A Cinefessions Series Review is a periodic column that sees one or more writers watching and reviewing an entire film series. Cinefessions considers any film franchise that has two or more films a series, and thus available for review in this column. This is a way to get a quick look at an entire collection of films in one column. Today, in honor of the new film in the series releasing tomorrow, Branden looks back at the entire Planet of the Apes series.
Planet of the Apes (1968, dir. Franklin J. Schaffner)
Much like everyone now knows what Rosebud is in Citizen Kane, it’s safe to say that everyone knows the twist in this sci-fi classic. Even with this knowledge tucked firmly into the back of my mind, Planet of the Apes is a fascinating, intellectual ride that never seems to get old. There are points where the film has the potential to slow down, but that is avoided by the wonderfully thought out history of these Simians. If someone isn’t as engaged with the idea of this story – apes taking over man in the food chain – then that person may find Planet a bit slow. But if you’re as enthralled by this idea as I am, you’ll eat these moments up.
The acting from Charlton Heston is what helps set Planet of the Apes up as bonafide classic. His delivery is what makes otherwise silly moments absolutely powerful. The “take your stinking paws off me, you damn, dirty ape” moment is one of the finest in the film, but not entirely thanks to Heston. What makes this moment pop is the fact that it is the first time Taylor (Heston’s character) is able to speak in front of the apes after being shot in the neck. The build to this moment, Heston’s delivery, and the ape’s response is magical. In the world of the film, this moment would be equivalent to you or I hearing an animal talk in full voice for the first time. It is clearly life altering, and director Franklin J. Schaffner handles it incredibly well.
I could point out a dozen special moments like this in Planet of the Apes, but it’s the director’s overall ability to make even the simplest of scenes memorable. Planet of the Apes is not for everyone, but fans of hard sci-fi will surely enjoy this masterpiece if they haven’t already. It tells one of the most interesting stories I’ve ever heard, and does so masterfully in every respect.
Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970, dir. Ted Post)
Wow, Beneath the Planet of the Apes takes things in a much different direction than I expected. Almost too much so, in fact. But why it still works is because it adds depth to the story that is first told in Planet of the Apes. The science is still interesting, and the fact that man is below ape on the food chain still fascinates me. Beneath introduces a new main character in Brent, and he is a fantastic actor that adds a ton to the film. Watching him next to Charlton Heston is really something special.
Nova really stands out in this film, even though she is still a mute with no spoken dialogue. Not only is she an absolute beauty, but she is able to deliver all of the emotion of the talking actors without uttering a sound.
My main problem with this film is the fact that, on multiple occasions, the Simian special effects do not work. At times an ape will raise his head too high and the actor’s human neck is clearly visible. What bugs me about this is the fact that this film clearly has a higher budget, but that budget is spent on laughable CGI effects and building a broken down city (which admittedly looks incredible, and I loved it to death), but little attention is paid to keeping the viewer invested in the fact that they’re listening to apes talk instead of man. This was never a problem in the first film, and is probably a result of trying to rush out a sequel to capitalize on the first film’s success. It just comes off as amateurish, and sloppy, and really took me out of the film.
The story takes some definite suspension of disbelief to work, but, frankly, I’m sold on this whole story so well that I am willing to do just that. Beneath the Planet of the Apes is not nearly as good as the first film, but it still does a whole hell of a lot of interesting things, and adds a great deal of depth to what was established in Planet of the Apes. It will be interesting to see where the series goes from here because of the sheer finality of this film.
Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971, dir. Don Taylor)
It only took one scene before I knew I was going to enjoy Escape from the Planet of the Apes. The opening scene sees the US government converging on an unknown spacecraft that landed in the ocean. They beach the craft, and open it up to find three astronauts inside. Once they take off their helmets, series favorites Zira and Cornelius are revealed, alongside a third ape, Dr. Milo. The troops are in shock, and Escape is underway.
Where Escape succeeds is in placing these three talking chimpanzees into a 1973 America. The chimps hide their ability to talk in the beginning, but Zira’s stubbornness plays through, and she finally reveals their secret. There are tons of laugh out loud moments in the first half of Escape that come from watching the world deal with the fact that there are now two talking apes in their midst, and also from the apes getting to appreciate all the “modern” conveniences of 1970s California. More could have been made of the fact that the apes were watching their first television set, but I actually liked the subtlety that they found (like Zira replying “goodnight” to the news anchorman).
