Retrospective: Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

Welcome back to the Planet of the Apes retrospective! In this entry we’re going to cover the latest film in the franchise, Rise of the Planet of the Apes! After the major misfire that was the Planet of the Apes remake, faith in the franchise was at an all-time low. Despite making a healthy profit off of the remake, Fox did the right thing and let the series take a bit of a break. However, ten years after the Apes remake destroyed our faith in Tim Burton, the franchise was rebooted with Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Could this entry restore faith in the franchise, or were the Apes doomed to extinction? Read on to find out…

SHITTY TAGLINE ALERT! SHITTY TAGLINE ALERT!

After Planet of the Apes became a go-to example of one of the worst remakes of all time, it seemed like the franchise was pretty much dead in the water. In spite of this public perception, around 2006 husband and wife screenwriters Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver (what’s with these ape films and husband-wife screenwriting duos?) became interested in stories about pet chimpanzees. I can’t find a confirmation of this, but it’s very likely that one of these stories was that of Nim Chimpsky, an ape whose story is somewhat similar to that of Caesar in the final film. Whatever the case, Jaffa and Silver realized that the story they were formulating would fit into the Apes franchise quite well, and so wrote a script which they sold to Fox. While not officially a remake, the film plays out like a remake of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes on a very superficial level (in that it’s about the fall of humanity, brought about by an ape called Caesar who leads an ape uprising). That said, its themes of genetic engineering and human-ape interaction largely replace the revolutionary overtones and vengeance prevalent in Conquest. Early in development, the film was simply titled “Caesar”, which was the first I heard of the project. Considering that Conquest was my second favourite Apes movie, I was excited to see what they could do with the premise given a respectful budget to make it. However, the film seemed to have a bit of development trouble because Caesar was officially cancelled at one point before the project reemerged as Rise of the Apes (which was changed to the mouthful that is Rise of the Planet of the Apes because the studio was afraid people wouldn’t realize that it was an Apes movie otherwise).

Attached to direct was Rupert Wyatt whose only other directing credit was The Escapist in 2008, which had fairly positive reviews. For the visual effects, the producers decided that the apes were going to have to look like actual apes instead of the anthropomorphic ones which had populated the previous films. To accommodate this need, Weta Digital (the effects company behind The Lord of the Rings and the appropriately ape-centric King Kong remake) was brought in to do performance capture for the apes. Andy Serkis was also brought in to play Caesar, due to his unparalleled experience, mastery of motion capture and experience with playing an ape (again, King Kong). James Franco was also cast as Caesar’s owner, Will. When I heard all of this stuff for the first time, I was giddy with excitement: “A new apes movie with Andy Serkis, Weta Digital and Jame Franco? Holy crap it sounds like they’re actually trying this time!”

Unfortunately, as the release drew closer and closer, my optimism began to diminish. It started with the first trailer which, as this blogger sums up quite well, was not very good. The early marketing for the film just wasn’t good, focusing more on the action than the emotional core, and making it look like we were in for a disappointment. Then there was the title change and some mediocre posters which just further until I found myself approaching the film very cautiously leading up to release…

Rise follows a scientist named Will who is developing a serum to cure Alzheimer’s. After a lab accident in which Will’s reputation is shattered, he discovers that the child of a lab ape has had the serum passed on to him, which makes him incredibly intelligent. Will ends up raising the ape, dubbed Caesar, as if he were a human. However, as Caesar grows he finds that he doesn’t fit in with the humans and is eventually taken to a corrupt primate shelter. It is here that Caesar realizes that he has to do something to liberate the apes, sparking a revolution…

As you can probably see, Rise isn’t nearly as simplistic as many of the previous Apes films. It has a smart script with plenty of twists and turns, and one which is extremely relevant to modern audiences, much like the paranoia of nuclear annihilation would have resonated with fans of the original 1968 Apes. There’s also many genuinely affecting moments, such as when we discover that Will’s drive to cure Alzheimer’s stems from the fact that his father is succumbing to the disease. It’s pretty heartbreaking and turns Rise into something far beyond the stereotypical mad scientist trope. The “NO” scene is also incredible, and is easily going to go down as one of the most iconic sequences in the entire franchise. Simply put, Jaffa and Silver put together a fantastic script, and it really shows.

That said, there are some weak points in the story. Plenty of the characters are given very little depth or characterization. The douchebag neighbour and Will’s boss, Jacobs, are both completely one-dimensional (the neighbour’s always bitching at people and Jacobs is completely obsessed with making money). In both cases it works, but it’s unfortunate that they couldn’t have given them a bit more substance. They’re far from the only characters who suffer though – the staff of the ape shelter are all given nothing to work with, despite featuring Brian Cox and Tom Felton in their ranks. Probably the biggest disappointment in terms of character depth though would have to be Freida Pinto as the veterinarian, Caroline Aranha. Again, she isn’t given much material, being little more than a conscience and generic love interest (funny how we still can’t get past that trope 45 year later).

While many of the human characters are weak, the apes are far more interesting (this is probably intentional too, since the apes are the “heroes” of the story). Being the first apes movie with completely CGI apes, one could be forgiven for worrying that the effects may not be sufficient, but the special effects really are great. I’m worried that they might look kind of dated in 15 years, but if nothing else the facial expressions are spot-on. This is really a testament to the amazing mo-cap work of Weta and the actors, since the apes rely on facial expressions and gestures to convey their emotions (Wyatt “cheats” only on a couple occasions with subtitling, but generally he lets the audience figure things out for themselves). Caesar is brought to life fantastically by Andy Serkis, who I was hoping would win Best Supporting Actor in 2011 (he didn’t, sadly). We follow Caesar from his childhood innocence and see him grow into a capable leader, but we’re never really sure if he is going to go over the homicidal edge or not. The other apes are given recognizable characterization as well, and it’s impressive that we actually find ourselves caring for and cheering them on as the film progresses. Maurice is Caesar’s orangutan advisor, Rocket’s the former alpha male at the sanctuary who becomes one of Caesar’s most reliable followers and Buck is Caesar’s gorilla enforcer (it’s truly tragic when he gets gunned down). There’s also Koba, the long-time lab test subject who clearly has psychotic tendencies and wants to get revenge on the humans.

I’ve also got to give a shout-out to Rupert Wyatt who directs the film with real expertise. As I mentioned earlier, Wyatt elects to show, rather than tell, more often than not. This makes many of the film’s details into real heartbreaking moments, such as when we discover that Will’s father has Alzheimers (and when it returns as well). He also is very adept with action sequences, as the entire ape “revolution” is very exciting and funner than… well, a barrel of monkeys. He also manages to make an end credits sequence totally epic… how many movies can boast that!? Of course, Patrick Doyle’s score helps significantly as well, I really can’t stress enough how great it is.

That said, there is one aspect of Rise which bugs me more than any other, and that’s the sheer number of immersion-breaking references to the original film. Sure, a few call-backs are fun for fans of the franchise, but when it feels like entire plot points are only present to serve as a reference it gets a bit grating. For example, here’s a list of references I compiled while watching: the film opens with a hunt reminiscent to the famous human hunt, the intelligent apes are called “bright eyes” because their eyes have green flecks in them, Caesar is seen building a Statue of Liberty puzzle, Dodge yells “It’s a madhouse!”, the “damn dirty ape” line and sprays Caesar with a hose and one of the characters watches a Charlton Heston movie. If that wasn’t enough, the names of many of the characters are also references: the orangutan Maurice is named after Maurice Evans (who played Dr. Zaius), Dodge Landon is named after the other two astronauts who arrived with Colonel Taylor and Caesar’s (likely) future love interest is named Cornelia. At that point it’s just excessive and distracting, especially for someone like me who knows the original film inside and out. That said, it’s a relatively minor complaint overall.

