In the 1960s Arthur P. Jacobs purchased screen rights to Pierre Boulle’s novel “Monkey Planet,” for Twentieth Century Fox. It became Jacobs’ dream project, facing an uphill battle with skeptical executives. Not helping the producer’s cause was Boulle’s public statement, calling “Monkey Planet” his worst novel.*
Rod Serling and Michael Wilson co-wrote the screen adaptation for Planet of The Apes (1968), which is far more Twilight Zone in construction than Boulle. Jacobs wisely cast Charlton Heston in the lead role. Heston, who loved the script, was helpful in influencing studio heads to green light and assign director Franklin J. Shaffner, who the actor had worked with in the underrated The War Lord (1965).
Studio misgivings were laid aside when Planet of the Apes (1968) proved to be a monstrous success. Before Star Wars, Batman, etc, Planet of the Apes was the original blockbuster franchise, spawning four sequels, a short-lived television series, an animated series, and a comic book. The original film still retains its classic pop status, despite revisionist opinions, usually by those who have not seen it and dismiss it as a cheesy byproduct of the sixties and seventies. Actually, it is science fiction at its most preferable: the cinematic equivalent of Cracker Jacks with its prize being smart dumb fun amidst caramel popcorn and salty peanuts. Who, in all honesty, would find Kubrick’s academic psychedelia 2001: A Space Odyssey, made the same year, as fun an experience as American icon Heston being put through Sterling’s pulp karma in the form of gorillas on horseback? Heston’s Col. Taylor, disdainful of mankind, is replete with character flaws, yet we root for him as he is catapulted through a physical and emotional nightmare, in which he is forced to do a philosophical about-face, only to learn he was right all along. Heston’s physicality perfectly responds to Sterling’s blunt ironies. It is the hippest performance of the actor’s career and one can understand his hesitancy regarding the sequel; Beneath The Planet Of The Apes (1970).
Heston’s performance here amounts to a cameo, with James Franciscus filling in, albeit with a second rate imitation. Still, once past the unnecessary rehash of the first film, Beneath, in its innovative second half,proves to be the strangest, most underrated of the franchise. It is also the only sequel, which retained the original’s flavor.
Escape From The Planet Of The Apes (1971), the best of the sequels benefits from the quirky performances of Kim Hunter and Roddy McDowell. Writer Paul Dehn crafts an inventive, humor-laden narrative that delights in seventies pop culture. Dehn, a noted film critic, drew, in part, off Rod Sterling’s original script draft for the first film, as well as Boulle’s novel, in which Apes and humans coexist in a modern society. The Sterlingesque first half gives way to Dehn’s pre-apocalyptic sensibilities and pop social commentary on racism and violence.
Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes (1972) is literally Bazooka Bubble Gum armageddon,especially in the unrated version, found on home video. The slavery theme, in the decade immediately following the civil rights battle, made Conquest an enormously popular entry and Dehn sells the preposterousness of it by sheer style alone. Battle for the Planet of The Apes (1973) fatally erred by switching horses in the middle of the ride (i.e. taking script-writing duties away from Dehn). The result was hopelessly dull family fare pretension with a vapid happy, happy, joy, joy intolerable New Age peace and harmony ending, which contradicts everything before it. The short-lived television seres, while hardly classic, was a slight step-up. By now the reputation of the original suffered from overexposure and the inevitable law of diminishing returns.
After Tim Burton’s failed, all gloss re-boot from 2001, Twentieth Century Fox waited a full decade before handing the new Apes project over to producer and writer Rick Jaffa (among others), feeling the time was ripe to right Burton’s wrong. Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) justified their patience. Director Rupert Wyatt and actor Andy Serkis were considerable assets to the film’s critical and box office success. Rise is the first Apes to utilize CGI and the results are mixed. The primary detractions come in form of egregious homages to the original film, including Heston’s infamous line, which is rendered a disservice to this wily pulp. Rise also set a new pattern in dull human counterparts. James Franco is adrift and his brow beating may possibly have been the result of realizing he had been upstaged. Freida Pinto is wasted, reduced to decor. The only genuine interaction between actors is found in John Lithgow’s Alzheimer victim with Serkis’ remarkable turn as Caesar. Rise is also water logged with the most vapid and dull of subplots: the big bad wolf capitalist executive playing havoc with science for profit, before his inevitable comeuppance. The epic social underpinnings of the 1968 original are scaled down to a commentary on animal testing, but one that smartly yields to a revamping of Conquest. Wyatt’s stylish direction mostly overcomes the sloppy writing. Flaws, aside Rise was successful enough to warrant this year’s entry.