Escape does not add a whole hell of a lot to the story of this franchise, but it does add some small, important facts (like the evolution of apes, from pets to their first spoken word). More importantly, it smartly brings back the best characters from the first couple of films in Zira and Cornelius. This couple has quickly become one of my favorite on-screen couples of all-time. They are wonderfully, fully realized characters that shine thanks to some incredible acting by Kim Hunter and Roddy McDowall (making his return to the series after missing Beneath the Planet of the Apes). They grow even sweeter in this film, and I just adore the two.
Their human counterpart is, once again, an excellent addition. Much like Charlton Heston and James Franciscus before him, Bradford Dillman as Dr. Lewis Dixon is charming and incredibly likeable. He works well with his sidekick, Dr. Stephanie Branton. They do a great job of playing the good guys to the rest of the human race, which act as the bad guys in the film.
Sure, Escape is a lot less scientific and a lot sillier than the first two films, but aside from odd musical choices in the film, I love it. It adds to the charm of the series, and helps set the series up for more movies, which is exactly what the last film did not do. It will be interesting to see where things go from here, but this is another incredibly solid outing in the Planet of the Apes mythos.
Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972, dir. J. Lee Thompson)
It’s clear to see this series taking a turn from the hard sci-fi flicks that were the first two movies to the more mainstream summer movies that are Escape and Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. That isn’t to say that the series is getting worse, mind, it is just different than what was first presented. I love the characters that the series introduces, though, and just eat up everything that the series has to offer at this point.
Conquest is the bloodiest and most violent film thus far, which, given it’s story, is right. Before watching this film, I always heard that it was prequel. That is only half true. While the events in this film take place in 1991, two-thousand years before the events of both Planet of the Apes and Beneath the Planet of the Apes, it is also eighteen years the events of Escape, and we continue the follow the spirit of Zira and Cornelius, only this time with their son, Caesar. Everything that Cornelius explained would happen in the last film has come to pass (the plague of household dogs and cats, and humans taking on apes as pets, and now, in 1991, apes act as slaves more than anything else). One of my favorite characters from the last film, who only played a minor role, is back, and acting as the guardian of Caesar. He brings Caesar out into the world for the first time, and Caesar sees how poorly his kind is treated by the humans. Things go awry for them, and they are separated, leaving Caesar to fend for himself.
The story is much shallower in this film than in any of the previous ones, but what is presented is still interesting as hell. It is clear that Rise of the Planet of Apes got most of its inspiration from this film, as it is the story of how Caesar begins the takeover. I wish the film would have built up more to this event, which ends in a fiery, fierce battle between humans and apes, but it isn’t terribly by any stretch. There are a lot of long takes of Caesar simply looking at another ape, or looking on in anger, fear, or determination. These moments extend the film, but do little to add the suspense of it.
Roddy McDowall is back under the ape suit, but this time he is playing Caesar. No matter what character he is playing, McDowall is absolutely brilliant. Caesar feels like a genuinely new character, but he holds some of the mannerisms and charms, as well as the faults, of his parents. Armando, played wonderfully by Ricardo Montalban in both this film and the last, remains one of the most likeable human characters in the entire series, and his story is genuinely moving. The writers push the character into a corner, which the director also literally does, and the only escape is the one that he takes. Armando’s story has a really interesting arc to it.
For the first time in the series, I had the option of picking either the theatrical version or the unrated cut. As always, I chose to watch the unrated version, and I can see where some of the cuts must have been made for theatrical release because there are some genuinely brutal and bloody shots to the heads of both the human and ape characters, and even an ape torture scene. This outright violence did feel a little out of place in the series, but given the circumstances, it still manages to make sense. It will be interesting to see the theatrical version in the future to see how much changes, and if any of it is noticeable.
I enjoyed Conquest of the Planet of the Apes a great deal, and it does stand out from the rest of the films, but more for the violence than anything else. I loved hearing the story of Caesar, especially after having it being built up for so many films (and the graphic novel series which I’ve just completed during this viewing of the series). Caesar is a wonderful character, and the humans continue to be as unlikable and despicable as Dr. Zaius warned they would be in the first film. Up to this point, a great deal of the past has been filled in, so it will be interesting to see where Battle for the Planet of the Apes fits in the story arc.
Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973, dir. J. Lee Thompson)
The story of Battle is told differently than any of the other films in that it is actually a flashback being told by the Lawgiver. He tells the story of Caesar about twelve years after he lead the revolution that we saw in Conquest. He has a son, and the apes are living with humans, though are clearly not their equals but their superiors. The cities they once lived are now decimated thanks to the humans setting off a bomb as a last resort to try and stop the apes from taking over. Aldo, a gorilla, is sick of living with the humans, and tries to lead a revolution of his own.
The story all leads up to the breaking of the first law that ape shall never harm ape, and it’s done incredibly well. I already love most of the characters in this film because I met a number of them in Conquest – the main players, anyway – and the new ones introduced are well fleshed out. Roddy McDowall is, once again, absolutely incredible as Caesar. He finds more and more nuances each time he takes on this role, or the role of Cornelius.
Though it could have backfired on the film, one of my favorite parts is the fact that the film is bookended by the speech of the Lawgiver. He is telling a group of students of their history, and the way the film wraps up the entire original series sent chills through my body. The story of this original series is beautifully told, and the final moments of Battle are a perfect ending to it all. It makes me happy that the filmmakers – who kept getting smaller and smaller budgets for these sequels – knew that this would be the series finale because they’re able to wrap it up wonderfully.
Battle has some interesting fighting scenes, but the best parts of the film are when the philosophy of the film series is brought up. This film sets up the history of the second film’s humans, and is essential to the series. What kills me is that the scene where this “religion” is born was cut from the theatrical version of the film. It is way too important to not be a part of the series, and I’m glad my Blu-ray had the extended cut, which is over ten minutes longer than the theatrical version.
Battle is a fitting end to the one of the finest film franchises I have ever come across. It adds a lot of small but important details to the series that only the geekiest of followers will appreciate. The battle scenes are fine, but they play second fiddle to the writing, which will surely turn off some viewers. For me, though, it is exactly what I hoped for in a finale.
Planet of the Apes (2001, dir. Tim Burton)
As difficult as it is to avoid the spoiler from the original film, it’s equally as difficult to avoid the vitriol that this movie has received over the years. Even with that, I just had a feeling that I would likely enjoy the movie. It has a great cast, and still lives on the same ideas of the original book and film, so I went in hopeful. Unfortunately, that hopeful attitude makes this movie even more of a letdown.
The biggest problem with this remake is that Tim Burton pays little respect to the entire mythos of the Planet of the Ape series that has been built up over a novel, two television series (one animated and one live action), and five films. Instead of honoring the world that was built before, he adds in a couple lines of dialogue to pay homage to the original film, but even those are poorly delivered. The coolest part of this film was seeing Charlton Heston return, this time as an ape, and deliver a version of his famous “damn them all to hell” line.
The fact that the humans can talk is not really explained, or played up at all. If humans can talk, why are they treated like animals, and why do they rarely speak to their ape masters? It just doesn’t make any sense. Then there is the fact that apes harm apes freely, none of the character names are kept the same (even Caesar is gone), and the way the apes came to take over the planet is completely different. Nothing of the original is kept intact except the title, and it feels like Burton doesn’t care about any of it.
Aside from the comparisons to the originals, even the new characters introduced here are no good. I felt like I was watching Jim Carrey play The Grinch with Paul Giamatti’s Limbo character, and Tim Roth – who is normally incredible – is just terrible and one-dimensional as Thade. Mark Wahlberg is fine in the leading role, but there is just no depth anywhere to be found in this film. The story feels like a typical summer blockbuster, with some explosions and a love story awkwardly thrown in, instead of the science-driven fantasy that is the original series. What makes this love story even odder is the fact that Burton tries to drive home an ape/human relationship, and it does not work. What’s worse is that Estella Warren is absolutely wasted as Daena. She is stunning and could have played as big a role as Nova from the original films, but she plays second fiddle to the director’s wife, which is a shame.
Maybe – there’s a small chance, at least – I would have enjoyed this film a bit more if it weren’t for the fact that I have just watched, and fell in love with, the original series. But what I love about this series is the philosophy and brains behind it. Burton’s film throws all of that out the window, and replaces it with another stupid, big, basic summer blockbuster formula. What a disappointment this is, and I haven’t discussed the nonsensical ending (I don’t care that it is more akin to the original novel because the film doesn’t build up to in any way that makes sense whatsoever, so it still doesn’t work). I cannot wait to watch Rise of the Planet of the Apes to wash this bitter taste out of my mouth.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011, dir. Rupert Wyatt)
I know I like to live in hyperbole, but I don’t think it’s possible to overstate my feelings of this film: I can’t remember seeing another new movie since Rise of the Planet of the Apes released in the summer of 2011 that is as good as this film. Rise is one of my favorite films of the past three years, and would undoubtedly fall in the top 25 of an all-time favorites list. There is virtually nothing wrong with this movie.