It should be pretty clear that I love Rise of the Planet of the Apes. It’s fantastic, I love it more every time I see it. It’s easily the best Apes movie since the original and hopefully bodes well for the franchise’s future. If you haven’t seen it yet then I heartily recommend that you do so immediately!

8.5/10

So how is the future of the Apes franchise looking? Well there’s a new film in the pipeline for a 2014 release called Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Much like Rise is a loose remake of Conquest, Dawn looks like it will be a remake of Battle. Clearly there’s going to be conflict between Caesar and Koba, with Koba being a stand-in for General Aldo. Considering how clearly unhinged Koba was in his limited screen time in Rise, Dawn should feature some brutal showdowns between the warring factions. As bad as Battle was, this was largely due to its budget – with the proper budget that Dawn‘s getting, I’m totally stoked that it will be another awesome film. In fact, Dawn is up there with The Hobbit films as my most anticipated films. Sadly Rupert Wyatt isn’t back, but he’s been replaced with Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, Let Me In), which I have to admit might just be an improvement. With Weta and Andy Serkis back, plus a new cast featuring such famous actors as Gary Oldman (!) and Kerri Russell, it should be an amazing time. Plus Risehas left plenty of room for sequels – I almost wonder if Brian Cox was left with little to work with in order to bring him back in a sequel as a General Kolp analogue… not likely, but possible. Whatever the case, I’m happy that one of my favourite franchises is still going strong and looks to do so well into the future.

This is how I would rank the series from best to worst:

1. Planet of the Apes (1968)

2. Rise of the Planet of the Apes

3. Escape from the Planet of the Apes(it’s a better film than Conquest, but they’re both about neck-and-neck for me)

4. Conquest of the Planet of the Apes

5. Beneath the Planet of the Apes

6. Battle for the Planet of the Apes(this and the remake are pretty much equally bad, it’s hard to objectively decide which I dislike more…)

7. Planet of the Apes(2001)

Thanks for getting through this retrospective series and as always feel free to comment and give suggestions for future franchises for me to review!

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Retrospective: Planet of the Apes (2001)

Welcome back to the Planet of the Apes retrospective! In this entry we’re going to cover the sixth film in the franchise, Tim Burton’s remake of the original Planet. Quite a bit has been said about the remake over the years, but it’s been over a decade since its release – have the years changed the public reaction to it at all? Read on to find my take on it…

The ape soldiers look pretty awesome but overall it’s a pretty generic poster.

While the original Apes film series ended on a low note with Battle in 1973, the franchise continued to stay in the public conscious. Two separate TV series were released in the 70s, both of which had merchandising tie-ins. In anticipation and promotion of these TV series, Fox studios also released a Go Ape marathon of the franchise which drummed up further interest. Of course, the classic status of the original film also meant that the series was always going to be remembered, and so it was only a matter of time before the apes would rise again…

It turned out that it would take almost 15 years for a new entry in the franchise to come to light.* The first rumblings of a new Apes film came about in 1988 when Fox executives became impressed by Adam Rifkin’s Never on Tuesday. Rifkin, a huge fan of the original film, pitched a new entry in the franchise, one which would be a sequel rather than a reboot. Perhaps most intriguingly, this film would form an alternate continuity branching off from the first film and ignoring the events from Beneath onward. This sounded like an absolutely fantastic idea since the direction of the original series left so much unrealized potential that was ripe to be mined by further installments. The film was titled Return to the Planet of the Apes, was meant to allude to Spartacus and was set 300 years after the original Apes ended. The film would see the apes’ society reaching its Roman era, and would follow a descendant of Colonel Taylor, Duke. Duke would end up leading a human revolt against the apes… by all accounts, the film sounded fairly simple but also pretty damn awesome. To make matters even better, a young Tom Cruise or Charlie Sheen were both in contention for the lead role, which would have brought a lot of clout to the production. Everything seemed good to go, but days before the film was to enter pre-production, new executives arrived at Fox studios. Suddenly the film was put back into active development and Rifkin had to go through a number of rewrites until the film was unceremoniously shelved. Dammit Fox, if there’s one primary antagonist running throughout the Apes series, it’s the bloody studio heads – from meddling to budget cut-backs, the damn, dirty apes can’t get a break…

The next attempt to get the project off the ground involved one of my own personal favourite directors, Peter Jackson and his long-time collaborator/partner, Fran Walsh. Jackson and Walsh pitched their own version of the film which would see the apes undergoing their own Renaissance. The conservative ape government we witnessed in the original Apes movie would be clashing with the new arts movement as liberal apes begin sympathizing with humans. There would also be a half-human, half-ape child which would be central to the plot, an idea which was explored briefly in the development of Beneath (a tricky element to implement though, of course). To make things even better, Roddy McDowall was on board to play a Leonardo da Vinci-type ape character. Unfortunately, this version of the film failed to get off the ground as well (the executive Jackson met apparently didn’t even realize McDowall was even in the original Apes films), and thus the Apes continued to languish in development hell. That said, I’m kind of glad this version didn’t end up getting made – I’m an enormous Lord of the Rings fan and I wouldn’t trade it in it’s present (amazing) state, even for a new Apes film.

From there, Don Murphy tried to get Oliver Stone on board. Stone wasn’t interested in directing, but did sign on as an executive producer. Stone pitched a film in his trademark conspiracy theorist style… in fact it’s so confusing that I think it would be better to just copy/paste his own words rather than try to sort through it: “It has the discovery of cryogenically frozen Vedic Apes who hold the secret numeric codes to the Bible that foretold the end of civilizations. It deals with past versus the future. My concept is that there’s a code inscribed in the Bible that predicts all historical events. The apes were there at the beginning and figured it all out”. Umm ok then Oliver… Despite the rather out-there premise, the studio executives seemed to be impressed with Stone’s pitch and a screenplay by Terry Hayes titled Return of the Apes was commissioned. This script featured geneticist Will Robinson trying to cure a genetic plague, which causes all humans to have stillbirths, by going back in time. Here he discovers that humans and apes are at war and that the apes engineered the genetic plague as a time bomb of sorts in human DNA. The president of Fox studios declared that Hayes’ script was one of the best he had ever read, and Arnold freaking Schwarzeneggar was signed on to play the lead role. Unfortunately, the studio wasn’t happy with Hayes’ script, which they felt was too serious. Instead, they wanted something campier (remember, this was the 90s – think of Batman & Robin and you’ll get an idea of the tone that was in vogue). Apparently this direction was spearheaded by studio executive Dylan Sellers who kept pushing for his “baseball scene”: “What if Robinson finds himself in Ape land and the Apes are trying to play baseball? But they’re missing one element, like the pitcher or something . . . Robinson knows what they’re missing and he shows them, and they all start playing”. Ugh, I don’t even… sigh. Unfortunately, when Hayes turned in his next rewrite of the script and didn’t include Sellers’ precious baseball scene, he was fired and the entire enterprise crumbled once again. As confusing as the initial pitch was, it sounded like there was some real potential in this iteration of the production and it’s unfortunate that it wasn’t allowed to see the light of day.

