in Escape from the Planet of the Apes).  I liked the whole alternate future angle the series took, and it also helps make it seem less embarrassing when you have a “futuristic” setting in the year 1991 (where was Smells Like Teen Spirit man?).

All in all, I have to say I really enjoyed this series.  Yeah, the special effects are pretty dated in a lot of it, and it’s true that as the series went on the budgets lessened when they probably should’ve increased to handle the growing scopes of the storylines, but I think the series gets made fun of far too much by people who have clearly never actually taken the time to sit down and watch these films.  If they had, they’d realize that despite some flaws, this is some great science fiction entertainment.  Don’t be one of those douche bags, Ape up!!