Aside from Spring Breakers, this has to be my favorite role for James Franco. He is sincere and strong as Will Rodman, the lead scientist developing an experimental drug to help the brain repair itself. He plays second fiddle to his father in the film, though, played by John Lithgow. I knew that Lithgow was a good actor coming in to this, but most of his roles I’ve seen him in were comedic characters (most notably the 3rd Rock from the Sun television series), but after Rise, Lithgow proves that he has the emotional capacity to drive viewers to tears. He is wonderfully sympathetic and subtle as Charles, who is fighting a losing battle with Alzheimer’s. Rise is all about the apes, though, and Andy Serkis has never been given the credit he deserves for his performance as Caesar. His work should have won him an Oscar, or at the very least, a nomination, but instead he has to settle for a Saturn Award for best supporting actor. His character arc is brilliantly written, and his acting follows suit. Frankly, there isn’t an actor in this film who is anything less than great (yes, I even like Tom Felton as Dodge).
The script is excellent as well, with a lot of respect paid to the original film. Yes, this is a reboot, but it takes what the original film presents and adds to it instead of ignoring it like the Tim Burton remake did. The way the script builds the story is damn near perfect, all culminating with Caesar speaking his inevitable first word, which, appropriately so according to Cornelius’ speech in Escape from the Planet of the Apes, is the word “no”. The moment when Dodge Landon (Tom Felton) yells, “take your stinking paws off me you damn dirty ape”, and Caesar replies is absolutely remarkable, and gives me goosebumps just thinking about it.
Once the apes break out, some of the shots that cinematographer Andrew Lesnie is able to create are breathtakingly ominous. Lesnie manages to show us that the apes are taking over in almost every shot thanks to his smart use of angles. Then, add on the special effects work, which mixes CGI with real human actors like Andy Serkis, and you have one hell of a film.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes is still one of my favorite films released since 2011. It takes the story that the original film creates, adds in some incredible CGI work, acting, and scriptwriting, and recreates an absolutely fascinating world that is ripe with potential. To say I am excited for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes would be a vast understatement. I’ve already (sort of) jokingly told Chris and Ashe that Dawn could not only be the best film of the year, but the greatest film ever made. All jokes aside, though, Dawn is shaping up to be another stunner, and if it is even half as good as Rise of the Planet of the Apes, then we’re all in for a treat.
The CSR Awards
(The Cinefessions’ Series Review Awards)
Best Picture: Rise of the Planet of the Apes
It is hard to pick against the original, which is damn near perfect, but Rise is too good to pass up.
Worst Picture: Planet of the Apes (2001)
This is the one reason I am grateful this remake exists; otherwise I would have had to give this title to an undeserving film.
Favorite Scene/Moment in Series: Caesar Speaks (Rise of the Planet of the Apes)
This is a series made up of a lot of great moments, but no other stands out as much as the moment that Caesar utters his first word. I literally get goosebumps every time I think about it. It is a perfectly executed moment.
Best Actress: Kim Hunter (Escape from the Planet of the Apes)
Kim Hunter could have taken this crown in any one of her outings as Zira, but her character is most fully realized in Escape. Her quirks and charms shine through every moment she is on-screen.
Best Actor: Roddy McDowall (Escape from the Planet of the Apes)
It is hard to look past Andy Serkis for this category, but Serkis clearly got his inspiration from McDowall, who just shines as both Cornelius and Caesar. Escape is when we get to the see both Cornelius and Zira’s personalities most, which is why I chose that outing to get the award.
Planet of the Apes will go down as one of my favorite film franchises of all-time. With Dawn of the Planet of the Apes releasing tomorrow, this franchise has everything in place to see two fully realized, separate film series spawn out of one idea: the idea that man is not as good as it gets. It is a fascinating concept, and one that I hope lives on as long as I do.
The average film rating for the Planet of the Apes series is 3.14 stars.