Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Go Ape!: The Planet Of The Apes Series

I grew up as a rabid fan of monsters and horror/science fiction things and sought to devour anything related to the genre of the fantastic that I could. At an early age, I was already considered an expert on all things monster, and was often asked what I considered to be the scariest. Most horror films that I saw, intrigued me and offered ideas that frightened me, but few actually gave me true shivers. Actually, a majority of the scariest films I saw growing up were not even horror films. If you were to ask a ten year old me, what I thought the scariest movie was, chances are I would have said something like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs(1937)!
Hell, even E.T. and that damn corn maze scene, gave me the frights, but another one revolved around an ending that will forever be imbued in my memory bank. It depicted a man on a beach gazing up at the ruins of the Statue of Liberty, realizing that mankind had destroyed itself and that he was all alone in a world, where man had fallen into savagery and apes had become malevolent masters. This was genuine nightmare material and led to my fascination with apocalyptic themes, which later recurred in much of my personal fiction, as well as correlating with my love for the Frankenstein story. The film, of course, was Planet of the Apes(1968).

I quickly sought out the sequels, and while they all varied in quality, they also offered plenty of imagination and many societal concepts that spurred my young mind forward, leading me to seek out the classic book by Pierre Boulle, which I discovered was quite different from the film, though I learned to love it just the same.
I assume for many that Star Wars is probably the leading science fiction series for many, and certainly the first three films are hard to top in terms of adventure and thrills, though the series has certainly been tainted by the ensuing prequels, which only the most die-hard fans have been able to defend.
In terms of creativity and complexity, Planet of the Apes is probably the most impressive of the classic sci-fi series, though one that I rarely acknowledged growing up. The recent economic and societal turmoil, which was also present during the making of the original series, has caused me to re-evaluate and examine the series once more.
Very few films from our childhood can age past initial nostalgia, but Planet of the Apes grows in importance, as it's themes become more relevant as one grows and the mind expands. Alot of the monster and sci-fi films that I saw when I was a kid are merely viewed today as quaint and charming at best, but few are as intellectually stimulating and demanding as this series has been for me, and countless thousands like me.
Combined with the recent turmoil, along with an excellent prequel, Rise of the Planet of the Apes(2011) and my own renewed interest in end of the world fiction, it was a pleasure to be able to return to a planet, that's so alien, yet so very familiar...

Planet of the Apes(1968)
Director: Franklin J. Schaffner
Cast: Charlton Heston, Roddy McDowall, Maurice Evans, Kim Hunter

Based off one of the most underrated science fiction novels of all time, Pierre Boulle's Planet of the Apes was a wonderfully nihilistic view into man's proposed dark future if he threatens to continue his circle of violence. Filled with wonderful satire and social commentary, it was perfect for a movie adaption, though the author(who had one of his previous works, The Bridge on the River Kwai, turned into a film masterpiece) did not think it was strong enough for a cinematic adaption.
The film became a hard sell, but 20th Century Fox believed in the production and were able to wrangle Charlton Heston, who fell in love with the concept, along with ace makeup artist, John Chambers, who developed revolutionary makeup designs for the denizens of the planet.
The result would be one of the most memorable films in the annals of science fiction.

The film begins with Col. Taylor(Charlton Heston) who is contemplating his own existence, as he travels through space, an astronaut on a long space voyage,(i'm talking hundreds of years) who is disgusted with the human race and expects to find something better in the universe. Complication ensue as the crew rests, and the ship crash lands into an ocean, where three of the four crew members(the fourth, a woman, had perished and is now mummified!) and this leaves the remaining three men, stranded. Luckily, the place appears to be habitable and they trek their way across a desert wasteland, before they encounter a grotto, and in nods to the original novel, decide to take a nude swim. However, they are spied on my a group of human savages, who steal their clothes and supplies, and leave them helpless. At first, the scientists observe the inhabitants, and assume that they will soon be rulers of the lot, that is until, in one of the best cinematic reveals ever, gunshots break the silence and apes appear on horseback, armed and ready for the hunt! They massacre the humans and capture just as many. Taylor is shot in the throat, while trying to escape and one of the scientists is shot and killed.