After the Oliver Stone iteration of the film failed, it seemed that Fox still wanted to pursue a campy tone for the series (there were reports of makeup tests in which apes were seen skiing). Chris Columbus (known for Home Alone, Mrs. Doubtfire and the first two Harry Potter films) was brought on to direct a new script which was more closely based on Pierre Boulle’s original Apes novel than the previous films had been. This one featured an ape astronaut landing on Earth and releasing a deadly virus. Two humans use the ape’s spacecraft to return to its homeworld to find cure for the virus, finding a planet where the apes hunt humans. When they get the antidote, the heroes return to Earth to discover that the planet has been conquered by the apes in their absence (which is actually the original ending of the book). However, there were still misgivings about the script (for good reason) and so a series of directors became attached and then dropped out. Among these directors were Ronald Emmerich, James Cameron (!!!) and Peter Jackson (again).

The film finally began to take shape in 1999 when William Broyles Jr. turned in a script which caught the attention of Tim Burton. Richard Zanuck, who greenlit the original Apes film way back in 1968, signed on as producer since it was a very personal project for him to see the remake through. Unfortunately, Burton budgeted the script at $200 million (an exorbitant amount at the time), but Fox would only grant him $100 million to work with. Burton and Fox clashed quite frequently throughout production, as the studio had a very firm release date, forcing Burton to rush the shooting, editing and visual effects. Considering that it took them over 10 years to even get the film into pre-production, you think they could have afforded him at least another year to make it properly… Makeup effects wizard Rick Baker, famous for such impressive makeup-heavy films as An American Werewolf in London, was brought on to do the ape costumes, with Burton aiming for a more realistic take than any previous Apes film had attempted.

For the cast, Mark Wahlberg was cast as the lead, Leo Davidson. Currently he’s easily one of the biggest movie stars in the world, but at the time his star was still rising quickly. If you’re familiar with his work then you know he can be a great actor (Boogie Nights, Three Kings, The Fighter, etc), but his main issue is that he’s as good as his script… and he doesn’t necessarily pick the best projects to embark on either… Tim Roth (Reservoir Dogs, The Incredible Hulk) was cast as the lead villain, General Thade, a sadistic chimpanzee warrior. Rounding out the lead cast was Helena Bonham Carter (Fight Club, Harry Potter) as Ari, an ape sympathetic to the humans’ cause. Also cast were Michael Clarke Duncan, Estella Warren and Paul Giamatti, with Charlton Heston and Linda Harrison in cameo roles.

Moving onto the film itself, the plot concerns an American astronaut, Leo Davidson, who works with chimpanzees on the research space station, Oberon. When the Oberon encounters an electromagnetic storm IN SPACE, Leo’s favourite chimpanzee, Pericles, is set in a spacecraft to investigate. When things go wrong, Leo disobeys orders and attempts to retrieve Pericles, but ends up crash landing on a mysterious planet where apes hunt the humans. Leo quickly escapes their clutches and makes for the sacred ruins of Calima to link up with the Oberon before the bloodthirsty chimpanzee, General Thade, goes to war and destroys all of the damn, dirty humans. Now that might sound like a half-decent plot in summary, in practice it is pretty damn inadequate. On one hand, there’s a lot of things that just don’t make sense (why send an expensive, trained chimpanzee into the mysterious electromagnetic storm instead of a cheap, unmanned drone?). There’s also lots of massive plot conveniences (why would the human-hating Thade love Ari when she’s staunchy pro-human? Why does Thade kill the two gorillas who saw Leo’s ship crash, other than to make him appear to be super evil? Why introduce Leo’s gun and then destroy it minutes later if only to make the plot work? How the hell does the power still work in Calima (they say it’s a nuclear power core, but considering how in ruins it is, how are the electronics still in a functional state…)? Simply put, the plot is quite simple, but it’s undermined by a story that lacks logic and gravitas.

The next major problem with the film is that the characters are all paper-thin, totally undeveloped, useless or one-note. As a result, we don’t really give a shit about what’s happening or when one of them dies. Leo Davidson’s a boring main character who we honestly do not learn a single damn thing about (except that he loves his chimpanzee). Predictably, Mark Wahlberg doesn’t have a good script to work with and so his acting really suffers as he runs around with that constipated look he has in half his filmography. Estella Warren’s character Daena is a totally generic love interest and while she’s a (ridiculously) pretty face, she might just be even more useless than Nova was in the original Apes film. Ari and Thade are both completely one-dimensional (although Thade’s at least enjoyable because Tim Roth really hams it up to delightful levels). Colonel Attar and General Krull are both interesting because the pair have a rivalry with each other, but it is so poorly integrated into the plot that it has no real resonance (and Krull dies so poorly that it’s ridiculously anti-climactic). The other characters are practically useless and equally half-baked, with Paul Giamatti’s Limbo being probably the most egregious offender – he does absolutely nothing and is just tagging along to be comic relief. That said, Charlton Heston’s cameo is pretty cool, and I do not think he deserved his Razzie award in the slightest – his win was probably more due to his NRA politics at the time than his actual acting (which was serviceable, although the script was characteristically shitty here).

There’s also smaller problems with the script which further hurt the film. For one, the humans can talk in this film, but it’s not established until well after they first appear. Since this is a remake of Planet of the Apes, the audience expects the humans to be silent, so when they suddenly just start talking to one another it is a bit of an (unintentional) shock. It’s also just plain doesn’t make a lot of sense either because if the humans and apes speak the same language and express themselves just as well, how can the apes possibly sustain their belief that humans are inferior for thousands of years? On top of that, if the humans can speak and are just as intelligent as the apes, why haven’t they staged a revolution and armed themselves yet? This one little change just causes too many problems which no effort has been put in to address. The movie also completely jettisons the satirical elements which had been prevalent in nearly every previous Apes film, replacing them with more superficial racial overtones. While this isn’t a death knell by any means for a remake (eg, the Evil Dead remake jettisoned the humour and still made for an effective and intense horror film), the satirical elements were a key component of the original films and so dumbing the film down and playing it straight really feels like a betrayal of the concept. Another complaint is more of a very minor one, but the apes in this film are even more primitive than those in the original film, and yet they are more modern sociologically (eg, religion isn’t in vote, they’ve formulated the concept of evolution, etc). It’s kind of nitpicking, but I hate how historical/fantasy/sci-fi films often casually force modern ideas without good reason (eg, Orlando Bloom’s secular knight in Kingdom of Heaven). It just seems to me that Planet of the Apes was in serious need of a rewrite but the studio forced it into production too quickly, perhaps in fear that it would continue to languish in development hell.

The another problem with the film is its pacing (probably in part due to Tim Burton’s minuscule 3 month editing deadline). The film doesn’t waste any time with something as unnecessary as “set-up”. For example, as soon as Leo lands on the planet, he’s instantly being hunted by the apes (who show up about 15 seconds after the first human is glimpsed). On top of that, the humans escape the apes only 40 minutes in – in the original, the apes were only just showing up by that point. The breakneck pace makes events like the hunt lose all of their shock value, forces obvious plot conveniences and just further makes the story feel inconsequential to the action.