A sequel was planned from the beginning, with Serkis returning for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014), directed by Matt Reeves, who previous credits include Cloverfield (2008) and Let Me In (2010). Some critics are hailing Dawn as the best of the entire Apes franchise, and although a distinct improvement over its immediate predecessor, this proves to be a slight exaggeration, but only slight. As Rise was conscientious folklore retelling of Conquest, Dawn uses Battle for a diving board and, fortunately, transforms its source (the worst of the Apes films) into one of the best.
Dawn, with returning writers Jaffa and Amanda Silver, repeats some of the missteps of Rise. Homages to the original abound and still serve as distractions. However, new writer Mark Bomback seems to have assisted in upping the ante (although his resume would not indicate that potential) delivering a script with the primary message that “Us-or-Them” is synonym to “Bigotry.
Dawn, like the best Apes films, has a Rod Sterlingesque sheen, but it also indebted to Dehn’s somber, subtle as weapons of mass destruction apes branded social commentary. Additionally, there is a distant aesthetic relationship to Budd Boetticher’s hyper complex, cryptic character prism filtered through the sensibilities of independent filmmaking (despite being a big studio enterprise). It is, or rather should be within our nature to root for the underdog, but as in a Boetticher film, we are unsure just who the underdog is. Both simian and human are prone to profiling and race demonization, but often this is borne through desperate struggle to survive, rather than being a genetic trait.Although,the shading is laudably complex, Dawn, like Rise, slightly falters in a vital area; the human counterparts themselves are mostly a dull lot with only a few performances rising above sketchiness. On the other hand, focusing primarily on the apes proves to be a good choice.
Aided by motion capture, Serkis’ powerhouse performance as Caesar is even more impressive this time around and is the most, if not the only, successful collaboration between actor and CGI to date and, unlike the recent Spiderman travesty, the effects are utilized only to strengthen performance and narrative. Although clearly the protagonist, Caesar is fallible and fears change, which is Dawn‘s second big theme, practically splattered on us through a bull horn, which is hardly a criticism. Almost matching Serkis is Toby Kebbell’s performance as the radical militant Koba. It is a given that Dawn will not be a favorite among a good number of NRA members or George W. Bush foreign policy fans, but Kebbell avoids degenerating into cartoon territory, which would have been easy to do. His Koba is not entirely without sympathy and understandable motive. A third, notable performance is found in Karin Konoval’s reprise of the orangutan; Maurice (the name being a nod to Maurice Evans who played Dr. Zaius in the 1968 original). Maurice has taken on the mantle of a pedagogical simian. Anti-war, anti-racism, pro-gun control, pro-civil law, and pro-education, Dawn Of The Planet Of the Apes, is, quite possible, rendered a summer nightmare for obtuse summer blockbuster zealots and social media forum kooks.
Some criticisms have been leveled against this film for its preachiness and pacing. Aesthetically echoing its message that trust is hard earned, Dawn is more akin to a thought out, gradually convincing us homily as opposed to a banging-the pulpit Transformers sermon. Yet, this is not a summer move devoid of visceral excitement. Indeed, it is a rare, flavorful popcorn, aided immensely by Michael Giacchino’s score, building to a dynamic, Orwellian crescendo.
* Boulle had previously written the novel Bridge on the Rive Kwai’ received credit for the screenplay, but declined to show up for the Academy Award. The reason for the no-show was that Boulle did not write the script, but agreed to receive credit for the film’s backlisted writers.
*Boulle had previously written the novel “Bridge on the River Kwai” and received credit for the screenplay, but declined to show up for the Academy Award. The reason for the no-show was that Boulle did not write the script, but agreed to receive credit for the film’s back-listed writers.