Taylor is taken captive and studied by a group of ape scientists, led by Zira(Kim Hunter) a chimpanzee who is sensitive to humans. The ape society is a divided, one with the orangutans as the ruling class, the chimps as the thinkers and scientists and the gorillas as the labor and military force. Taylor attempts to communicate("you know what they say, human see, human do"), but can't talk because of the wound in his throat, but eventually does, by writing notes to Zira. This leads to him explaining his world to her and her husband, Cornelius(Roddy McDowall).
Dr. Zaius(Maurice Evans) feels threatened by the human and orders for him to be sterilized. Fearing for his life(and manhood) Taylor escapes and causes a ruckus, before being captured and delivering one of those great movie lines with, "Keep your stinkin' paws off me, you damn, dirty ape!"

Soon Taylor is separated of his native squeeze, Nova(Linda Harrison, as the definitive cave girl) and he is put on trial. What follows resembles something of a 16th century witch trial combined with the Scopes-Monkey trial, and Heston is pulled aside by Zaius, who reveals his fears about him. What's great about Evans in this part, is that even though Zaius is the villain of the piece, he is afforded sympathy, even logicality, considering we understand his position and the potential threat it plays on his society. He wants Taylor destroyed, but Cornelius and Zira allow for him(and Nova) to escape, and they become fugitives on the run, where they end up at an archaeological site, where traces of an earlier civilization exist. There they discover several artifacts, including a pacemaker and eyeglasses, as well as a human doll...that talks. Considering that the apes consider humans inferior and Taylor a freak because he can speak, this understandably frightens them, and is one of the film's best moments.
Taylor takes Zaius hostage, after he arrives with soldiers, and decides to venture into what the apes call "the forbidden zone." Zaius warns him against doing this and tells him that he may not like what he finds there. Taylor takes Nova and rides off, towards what Zaius describes, "his destiny", and in one of the most unforgettable conclusions in cinema history, he discovers that he has been on earth the entire time, and that all of civilization has been destroyed. What lies in front of him is the remains of the Statue of Liberty.

Planet of the Apes is a groundbreaking science fiction film, pointing towards the future of the genre, offering a view into the future expansionism, that will brought on in the following decade, as more and more major studios begin to accept sci-fi as a legitimate genre, and soon other big-budget spectacles would be unleashed, starting with the spectacular, 2001: A Space Odyssey, the following year.
Some of the film's politics may seem dated, and are pointed towards the contemporary issues of civil rights and Vietnam, but most of the societal themes still carry relevancy and have aged the film remarkably.
Part of the success, is a particularly good cast, led by Heston, who despite criticism from many of today's jaded film critics, actually manages to be quite effective and emotional in this film. In all fairness, I always thought Heston was effective in all his science fiction films, and his dilemma and status as a "man of action", beaten and brought down, actually enhances the impact of the film.
All the apes are good, and credit must go to John Chambers, who is able to make these creatures believable, like few movie creations before or since. McDowall and Hunter are absolutely warm and charming as the ape scientists and grow on you as the film(and series) progresses. Evans is unforgettable as Dr. Zaius, and delivers one of the most unforgettable performances in a genre film, playing a sympathetic villain, blinded by his own prejudice.
Despite, it's campy reputation, Planet of the Apes is a frightening and effective sci-fi film and one that is very important in the evolution of genre filmmaking, while retaining it's identity as a unique and wonderful film experience. It's also one of the top ten science fiction films of all time.

Beneath the Planet of the Apes(1970)
Director: Ted Post
Cast: James Franciscus, Kim Hunter, Maurice Evans, Charlton Heston