On the positive side, Rick Baker’s ape costumes are FANTASTIC. Seriously the makeup effects are almost perfect and the actors really do look like real apes. There aren’t even weak spots like in the sequels where background apes have noticeably inferior costumes – I didn’t notice any extras who looked bad. That said, I’m not a fan of the female chimpanzees’ design, especially Ari’s – they look frighteningly similar to Michael Jackson. I also think that General Krull might have the worst-looking costume in the whole film… it’s still pretty good but doesn’t look as realistic as the other costumes and I think it makes him look more like a wookie than a gorilla. It’s also cool to see the apes have actual ape mannerisms like jumping around during fights rather than just being cumbersome like a human. This should also go without saying, but the special effects vastly eclipse previous Apes films and still look pretty damn good 12 years after the film was released (perhaps in part because they are used sparingly and intelligently). Danny Elfman’s score also has to get a shout out for being quite effective and primal, much like Jerry Goldsmith’s original score.

The film’s climax, the final battle between apes and humans, is also a highlight. It’s a pretty damn awesome sequence, especially the fuel cell “bomb”, but it’s really the only plot highlight in the film. The battle itself is exciting, if muddled and lacking in emotion. However, it also doesn’t make a lot of sense that when the battle ends the humans and apes are suddenly all friends with each other without any lingering tensions whatsoever. That said, while it could have been better, the final battle is definitely a cool sequence.

Of course, there’s one element I’ve been purposefully withholding up until this point and that’s the film’s ending. Obviously trying to riff on the original Apes‘ classic ending, the remake tried to throw in a twist of its own (doubly so because twists were in vogue at this period thanks to The Sixth Sense). Unfortunately, the remake must have one of the absolute worst twist endings I’ve ever seen. It’s so incredibly stupid and nonsensical. Leo leaves the planet of the apes and returns through the electromagnetic storm to Earth. He crashes his ship in front of the Lincoln memorial and discovers that somehow Thade beat him back to Earth and apes now rule the planet… WTF!?! Okay, this has to be broken down somewhat because it’s just that confusing. For one thing, yes, this is how the original Boulle novel ended. However, the changes made in the remake make Boulle’s ending a bad fit for this film. For one thing, ditching the satire makes this ending have no sort of comeuppance or logic. For another thing, there is absolutely nothing to allude to this ending and so it just comes out of nowhere and is given zero explanation.

That said, there is an “official” explanation which makes it make some sense, but it’s still pretty inadequate in my opinion. This explanation involves the “logic” of time travel in the remake – things which enter the magnetic storm come out the other side in inverse order (hence why the Oberon arrives thousands of years before Leo Davidson). As a result, when Leo leaves the planet, Thade somehow escapes Calima and recovers Leo’s ship, beating him to Earth in the process. Obviously you can see some pretty gaping logic gaps here (how did Thade escape, pilot the ship, conquer Earth, etc), but the bigger problem is much more simple – this explanation of time travel only works in a story. I mean, we only follow three objects going into and out of the storm, but obviously other things are going to pass through here and mess up the theory. On top of that, what (aside from plot convenience) determines when objects emerge from the storm? Pericles arrives only days after Leo after all. On top of all of this, how is the audience expected to think up all of this stuff to make the ending make a modicum of sense? People who think it’s a very clever ending are deluding themselves – the Apes remake has an indefensibly terrible ending which is an insult to the audience’s intelligence.

So all-in-all, I think you can tell that I don’t like the Planet of the Apes remake. In fact, it gets worse every time I see it. However, I do owe it a debt of gratitude because I probably would never have seen the original without it – close to its release the 1968 classic was on TV and I watched it with my family… and the rest is history as they say. It might be better-made than Battle, but the Apes remake is a hollow husk of weak characters and a crappy plot with a totally idiotic ending to boot.

3/10
Be sure to come back soon for part 7 of this retrospective series as we wrap up with Rise of the Planet of the Apes!

*Research on the development/production process comes from David Hughes’ fascinating insight on the Hollywood machine, Tales From Development Hell and from the remake’s Wikipedia page.

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Retrospective: Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973)

Welcome back to the Planet of the Apes retrospective! In this entry we’re going to cover the fifth film in the franchise (and final film in the original series), Battle for the Planet of the Apes! Before we get into that though I want to just preface with a follow-up on my assessment of Metal Gear‘s Quiet last week. In the last week, Cracked wrote an article on video game sexism, although the emphasis wasn’t on objectification (which is the crux of the backlash against Quiet). Rather, it focuses on the more deep-seated issues of casual sexism in narratives which feminists have been more focused on in the last couple decades. It’s a good article, and certainly an enlightening one if you aren’t someone who studies feminism on a regular basis, but it’s not without its own issues. For one thing, the point about daddy issues is deceptively selective and doesn’t really pick the best examples – Ellie is hardly a blithering mess without her male protector (for that matter, Joel refuses to let her defend herself until later in the game… I’m pretty sure that the point is that Joel’s the one with “issues”). I’m also currently playing through Bioshock Infinite, so I can’t give a comprehensive response to this, but it seems to me that Elizabeth was being held against her will with an entire city dedicated to keeping her in her tower. There’s also the problem that article slips into its own casual sexism by stating that “BioShock Infinite‘s Elizabeth was born with the ability to tear portals in time and space, then learned to pick locks anyway, then sat patiently in prison until a penis arrived to save her”. Yeeeeeeaaaaaahhhhh… The point about Tomb Raider is interesting though – is there any male-based origin story where the guy has to get over crying and being horrified about killing people throughout the whole adventure? Sure it’s probably more realistic, but maybe that’s just more of an indictment of the macho male hero trope which is prevalent in gaming. Anyway, food for thought… now let’s move on to the Apes.

For the record, my review is based on the Unrated cut of the film. Unlike Conquest, this cut doesn’t have any substantial changes – it’s just 10 more minutes of dialogue, longer shots and some minor subplots restored.

While each Apes movie had been financially successful, with each budget cut came diminishing financial returns. As a result, the producers decided that it was time to end the series on their own terms (although two separate television series were soon produced as well). The final film would follow Caesar trying to stop the apes from repeating the mistakes that led to the destruction of Earth and show how the mutants in Beneath came about. Conquest director J. Lee Thompson returned to direct, making him the only director to work on two Apes movies in the franchise’s entire history. Unfortunately, long-time series screenwriter Paul Dehn had to drop out of script-writing duties due to health complications. Instead, the film was passed off to husband-wife screenwriting duo John and Joyce Corrington. The Corringtons had recently written the Charlton Heston zombie-vampire film, The Omega Man, and so it was felt that they could do the Apes‘ send-off justice. However, prior to getting the job, they had never even seen an Apes film so they didn’t really know the tone, themes or plot of the series. Dehn was brought in to do final re-writes (he claimed to have rewritten 90% of the dialogue and changed the ending), but the WGA ruled that the film was largely based on the Corringtons’ screenplay. In spite of that, Dehn’s ending was the one which was filmed and Joyce Corrington is reported to have hated Dehn’s ending.

