Chuck Heston, though a tad saggy, gives us a good old-fashioned American hero to root for in no-nonsense astronaut, George Taylor, as he finds himself stranded on the titular planet. We know most the story beats – the reveal of the apes, the Statue of Liberty, etc – but amazingly, it all still holds up! But despite knowing most of the movie’s big twists, we settle into the story and really get to grips with the drama. The abuse of Taylor at the hands of the Ape oppressors, Zira (Kim Hunter) and Cornelius’ (Roddy McDowall) fight to prove that Apes evolved from someone else and Dr. Zaius’ conviction to uphold religious Ape scripture are all fascinating thematic and character-based stories. On top of which, the story yields a couple more twists for those that don’t know it.
If it needs to be said again, the make-up effects by John Chambers are still amazing and seamless and the camera work by Leon Shamroy is interesting and off-kilter, which is entirely in keeping with this oddball sci-fi epic. It’s old-fashioned but in ways that make space for wonder and fear but leave plenty of time for exploraton of human stories and ideas through characters.
Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970) Ted Post
[Minor spoilers] Possibly signalling the end of the swinging sixties more succinctly than The Stones at Altamont, the rise of Nixon or even 1st January 1970, Beneath is most definitely a bleak-buster!
Astronaut, Brent (James Franciscus), crash lands on POTA, whilst searching for Taylor by following his course through space. Led to Ape City by the abandoned Nova (Linda Harrison), he meets Cornelius and Zira who point him to the Forbidden Zone – Taylor’s last known whereabouts.
The themes here are much darker: starting from the first film’s warnings about the destructive nature of man, there are questions raised about the barbarous apes versus blind blame-shifting of intellectuals. The chief question being – why not kill them all?
Much less naff than Post’s previous Spaghetti Western cash-in, Hang ‘Em High, this film makes good on the intelligence of Planet but remembers also to be an action movie. There is a terrifically pointless suspense/chase sequence in the middle where Brent and Nova escape Ape City only to be captured and then escape again.
Franciscus does not have the epic chops of Heston but ultimately, it works and Linda Harrison deserves kudos for turning a potential bimbo role into something more sympathetic.
I’d been told that this was the shit one that you forget – well, sorry – I really liked it!
For reasons never fully explained, Zira, Cornelius and another chimp called Milo end up back on contemporary Earth and once revealed to be sentient, even intellectual, they are paraded before America’s cultural elite. However, their accidental revelation that Apes will conquer humans, causes scientist Dr. Hasslein to plot the couple’s deaths.
Let’s start with what doesn’t work because there is some serious cringe here! The sequences showing Cornelius and Zira getting dressed in human gear and having bubble baths is painful and Jerry Goldsmith‘s really lame score doesn’t work. There are also some logic leaps that need explaining: why so shocked at apes getting changed? You’ve just seen them disembark a spaceship in spacesuits! Why did they leave Future-Earth just before it exploded? Where’s Eloise at the end?
Nevertheless, Cornelius and Zira are great characters well played. Everyone has motivations (Hasslein is angry about man’s carelessness) and the ideas of barbarism versus intellect are still being explored in an interesting way. The twists are good and Ricardo Montalban turns up late on to be super awesome! Flawed but entertaining and engaging.
Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972) J. Lee Thompson
Best of the series so far! This is the one with it’s revolution writ large but with it’s feet grounded firmly in the characters and the story. Set in the far future of 1991 (what will it be like?), circus owner Armando (Ricardo Montalban) brings Zira and Cornelius’ son, the for-some-reason-renamed Caesar (Roddy McDowall again), to the city. Apes are now kept as slaves but Caesar’s knowledge of the future and his disgust at the treatment of apes will lead to begin the overthrow of the hated human masters!
It’s a surprisingly modern looking film with it’s steely blues and glowing orange colours and plenty of hand-held camerawork; the design is sleek but the look counteracts that with more grit.
This doesn’t quite get full marks, though. The reason being that, like with Escape, the female characters have gone downhill. Two characters played by Natalie Trundy (not her fault, by the way) are all but helpless waifs. There’s nothing to equal Zira or Nova.
There are also a couple of plot leaps that don’t add up but since when has the fourth film in a franchise been this smart, this exciting and this insightful and inciteful?
Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973) J. Lee Thompson
Apparently the budget got cut further and further back for each subsequent installment and here it becomes painfully obvious with planet-threatening battles looking more Mods v Rockers in Quadrophenia. That’s no excuse, however, for the ear-scraping expository dialogue, with characters forever saying things to one another that they already know.
A decent cast (Roddy McDowall again, Austin Stoker, John Huston and John Landis) let down by what must’ve been a rushed production. That can also be the only explantion for the ape make-up looking as ropey as it does here. It was becoming apparent but not distractingly so in Conquest. Here, mouths won’t close or they won’t open enough.
Some shots are nicely done in the final battle and the themes are there again but they are just there as opposed to explored. The story and the production just is not up to snuff though and after the care and intelligence of the last four films, this is not good enough.
Planet of the Apes (2001) Tim Burton
What happens if you put Billy the Kid, a synchronised swimmer and a pair of massive nostrils together? You get something not very interesting. You get Tim Burton‘s “reimagining” of a Franklin J. Schaffner film. If Burton took his name off the opening credits, you wouldn’t know it was his work – it’s so anonymous!
If you wanna know what the film is about just watch the opening credits which is a bunch of costumes and make-up and hats off to Rick Baker and Colleen Atwood because their make up effects and costume designs are incredible! Sadly, however, they are caught in a film from whence any subtext gleaned is there merely as lip service to the original. It’s not a beat-for-beat remake but it’s as near as dammit and Marky Mark is no Heston! Heston’s Taylor was an arrogant man stripped of all his power – even his voice – and forced to re-assess his cynical attitude. Marky Mark is just a nice guy in a difficult job: BO-RING!
Amongst a litany of other annoyances (Paul Giamatti, pointless kid danger*) has anyone else noticed the irony of a cameoing Heston warning of the dangers of men with guns?
Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) Rupert Wyatt
Now here’s an example of a film that really cleverly reinvents the origins and – if anything – does it better than the original series! Whereas before we had a never-fully-explained time travel origin with Escape, in Rise we have the apes given power through scientific experimentation for Alzheimer’s. The humans allow for their own downfall through a terrible combination of exploitation and a desire to do good.
Scientist Will Rodman (James Franco) secretly raises Caesar (Andy Serkis), a chimp born with the anti-Alzheimer’s drug in his body via his innoculated mother. As he grows up, he is exposed to the cruelty and lies of humans, culminating in his abuse and exposure to the abuse against other apes in a primate shelter, thus leading to the revolution.
The SFX are already looking dated but that’s no great worry when the apes, in particular Caesar, are so compelling and the nuances of Serkis’ performance are so well realised onscreen. The dichotomy of the humans’ folly makes the political nature of the series inherent in the story all over again. Caesar is the miracle ape but his disgust at the bondage of his own kind creates the freedom fighter within him**.
*I should use this moment to say: well done us for complaining about some of the old tropes which are painfully apparent here that got eradicated like the impetuous kid who puts himself in danger for no decent reason.
** I haven’t linked a trailer to this one because even though the ending of the film is pretty obvious, I still think the trailers show too much.