A direct follow-up to the 1968 classic, Beneath the Planet of the Apes is an even more twisted, and dark vision than it's predecessor, with some truly unsettling images that are likely to linger in one's memory for quite awhile. The original was such a massive success and a phenomenon, that this was inevitable.
After Taylor and his crew went missing, another group of astronauts are sent on a rescue mission. Unfortunately, they crashland and only one survives, Brent(James Franciscus). He finds Nova riding a horse(I should be so lucky) and discovers Taylor's dog tags around her neck. Taylor had disappeared into the forbidden zone and Brent and Nova go to find him. They seek the aid of Cornelius and Zira(Kim Hunter), who both make little more than a welcome cameo. Roddy McDowall was unable to reprise his role, so this is the only film in the series without him. David Watson plays his part.
Meanwhile, General Ursus(James Gregory) is hell-bent on conquest and plans on exploring the forbidden zone, despite Dr. Zaius(Maurice Evans, again) wishes, but an expedition is mounted and several hundred soldiers are sent out.
Brent and Nova get to the forbidden zone first, and find an underground subway, in what used to be New York. They also discover some sadistic mutants who communicate with telepathy, which they also use as a weapon. They appear merely eccentric, with there robes and strange religion(like bowing down to a nuclear missile!) but are revealed to be hideous, nightmarish creatures, hiding under masks!
Brent and Nova are locked away, where they discover Taylor(who has acquired a suit since we last saw him) and the mutants have fun pitting Brent and Taylor against one another via mind control. However, the two men overpower the mutants and break out, but not before Nova is shot, yelling out Taylor's name, before her demise. The apes invade full force and a massive fight breaks out, where the apes are victorious. Taylor and Brent plan to make a move and Taylor is shot by Ursus, who in turn is killed by Brent, before himself being riddled with bullets(boy, is this violent!) and Taylor lurches over to the control pad for the missile and calls Zaius a bastard, before blowing all of them to hell in one of the darkest conclusions ever.

Beneath the Planet of the Apes lacks much of the original film's originality and sense of surprise, acting as a virtual remake in it's first half. Part of the reason, is that even though Franciscus is adequate, he is also far too similar to Heston, without adding any gravitas to the part. Heston did not want to be in the sequel, but compromised and ultimately was the inspiration for the apocalyptic finale. There's no denying that this is one grim and dark film, with it's militaristic tone, haunting images(particularly the fiery nightmare that the mutants devise to keep the apes away from their city) and some truly bizarre twists, such as the mutants, themselves, who are really creepy, especially for younger viewers.
Everything ends badly for everybody, from the shocking death of Nova, to the Peckinpah-esque shoot-out and demise of Franciscus, not to discount the ultimate conclusion, make this one of the darkest and boldest genre films.
It's not on the same tier as the original picture, but is a rewarding experience for fans, due to the sheer twisted quality of the screenplay and the balls to the wall direction of the whole thing. This ain't no feel good piece, that's for sure, but an interesting sequel, nonetheless.

Escape From The Planet Of The Apes(1971)
Director: Don Taylor
Cast: Roddy McDowall, Kim Hunter, Bradford Dillman

Ingenious follow-up to Beneath the Planet of the Apes, has a clever plot twist, where three of the apes were able to patch up Charlton Heston's spaceship from the first film, and used it to escape the destroyed earth and are now transported back to the 1970s! Roddy McDowall and Kim Hunter return as their previous characters, Zira and Cornelius, along with a new character named Milo(Sal Mineo!) who is soon killed by a caged gorilla, who resides in a zoo, where the apes are transported to by the U.S. Government. The film begins very lightly with a pleasant and witty script, as the two apes try to adapt to contemporary society(with nods to the first film), but they are also hiding the secret of mankind's fate and this worries a Government official, Dr. Otto Hasslein(Eric Braeden) who believes they may spell doom for the human race. Soon, the apes are ordered to be sterilized and find themselves on the run, Zira giving birth to a baby chimp. In the end, despite the best efforts of a sympathetic scientist played by Bradford Dillman, the apes are cornered by the Government and shot and killed, though not before Cornelius is able to gun down Dr. Hasslein, who had shot Zira and their baby...or did he? The film ends with a baby chimp at a carnival owned by kindly Ricardo Montalban, who cries out the word, "Momma" as the film fades to black.