Roddy McDowall and Natalie Trundy returned once again, as did Severn Darden, all reprising their roles from Conquest. Of the new cast, the most important was Claude Akins (who was mostly known for starring in Westerns) who was cast as the villainous gorilla general, Aldo. Austin Stoker was also brought in as a replacement to Hari Rhodes’ MacDonald, playing that characters’ brother (it is assumed that the MacDonald in Conquest was killed sometime between the two films). Songwriter Paul Williams was also brought in to play Virgil, Caesar’s genius orangutan advisor. Lew Ayres, most famous for his role 40 years prior in All Quiet on the Western Front, has a small role as the philosophical orangutan who looks just like Pai Mei, Mandemus. John Huston (a screen legend in case you didn’t know) also makes a cameo as The Lawgiver, providing a framing device for the film’s action. Oh and a fun fact – John Landis, director of such awesome movies as An American Werewolf in London, Blues Brothers, Animal House and the Thriller video, appears in this as a minor role (he’s “Jake’s friend”… I couldn’t tell you who the hell that is, but who cares – it’s John freaking Landis)!

Much like Conquest, Battle suffers from a severely deficit production budget, which was maybe slightly higher than the budget for the previous film. The film is supposed to portray an epic battle between humans and apes for the control of the planet, but it ends up looking like more of a short skirmish than anything (I’ll talk more about the battle later though). The first 4 minutes are also just reused footage from the previous films, providing a rather unnecessary recap to pad out time. The budget also means that the same ape costumes get reused, the matte paintings are cheaper than ever and the two armies can never appear in the same shots together (clearly they did the same thing my brothers and I did in our home movies – the same extras are playing both armies). The costumes also suffer, as the apes are using the same masks that have been lying around the studio for the last few years. The mutant humans get it the worst though, as they are devoid of their impressive make-up entirely. I think the best way to describe their new “mutations” is to say that it looks like someone jizzed hot glue on their faces.

It was Earth all along!

As for the story, Battle carries on from the more positive theatrical ending of Conquest with humans now serving the apes, but living in relative peace. However, the gorillas’ leader, General Aldo, believes that humans should be exterminated and constantly clashes with Caesar over this point. Looking for guidance, Caesar decides to go into the ruins of Los Angeles to find video footage of his parents to try to discern the future of ape society. In doing so, they stir up a hidden society of mutant humans living in the fallout, led by Kolp. Kolp ends up pursuing Caesar back to Ape City and a battle is waged between the two sides. It’s a pretty simple story, but you might notice one thing about it which differentiates it from previous Apes films – it’s almost entirely devoid of social commentary and/or satire. All of the previous films in the franchise had shown that man brings about his own downfall, but in this one there really isn’t much of a message about humanity – it’s more concerned about the society of the apes. You might argue that the apes are supposed to be an analogue for humans, but it occurs to me that the message is more that the apes’ society is going to be the same as humanity’s, which again is more of a self-contained critique about the apes in the film.

In general, the script isn’t anywhere as near as tight or clever as it was in previous Apes films either. Lines like “I think Aldo may be riding for a fall” come across like they were supposed to be clever, but don’t succeed in that regard. Then there’s lines like “one day you will be as tall as a king” which is supposed to be a touching moment, but the line is so stupid that it makes you go “umm… what?” instead. The only really good line is “ape shall never kill ape”, which has actually become one of the most iconic lines in the whole series. Plot-wise, the film has other sections which don’t make a lot of sense or which are too rushed, such as Caesar leaving Ape City without any sort of preparation as soon as he learns about the existence of the tapes of his parents… although to be fair this is probably more of an editing problem, but either way it hurts the flow of the film. When they get into Los Angeles, there’s also an arbitrary 2 hour countdown before the apes cannot leave again (even though this is never brought up again). The whole idea of the video tapes of Cornelius and Zira is flawed as well because it turns out that some of these tapes they watch were obviously audio recordings in Escape – however, the film inexplicably treats them as video recordings regardless (clearly they think that we just forgot this fact). Oh and then there’s the goofiness which is Mandemus’ armory – all of the apes’ weapons are kept behind a flimsy wooden door. Gee, I sure hope that an army of gorillas doesn’t try to take over and steal them all… I’d like to think that these problems are all on the Corringtons, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the bad lines in particular were all Paul Dehn’s idea. Some story elements just don’t work though either, such as the fact that this movie takes place at least 12-27 years after the last movie, and yet no one looks any older than they were in Conquest.

That said, there are some pretty good plot points and ideas that liven things up a bit. Probably the biggest of these plot points is when (SPOILER) Aldo learns that Caesar’s son, Cornelius, has heard his plan to steal the guns. Aldo becomes quite sinister here, chasing Cornelius up a tree and then throwing the child from it, killing him. It’s a pretty shocking moment and adds a lot of gravitas to the final showdown between Caesar and Aldo (which is another rather cool sequence). It’s also nice to see the orangutans get more screentime after being sidelined for the last 2 films, getting only small cameos in Conquest. In particular, Virgil is a good introduction as Caesar’s closest advisor and sort of acts like a heroic version of Otto Hasslein (he even regurgitates Hasslein’s theory that time is like a highway with multiple exit points). The introduction of Aldo also manages to make Escape more of an interesting film – in that movie, it established that it was Aldo who first said “No!” and started the ape revolution. However, by having Caesar interrupt this timeline and bring about the ape revolution in a more peaceful manner, it creates new questions for viewers to mull over. Is it possible for Caesar to create a more peaceful future for apes and man since the revolution was not founded on bloodshed? The film itself leaves it uncertain.

As for the characters, McDowall’s Caesar is the core as ever. Unfortunately, McDowall isn’t given quite as much to work with as he has in previous Apes films, but he is still unquestionably the best actor of the lot. Aldo is a very one-dimensional villain, graduated with honours from the school of douchebaggery, who hates humans and therefore Caesar as well for not killing them. The second he opens his mouth, you know that he’s going to be a bad guy. That said, Akins fulfills the meathead role well enough, even if the role is unfortunately one-note. Unfortunately, the rest of the acting is ranges from inconsistent to bad. Natalie Trundy is still pretty bad, but at least she has a very small role this time as Caesar’s wife, Lisa (that said, for sticking it out for 4 Apes films, I appreciate her contribution to the longevity of the series). Kolp is probably the worst of the bunch though, and easily the worst antagonist in all of the Apes films – he just sounds bored the entire time, which doesn’t exactly make him a particularly menacing villain by any means. I think he’s meant to be the main villain, but he gets totally upstaged by Aldo (how often does the thug-villain overshadow the brain-villain?). MacDonald and Virgil both have their moments, but half of the time their lines are delivered with absolutely no emotion. In fact, this is really the first Apes movie with bad acting as the rule rather than the exception.

Of course then there’s the main attraction, the titular battle. It’s fairly entertaining, but as I’ve hinted at earlier, the miniscule budget really doesn’t do it justice. Rather than an epic clash to determine who will rule the planet, instead we get a small skirmish between maybe 30-40 people per side which goes on for about 10 minutes. On top of that, the supposedly “mechanized” mutant army consists of a few mortars, a couple jeeps, a couple motorcycles and their major superweapon… a school bus. Yes, a school bus is the peak of their technological superiority. The penny pinching extends to the filming itself, as the mutants supposedly blow up a number of the apes’ buildings… however, it’s exceedingly obvious that they just blew up 1 or 2 buildings and filmed them from different angles to try to pass off a bunch of houses getting destroyed. That said, there’s a surprisingly high number of explosions in the film to represent grenades, mortar strikes, etc.

