Haven’t done one of these in a while. With the imminent release of Matt Reeves’ DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, I thought I’d go back and examine where the Apes franchise began nearly 50 years ago, where it went, and how well each instalment, and the series as a whole, holds up today. No, I will not be talking about what a certain Mr Burton committed to film…
PLANET OF THE APES (1968)
If I had a time machine, I’d love to travel back an experience an early screening of PLANET OF THE APES and watch minds get blown. This sci-fi classic following an astronaut’s exploration of a planet where apes are the dominant species still packs a real punch.
The big ideas are still provocative and hard-hitting, mercilessly criticising religious radicals; creationism; totalitarianism; war and human nature in general. John Chambers’ superlative makeup holds up, still allowing the Ape casts’ masterful performances (particularly the depth brought by Kim Hunter and Roddy McDowall) to shine through, and the aesthetic creativity and iconic imagery remains impressive. The twist at the end is astounding for first-time viewers, but the clues are all there for you on a re-watch, the film’s plotting intricate and layered. Jerry Goldsmith’s instantly recognisable, eerie soundtrack brings added vitality and is among the best of his career. OK, so Charlton Heston lights a cigar in his spacecraft at the beginning, but you can’t over-think everything!
BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES (1970)
BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES seems at first to be telling exactly the same story as its predecessor. The opening credits play over the last five minutes of the first film, then another astronaut named Brent (James Franciscus) goes looking for Heston’s Taylor and gets chased around by the apes. You see some odd sights too, an ape sauna and a chimp student protest to name just two.
In the second half, though, it becomes something else entirely. After a clumsy recreation of the first film’s twist ending, Brent discovers a subterranean society of mutated, psychic humans (who he laughably tries to lie to, even though they’re…ya’know…psychic!) and the apes raise an army. There’s some interesting stuff in here, even if a lot of it isn’t executed particularly well. We get more criticism of religious fanaticism and militarism, as well as a general boost for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and the film is shockingly violent overall. But the film is also awkwardly padded, the script lacks subtlety and the whole thing looks a little cheap. It’s the weakest instalment of the series by quite a margin, but it’s still not without merit.
ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES (1971)
Charlton Heston’s hope that the previous film would be the only Apes sequel fell on deaf ears. Despite the seemingly definitive ending to Beneath the Planet of the Apes, the story continued with Zira and Cornelius traveling back in time to 1973 and astounding the world with their advanced intellectual faculties.
ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES is a different beast to the two films that preceded it. They were both bleak dystopian adventures, while escape is a witty satire taking merciless swipes at hot-button topics of the day – the Cold War; animal testing; celebrity culture (presented here, in clever juxtaposition with a literal circus). The film is wisely built around the franchise’s two most compelling characters and their relationship, and Hunter and McDowall make Zira and Cornelius mesmerising, relatable and hilarious with their flawless animal body language marrying with dignified vocal work. While Planet of the Apes might be a better film overall, if pushed I’d have to say that Escape is my favourite of the series. It’s just so much fun!
CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (1972)
Another Apes film built around a phenomenal performance from Roddy McDowall, this time playing Caesar, the sole intelligent ape in a world of humans exploiting his kind as a slave labour force, and the only hope for his kind.
The thematic parallels here are a little lazy – this dystopian future is America as Nazi Germany with an ape slave trade thrown in. There’s a black official played by Hari Rhodes, so guess who’s the only human sympathetic to the apes’ cause? The script isn’t great either, but it’s considerably better than that of Beneath the Planet of the Apes, and it provides enough for McDowall to get his teeth to get stuck into, and gives him a brilliant, almost Shakespearean final monologue as Caesar. The action is pretty impressive too, in a way you only get from having loads of extras in costumes charging round and laying into each other. Much of the film was remade into the solid, glossy RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, but there’s certainly something about this one, visceral and appealingly rough around the edges.
BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES (1973)
Caesar (McDowall) returns as the architect of an uneasy truce between the simians and what remains of humankind. His society is rocked to the core when the violent gorillas stage a military coup and the mutated remnants of humanity emerge from their ruined civilisation baying for blood.
As the title suggests, BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES is a war film. You’ve got to admire the ambition of the filmmakers, but the combat scenes underwhelm, and have not aged particularly well. The script is solid though, and plays with some interesting ideas; war vs. pacifism; freedom vs. servitude; pragmatism vs. idealism, and provides the story with a much-needed shot of emotion arguably missing since Escape from the Planet of the Apes. McDowall again dominates as Caesar, giving him far more nuance than should be possible from behind a mask, and we’re also given an interesting villain in insecure, reactionary gorilla General Aldo (Claude Akins). The final ten minutes or so of the film is a pretty much flawless, a deliciously dark deconstruction of the plot and characters of the series.
Planet of the Apes, as a landmark sci-fi series, is in my opinion slightly underrated by most viewers. Critics are prepared to proclaim the original film a classic (which it is), while audiences hold affection for the trashiness present in the sequels, but even the the wobbliest Apes instalment (Beneath the Planet of the Apes) has far more going on upstairs than the vast majority of modern science-fiction. Taken as a whole, the series explores big ideas in entertaining ways, and never shies away from the less palatable side of human nature. Added to that the fact that every film in the series re-invented the Apes story in one way or another, and the ever-present, still astounding makeup work of John Chambers and the consistent brilliance of franchise MVP Roddy McDowall, and you have a memorable and endlessly watchable series of important movies. SSP