Escape From The Planet Of The Apes is possibly the best of the sequels, offering the wittiest script since the first film and the best overall character development, with clever nods to the first film. The film is neatly divided into two halves, the first being more comedic and light, the second darker and more suspenseful. The ending is tragic and unexpected and very memorable. Eric Braeden is a fascinating villain, much like Zaius was in the first two films, offering a sympathetic side and a method to his madness. We understand his actions, even though we certainly don't condone them. It's ironic that the actions he takes to save humanity's future, ultimately seals our collective fate.
This film was obviously budget conscious, which was why the choice of only a few apes loose in contemporary times was chosen. While, not as action-packed as the other sequels, this one provides ample food for thought and sets up the rest of the series, nicely, including the next one, which was bound to be even darker and the most controversial.

Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes(1972)
Director: J. Lee Thompson
Cast: Roddy McDowall, Don Murray, Ricardo Montalban

Very much indicative of the violent cinema prevalent at the time, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, is probably the darkest and most intense entry in the series. Roddy McDowall has now graduated to the leading role,  portraying "Caesar", the son of Cornelius and Zira, who was raised by Ricardo Montalban in his circus. It's twenty years later, and all the cats and dogs have been wiped out by a plague, leaving only apes to be domesticated( bizarre plot point, I know) and soon the apes have evolved enough to be used as slaves and servants. Montalban tries to get Caesar out of the city, but is confronted by the authorities who grill him and threaten him, causing him to take his own life to protect his surrogate son. Montalban is excellent in this and very warm, and I only wish he had more to do.
Caesar starts off as idealistic and confused, eventually becoming enraged and bitter, causing him to lead a revolt against the humans, which he meticulously plans in private, gathering the apes(who are inarticulate, save for him) and as many weapons as they can find. Soon, a full-scale war erupts and everyone is overthrown, ending in a brutal, unforgettable climax, where the lead villain, the bigoted, Breck(Don Murray) is bludgeoned to death by Caesar's orders, as the new leader promises a new dawn for his kind.

Originally, an alternate ending was shot that depicted a more benevolent Caesar, who instead promises unity between humans and apes, as well as a climatic "no!" uttered by his love interest, Lisa(Natalie Trundy, who was also a sympathetic scientist in the previous picture.) The original ending was snot seen for decades, being considered too intense, and has only been brought back in the last decade.
It's a powerful film, tackling the themes of racism and oppression very deftly, making it not just a film for the times, but a relevant piece of sociological cinema, today.
McDowall gives his finest performance in an ape film and possibly his best in any genre picture. It always amazed me how much emotion he was able to bring through that makeup. No matter what the script entitled, or how silly the situation, he would always handle it with surprising subtlety. His transformation from wide-eyed innocent to angry and bitter revolutionary, is flawless. It's one of the best performances in a sci-fi film.
The rest of the cats are able, including Hari Rhodes as a sympathetic government official, who ultimately realizes that by aiding Caesar, he has aided in his own downfall. Don Murray plays the bigoted leader of the humans, who ultimately meets his fate at the hands of the apes. His villain is a tad over the top, reminiscent of the fears being mongered over in the previous installment. His speech about why he hates apes is very good, though.
Conquest for the Planet of the Apes is flawed, but interesting enough to justify viewing and was a clear inspiration for the recent prequel, Rise of the Planet of the Apes(2011), which also depicted an ape uprising, though with significant differences.

Battle For The Planet Of The Apes(1973)
Director: J. Lee Thompson
Cast: Roddy McDowall, Claude Akins, Natalie Trundy, Austin Stoker