As for the battle itself, it’s kind of pathetic. The humans decide to advance through the middle of an open field with only a little smoke and mortar cover to stop them from getting mowed down by the apes. The apes set up a hasty barricade, but are quickly pushed back into the city… where Caesar springs a trap and then routs the surviving mutants. However, Aldo and his gorillas attack the fleeing mutants and kill them all. That’s it. I know it’s probably not a good idea to expect Black Hawk Down on a ~$1.7 million budget, but for the focal point of the film it’s a bit of a letdown.

“If this monkey business about ownership of the planet can’t be solved in one 10 minute battle, then what’s the point!?!”

Then there’s problems with the editing. While I like the final showdown between Caesar and Aldo, it was clearly edited really badly. It seems like Aldo was supposed to get killed by the other apes, but instead they decided to have Caesar chase him up a tree… however, when they speak to each other they’re still clearly in the crowd together. Furthermore, as soon as Aldo drops from the tree, Caesar is back on the ground instantly. It seems that this sequence was changed and then they just tried to edit it and hope no one noticed (perhaps they thought that the crowd killing Aldo wasn’t “personal” enough, so they made him die in a manner mirroring how he killed Cornelius… or maybe it was just really badly shot in the first place). It’s not quite as obvious as Radioactive Man: The Movie, but it’s still pretty damn noticeable and further evidence of how meager the budget was that they couldn’t even properly shoot the finale. Other parts are edited in such a way that they lose their impact, especially the part near the opening when Aldo chases the teacher, Abe – it’s supposed to be a suspenseful scene, but it is entirely devoid of suspense in the way it’s filmed and edited (and it doesn’t help that Abe doesn’t look too distressed throughout the chase).

All-in-all, Battle for the Planet of the Apes is a pretty poor way to end the original series. The reduced budget once again crippled an Apes movie, but this time there wasn’t a solid script or actors to save it. Simply put, Battle is easily the worst entry in the franchise up until this point and even a big fan of the series like me has a hard time defending, or even recommending, it.

4/10

Be sure to come back soon for part 6 of this retrospective series as we look at our first remake, Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes!

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Retrospective: Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972)

Welcome back to the Planet of the Apes retrospective! In this entry we’re going to cover the fourth film in the franchise, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes! However, before we get into that I want to talk a briefly about Metal Gear Solid V. As a huge fan of the series, I’m obviously very excited for the new game(s?) and have been gobbling up new details like candy. That said, I’m less-than-enthused about one particular character who Konami has been highlighting lately, and that’s the new female sniper, Quiet. Details on her actual history and role are scarce, but all that we’ve gotten so far is a couple renders and a shot in the trailer. If you’ve been following the progress of the game and/or this story then you probably know where I’m going with this…

Yeah, she’s basically stripperella. “Dressing” Quiet up like this just furthers the notion of sexism in video games and the nerdy virgin stereotype of those who play these sorts of games (EVA in MGS3 was bad enough). Even if there is a good reason for Quiet to be dressed this way, the damage has been done as Kojima has been getting a fair bit of backlash (which he has taken in stride). That said, I really do hope that there is a good reason for the outfit so that it’s not just fanservice. For example, if she can photosynthesize and change her skin colour like The End then it would make perfect sense that she would wear that kind of outfit and then pretty much everything would be forgiven by me. Whatever the case, Kojima seems to have some sort of big reveal surrounding it, but I guess we’ll have to wait… Metal Gear games tend to play their cards close to the chest… Anyway, let’s get into Conquest of the Planet of the Apes

Unlike all of the other Apes films to this point, Escape was written with the intention of producing a follow-up. Conquest was greenlit by Fox, but it was under an even more constrained budget than previous Apes films, estimated to be around $1.7 million. Escape had been designed around its small budget, reducing the number of on-screen apes and need for expensive sets – Conquest, on the other hand, could not do this. Conquest would require extensive use of extras for riot and battles scenes and was set 20 years in the future, which would require convincing futuristic technology and architecture. Simply put, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes might have been ones of the most constrained major studio sci-fi films ever released. As a result, major cost-cutting was needed if they were even going to stand a chance at releasing the film. Costumes and props were reused from Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, City Beneath the SeaThe Time Tunnel and previous Apes films, and the bulk of the movie was filmed in and around the Irvine campus of the University of California – in particular, the social science complex. This complex had been designed with a futuristic aesthetic, and so it could double as a futuristic city block. Unfortunately this area was relatively small, so the crew ended up filming it from different angles to try to convince the audience that this one complex was many parts of a sprawling metropolis (it doesn’t really work).

Conquest was directed by J. Lee Thompson, a longtime fan of the series who was known for such films as the original Cape Fear and The Guns of Navarone. Thompson was a fairly accomplished director who was very hands-on with the production – he made the human characters wear muted clothing and the apes wear bright, vibrant colours to make them stand out more (a technique familiar to fans of Star Wars). The film was written by long-time Apes screenwriter, Paul Dehn. As with previous films in the series, he drew upon previous experience and current events to create a story that would resonate with the audience. This time he decided to incorporate references to racial conflict, civil rights movements and the history of slavery. These would become more relevant by filming some scenes in a documentary style, since civil rights and racial clashes were very much in the news at the time. The script and film were also quite notable for being considerably more violent than previous Apes films. All of the other movies in the series had G ratings, but Conquest was pushing a hard PG (think of some of the violent content in Raiders of the Lost Ark and you’ll have a good idea of how bloody it gets at times). Unfortunately, further studio meddling meant that some of the more violent bits were excised to avoid a potential R rating. This was bad enough, but it also meant that the film’s ending was changed (which I’ll get to later) and that the opening of the film was removed entirely. This is a real shame because the opening sounds like it was quite affecting (police shoot an escaped ape, only to discover that the ape was covered in bruises and welts, indicating that he had been severely abused by his masters). While the other footage has been released in the Unrated Blu-ray version of Conquest, the original opening has not been restored and I fear that it may have been lost entirely.

As for the cast, Roddy McDowall returns once more, this time playing Cornelius’ son, Caesar. Natalie Trundy also returns as a serving chimpanzee, Lisa. Ricardo Montalbán is the only returning cast member to be playing a recurring character, returning once again as zookeeper Armando. Other noteworthy cast are Don Murray as the villainous Governor Breck and Hari Rhodes as his moral second-in-command MacDonald. While he has a fairly minor role in this film, Severn Darden’s character, Kolp, is also worth mentioning as he would carry on Breck’s legacy in the next Apes film.

The story of Conquest is fairly straightforward – 20 years after the previous film, the chimpanzee Milo is brought to civilization by Armando and is horrified to discover that humans have enslaved apes as predicted by Cornelius and Zira. Milo is enraged by this and ends up going on the run, hiding amongst the apes and observing the humans. Eventually he takes on the name Caesar and becomes a leader for the apes, starting an armed revolution against the humans. While the story is relatively simple, it has some fantastic ideas at its core. The film has a lot to say about power relations and slavery (in fact I wrote a short paper about the film in my second year of university, analyzing it through Hegel’s master-slave dialectic). The master-slave dialectic is made most obvious through the humans and the apes, but it also crops up in regards to race relations. Governor Breck’s second-in-command, MacDonald, often makes references to the history of slavery, suggesting that he doesn’t approve of the way that Breck is repeating the past. However, it is quite clear that there is a power dynamic between the pair and that MacDonald is seen as another slave by Breck himself, despite being a supposedly “free” man. Inevitably, both the apes and MacDonald rise up against their “masters”, with the (re-edited) ending representing a possible synthesis. The film also emphasizes the power of speech – the humans are terrified by the idea that there may be an ape capable of speech, which relates to the importance of power relations, identity and the ability to have a voice (key in theories regarding race, feminism, aboriginal rights, etc). Similar to Caliban in The Tempest, the ability to speak will give the apes self-awareness and cause them to revolt. Simply put, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes has some fantastic ideas at its core which may not be entirely obvious at first glance.

Unfortunately, in spite of the good ideas that Conquest has, the budget does not allow the film to actually do justice to them. In spite of (or perhaps because of) all the cost-cutting measures used, Conquest feels a bit tacky – if Fox had given the production even $2-3 million more then the film could have been far more convincing and spectacular. The sets are noticeably cheap and unambitious-looking and there’s often minimal lighting used (if any). Furthermore, sometimes the footage is just really bad looking and the setting doesn’t feel like a sprawling city. Instead, it feels more like a block or two in a city district, which really cheapens the impact of the supposed “ape revolution”. Then there’s moments where the film just feel incomplete, like they didn’t have the budget to edit things together properly (which they probably didn’t). For example, suddenly the apes start revolting just because Caesar looks at them – we’re not given any indication that he has actually become their leader figure yet, so it just comes out of the blue. Another instance of this is when the revolution itself happens – Caesar escapes captivity, but as soon as he does so the apes have all gathered and suddenly they’re ready to kick some ass. Then there’s really bad cost-cutting measures, such as the “wireless phones”. Check out the picture below (click on it if you need to):

Notice anything odd about that phone? How about the mismatched red tape along the bottom where they obviously cut off the wire to make it look like a future-phone? Yeah, the film’s that tacky… Then there’s just plain embarrassing moments, particularly when Caesar gets tortured by the humans. They hook him up to an electrocution machine, but MacDonald shuts off the power… only for Caesar to FREAKING PRETEND TO BE DEAD. This leaves Breck and Kolp 100% satisfied and no one even thinks to check and see if he’s maybe not really dead, throw out the body, notice that the machine wasn’t even working or something. It’s a major facepalm moment for sure.

However, not everything’s all that bad. The costumes might be a bit cheap, but the apes themselves look quite good, especially considering how many of them there are (and the masks are integrated far better than they were in Beneath). The ape revolution itself is pretty exciting, featuring dozens of ape and humans battling it out with each other (although the music is a major letdown). The scene where Caesar names himself is also pretty damn awesome, and Breck’s line “Caesar? A king?” is just the best way to end it.

Geez, we got all this way without even talking about the characters. Roddy McDowall sells it yet again as Caesar. You could be forgiven for expecting him to be a carbon-copy of Cornelius, but you’d be wrong – Caesar is a whole different character than Cornelius. Cornelius was timid and cautious, whereas Caesar is brash, commanding and confident. He’s basically ape-Jesus or ape-Che Guevara. MacDonald is decent enough, although sometimes Hari Rhodes over-emphasizes his lines. Ricardo Montalbán is also awesome once again as Armando, although he isn’t given nearly enough screen time. Unfortunately, despite no longer having a speaking role, Natalie Trundy is embarrassingly bad yet again. Since she can’t speak she exaggerates like mad, playing her chimpanzee as a cartoonishly doe-eyed southern belle. Then when Caesar gets taken to her for breeding, she lies there like a sultry pin-up girl… again, it’s embarrassing (and vomit-inducing… well, unless you’re a furry anyway).

As for Governor Breck, he’s more of a straight-laced villain than previous Apes nemeses. Most of the other villains had been somewhat sympathetic, but Breck basically just hates apes and think they all deserve to be enslaved and beaten whenever necessary. I guess it’s noble that he doesn’t want apes to control the world, but it’s not really played up as the sort of thing that would make him sympathetic. Don Murray plays the part with a great deal of passion (and some good old-fashioned ham), so he’s quite fun to watch in the role. However, his assertion that humanity enslaves apes because they represent the evil inside of mankind just comes out of nowhere – had it been set up in the narrative somewhere I might have bought it, but just throwing it in in the last five minutes of the film was ill-judged.

And finally we get to the controversy surrounding the film’s ending. Watching Conquest, it’s pretty obvious that the ending has been re-cut – suddenly the camera zooms in on Caesar’s face (with really grainy footage to boot) and he says a speech about forgiving humans for their perpetrated evils, while the same footage of MacDonald looking surprised and Lisa blinking and looking up is repeated a few times between shots of onlooking apes. It’s terribly edited and very clearly a patch job because Fox refused to give the production any more money. In fact, it’s so badly done that it further diminishes the quality of the film. What was so wrong with the original that they had to cobble together a new ending so badly? Well check it out thanks to the magic of Youtube:

In case the video isn’t available anymore, here’s the original ending: Caesar tells the apes to show Breck no mercy, and then they proceed to beat him to death with their rifles, signifying that the apes will be no better rulers than the humans were. It’s a pretty damn bleak ending, but it fits well. That said… I’m kind of torn on it. I think I actually prefer the message of the theatrical ending, but I hate how it was integrated. If it was filmed properly then I think I’d actually like the theatrical ending more, but considering how it was done I much prefer the unrated ending (even if it isn’t canon anymore).

So clearly Conquest is a bit of a mixed bag. On one hand it has a fantastic story, Caesar is awesome and there are some very exciting moments. On the other hand, it is ridiculously cheap, has been torn apart by studio meddling and has some embarrassing moments. Conquest might just be the most divisive entry in the original Apes series because of this – if you can’t get past the tackiness and shoddy bits then you might not be able to appreciate the film. To be honest, Conquest might actually be my favourite Apes sequel in the original series although I’ll acknowledge that it isn’t nearly as good as Escape. If only the studio had given it a proper budget and hadn’t meddled with the production so badly we might have gotten an awesome film out of the deal… 😉

6/10

Be sure to come back soon for part 5 of this retrospective series, Battle for the Planet of the Apes!

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Retrospective: Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971)

Welcome back to the Planet of the Apes retrospective! In this entry we’re going to cover the third film in the franchise, Escape from the Planet of the Apes! Yes, that’s right, after doing everything in their power to kill the franchise for good in Beneath, the producers decreed that the series was destined to live on regardless. However with the future eliminated, the only avenue left was for them to explore was the past…

Kind of a lame poster, and don’t even get me started on the tagline… but still, it’s much better than the Polish version.

Despite the machinations of Charlton Heston and even the bloody studio head, work on a sequel to Beneath the Planet of the Apes started before that film was even completed. However, due to the obvious problem of having the entire planet destroyed at the end of the previous film, the producers had to pull a J.J. Abrams and work on a preboot/sequel. Once again, the budget for this sequel was cut back down to $2 million, meaning that the producers had to figure out how to cut costs. The solution to these issues was that film would plant the seeds of the ape revolution by propelling Cornelius, Zira and a third ape, Dr. Milo, back in time. Additionally, by setting it in the present day the crew were able to minimize the need for ape costumes.