Battle for the Planet of the Apes, the final film in the series, was originally going to be a much darker affair than what made it onto the screen. Carrying on from the previous film, this was going to depict a power mad Caesar, fearful of all opposition, knocking off his enemies and rendering all humans incapable of speech, through surgical procedures, which would disrupted the balance of the earlier films and Boulle's novel.
Thankfully, that was dropped in favor of a more light approach about a struggling ape society, trying to merge peacefully with humans.
Caesar(Roddy McDowall, once more) is trying to maintain order in his society, but is thwarted by the jealous Aldo(Claude Akins in atrocious makeup) who wants to be leader himself and wants all humans exterminated. Caesar wants to keep peace and learn of his own past, so with the aid of Macdonald(Austin Stoker, brother of the previous film's Hari Rhodes) along with know it all orangutan, Virgil(Paul Williams) they venture to the ruins of Los Angeles and find records of Caesar's parents, which reveal the detsruction of the earth. Caesar is understandably moved and now comprehends why the humans wished him dead.
Meanwhile, survivors of the apocalypse are still there, led by the insane Kolp(Severn Dorden, who was also in the previous film) and he plots to destroy the apes.
Back at the colony, Aldo gathers his forces and plans an uprising, and slays Caesar's child, Cornelius(Bobby Porter) when he spies on them. Blaming the death on humans, Aldo imprisons the humans in the colony and takes all the weapons available, as the mutants arrive and wage war.
In the not-too-spectacular conclusion, the mutants arrive via a school bus and a few jeeps and motorcycles to do battle, with an array of w weaponry, mainly World War Two surplus.
Ultimately, they are defeated and Aldo is cornered by Caesar who takes revenge on the ape, who has broken the ape law regarding that "apes do not wage war on other apes", even though, in actuality, real chimpanzees do just that!
Anyway, Caesar decides that the humans and the apes should live together as equals and the film bookends with an ape teacher(played by John Huston!) teaching an integrated class of apes and humans. And for some reason, the film closes on a shot of a statue of Caesar, shedding a tear? I don't know.

Battle for the Planet of the Apes is the weakest of the series, but that does not mean it's not enjoyable. The film appears to predate the same ideology that James Cameron would plays with in the second Terminator film, and that's the idea of "no fate but what we make", leaving the door open for a different future. The ending is open to speculation, the symbolic tear on the statue would represent a future already decided and dark, it could be a remembrance of the violence and bloodshed that it took to get there, or it could be a tear of joy for a bright future.
Some of the more fascinating aspects are to do with the mutants, including the origin of the Doomsday bomb and why it is revered in future culture by the mutants, so that they respect it's awesome power. Severn Dorden is great as the mutant leader, and should have been the primary villain in the last film, as his combination of humor and subtle sympathy, made him more complex and enjoyable.
Claude Akins as the ape villain, Aldo, is very broad and his makeup does not help, appearing plastic and stiff, a progressive issue as the series wore on, but glaring here, especially considering that he's a leading character.
Most of the film is heavy-handed and disjointed, but there's enough entertainment here and an amount of interesting ideas to make this at least decent viewing for a Saturday afternoon. It's no classic, but worthier of more than it's "bad" film reputation suggests.

Planet of the Apes was a cultural touchstone and carried on with vast amounts of merchandise, along with two television series, one live-action, the other, animated. It also was responsible for opening the floodgates for future series and merchandising, leading to a general acceptance of science fiction as a legitimate film genre, which would truly flourish as the 70s came to a close with classics such as Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Alien. The film was also remade in 2001 by Tim Burton, in an ill-advised update, that all but eradicated all the social politics that made the original film so successful, replacing them with the only thing that remakes seem to do nowadays: action and more action. Saddled with a mixed script, hammy acting and an incomprehensible conclusion, it was regarded by most as a failure, though the makeup for the apes were at least interesting.
In 2011, a prequel was made called Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and that links the origins of the ape uprising to an experimental drug that is tested on a chimp, which gives him extraordinary intelligence. This film was far more successful than the former reboot and was handled with restraint and intelligence, along with sensitivity and an emphasis on characterization that put this leagues ahead of many contemporary sci-fi films and remakes.
  Few films have the scope and connectivity as these films do, and few series will be as analyzed and loved, either. That theme of adventure and thrill-seeking runs directly with the social themes covered.
Planet of the Apes is a timeless story and it's themes are still relevant today, perhaps even more so. The fear of an apocalyptic future, have not been dispelled in the minds of the population, and probably never will me. Many of us in this world, probably carry the same cynical observations that Charlton Heston did in the beginning of the first film, believing that there must be something greater than man, when one observes all the pettiness and bloodshed that occurs within our race. It's story, as told through the five films, details our fears and acts as a warning in some ways, while also reminding us that we are not so removed from our primitive selves. Planet of the Apes reminds us that while we may seek escape and believe our answers may be in the stars, the reality is that our future is here.

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