The film was written by Paul Dehn once more with Pierre Boulle providing some advisement to incorporate satirical elements. Finally, Don Taylor, famous for such notable films as Father of the Bride and The Naked City, was brought on to direct. In terms of cast, Roddy McDowall and Kim Hunter were brought back to play Cornelius and Zira, respectively. Sal Mineo was also cast as a third ape, Dr. Milo, but he was so uncomfortable in his make-up that he gets killed off less than 5 minutes after his introduction. Also making a return was Natalie Trundy, who played a lead mutant in the previous film, this time playing one of the human doctors sympathetic to the apes’ cause. The other main leads were Bradford Dillman as Dr. Dixon and the villain, Eric Braeden as Dr. Hasslein (a character who had actually been mentioned in the previous two Apes films). Rounding out the cast is Ricardo Montalbán who plays Armando, a secondary character who owns a circus.

Looking at its production, it would be reasonable to expect Escape from the Planet of the Apes to be a bit of a mess – it’s clearly a very forced sequel (which is practically a remake of the first film), it has a lower budget than the previous two films, it doesn’t have a major star like Charlton Heston to lead it and it had a very rushed production (it was filmed in 6 weeks and released less than a year after Beneath)… however, it does have a good cast of old and new characters and has a great director at its helm. Were the cast and director able to overcome the very obvious and major hurdles presented to them and make Escape a worthy sequel to the Planet of the Apes? Well read on and find out…

Escape opens with the American military discovering that Taylor’s space craft has been found off the coast of Los Angeles. However, when they open it up they discover that the astronauts inside are actually three chimpanzees – Zira, Cornelius and Dr. Milo. It turns out that when the gorillas marched off to war in the previous film, Dr. Milo (supposedly the most intelligent chimpanzee in the ape colony) had discovered Taylor’s shuttle and salvaged it, allowing he, Zira and Cornelius to escape the planet just as it was destroyed by the Alpha Omega bomb. The shockwave of the explosion causes a wormhole to open which propels the apes back to the 70s. It’s a pretty tenuous set-up, but considering the circumstances that had to happen for the film to even work, it’s serviceable… but thankfully they don’t dwell on the point too much, because it’s frankly ridiculous. This point is also probably the biggest stumbling block that a viewer could face – if you can’t suspend their disbelief enough to allow this plot point to pass then it might completely ruin the film for you.

Anyway, Dr. Milo gets killed by a gorilla while awaiting examination, so Zira and Cornelius have to speak before a committee by themselves. They end up telling the world that apes are going to rule over humans in the future, but most people don’t seem all that bothered by this, turning the pair into celebrities. The only human who seems truly troubled by this revelation is Dr. Hasslein, the President’s science advisor, who believes that the presence of Cornelius and Zira is enough to expedite the ape revolution. His fears are further reinforced when it is discovered that Zira is pregnant.

As that short plot synopsis should convey, Escape from the Planet of the Apes actually has a pretty compelling narrative (if you can get over the wormhole contrivance anyway). Unlike Beneath, it’s very character-focused rather than action-driven and has some very clever twists and turns along the way. It even has a very dark twist ending which, while not as surprising as the original film’s shocking reveal, certainly lives up to the series’ legacy. The film also works in the series’ satirical hallmarks which were very inconsistent in the previous film. There’s obvious fish-out-of-water stuff (Zira getting drunk for the first time), but there’s also clever stuff like Cornelius watching boxing and getting turned off by the brutality, the notion that humans love their pet more than other humans (and can’t live without them), jabs at celebrity culture and a priest freaking out about the notion that two apes could be married. In addition to the satirical elements, philosophical questions about time travel have also been added in, courtesy of Dr. Hasslein. Questions of choice and predestination are brought up, because Hasslein believes that the future is a multitude of potential futures, but the ending of the film calls this into question. Hasslein also struggles with the philosophical conundrum of murdering a future threat – is it justified to prevent future atrocities by killing an unborn child? It’s questions like this that make Hasslein a great villain in this film: he’s extremely intelligent, but conflicted, sympathetic and morally ambiguous. He’s truly the film’s villain, but he’s trying to ensure the survival of humanity in the face of future destruction, much like Dr. Zaius in the first film.

He also definitely rocks that suit.

As for the rest of the cast, Roddy McDowall and Kim Hunter continue to shine as Cornelius and Zira, respectively. In fact, with the increased screen-time afforded by becoming the leads, Escape is probably the finest showcase of Zira and Cornelius’ characters in the whole franchise. The pair are extremely sympathetic, but the darker side of the apes is really highlighted – Zira in particular, who we have been very drawn to for the past three films, is a great character but one who is voluntarily involved in experimental surgery on live human beings. This is something which had been acknowledged in the original Planet of the Apes, but the implications of her actions never really dawn on viewers until this particular entry. Ricardo Montalbán’s Armando also has a relatively small part, but it is very memorable due to the passion in which he plays the role. Unfortunately the two other leads aren’t so great. Bradford Dillman’s Dr. Dixon is alright, but he isn’t given a lot to work with considering that he’s supposed to be the human hero of the film. Likewise, Natalie Trundy’s Dr. Branton isn’t given much to work with either, but Trundy butchers her lines all the same. Her acting is particularly wooden… I’m almost tempted to compare her to Romy Windsor who, if you read my Howling IV retrospective, you may remember as being one of the worst actresses I’ve ever seen. Trundy’s that bad in this, but thankfully her lines are extremely cut-down.

That said, Escape has its fair share of problems. For one thing, the soundtrack is noticeably worse than in the previous two films. It sounds very generic, almost like a 70s cop movie. I think the intention was to create a different sound-scape since it is set 2000 years before the previous films, but comes across as clearly inferior and much less evocative (barring perhaps the finale aboard the derelict ship). There’s also plot holes introduced in the script, such as Cornelius and Zira’s story about the rise of the apes – they claim to know that the apes rose against the humans and took over, but this contradicts the stories of the sacred scrolls in the original Apes film, which claimed that apes had always been dominant over man. With a bit of work this could have been integrated better, but as it is it’s a massive plot hole (or, at the very least, a major retcon). Then there’s smaller issues, such as the embarrassingly horrible-looking gorilla, which is clearly a man in a bad suit… made all the worse because he’s the one who strangles Dr. Milo to death, so it’s not exactly a background detail. For a series which prides itself on fantastic make-up effects and costumes, this is one embarrassing blemish which is hard to let slide and I can only imagine is to blame on the reduced budget. Another problem is the fact that Zira and Cornelius escape the military base because there is absolutely no one guarding the two apes, which is a pretty ridiculous plot contrivance (one which still crops up today). Finally, a pregnant Zira drinks even though she knows she’s pregnant. I guess that Fetal Alcohol Syndrome had not been discovered yet, but for a modern audience this is a pretty terrible detail which derails the film for a moment or two.

However, all-in-all, Escape from the Planet of the Apes is a pretty damn solid film overall. In fact, it has a 78% on Rotten Tomatoes, the highest score of any Apes sequel in the original series. It has its problems, but most of the are relatively minor. However, like I said earlier, if you can’t get over the circumstances of the apes’ time travel then your chances of enjoying it are going to drop dramatically. Escape from the Planet of the Apes is a sequel which should have failed miserably but ends up being a great watch and a very worthy film to carry on the legacy of the Apes franchise.

7/10

Be sure to come back soon for part 4 of this retrospective series, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes!

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