This weekend’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes will be the eighth feature film (the second in the new series that began with 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes) in a franchise that has spanned books, film, television, and comics over the last fifty years. The Apes series, with its popularity, merchandise, and ancillaries, in many ways prefigured the modern franchise era that is generally acknowledged as beginning with Star Wars (and was codified with 1989’s Batman).
That Planet of the Apes became such a sensation is especially interesting because the series is so deeply weird. Full of powerful inversions to go along with the story’s portrait of a world turned upside down, the series was hugely popular with children despite being full of talky moral debate and featuring relentessly downbeat endings. Just as audiences find themselves oriented in a world where the humans are subjugated and apes rule, the series will turn things around and get them to identify with the apes and root against humankind (and then, perhaps, back again). This is a series that extends a further three entries after an ending that would seem to preclude any further stories.
First things first, I can’t suggest strongly enough that you should just go and watch the original series of five films. They’re imaginative adventure films with memorable characters and rich socio-political content, and they’re so full of twists and turns that even if you know the big reveal at the end of the first film there are still plenty of shocking twists and turns in store.
APES AT THE MOVIES
Planet of the Apes originated in the pages of the French novel La Planète des singes by Pierre Boulle, author of The Bridge Over the River Kwai. Known in English as Planet of the Apes or Monkey Planet, the novel tells the story of three human astronauts travelling to a planet orbiting Betelgeuse inhabited by civilized apes and savage humans and returning home to find their own planet has been taken over by apes (and, in a double twist, the entire story is related by a couple reading a manuscript they found in a bottle and disregarding it as impossible; the couple are intelligent chimps). Producer Arthur Jacobs bought the rights to the novel and got Richard Zanuck to green-light the film at 20th Century Fox. Jacobs hired Rod Serling to adapt the novel, and while much of his script was rejected for being too expensive (Serling’s apes, like Boulle’s, lived in an advanced and technological society), the film retained a version of his ending. The next writer was Michael Wilson, formerly blacklisted as an unfriendly witness for the House Un-American Activities Committee and communist. Wilson kept the basic shape of Serling’s script, but re-set the film in a more primitive ape society and created all new dialogue (his experiences with HUAC must have contributed to his work in the scenes where Taylor faces the orangutan tribunal). To create the ape characters, the production hired John Chambers (you may have seen John Goodman play him in Argo) to create new prosthetic makeup techniques.
The finished film tells the story of a trio of astronauts that crash land on a strange planet after a long near light speed space voyage. The crew’s leader, Taylor (Charlton Heston), is a cynical and misanthropic guy with an avowed contempt for humanity and their warlike ways. When they stumble upon a band of mute humans, they are horrified to discover that the dominant species on this planet are intelligent, civilized apes. Swept up in a hunting expedition, Taylor is captured by rifle-wielding gorillas and imprisoned in the apes’ city. When they discover he can talk, Taylor becomes the center of controversy, as the kindly chimpanzees Zira (Kim Hunter) and Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) defend him from the orangutan Minister of Science and Chief Defender of the Faith, Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans). Together, Taylor, Zira and Cornelius discover long-buried secrets about the history of ape civilization and humankind’s role in it. In the end, Taylor and his mute human companion Nova (Linda Harrison) ride off toward one of cinema’s most iconic endings and discover one last secret about the Planet of the Apes.
The film was critically well received at the time, and has gone on to join the canon of classic film, both for the science fiction genre and in general. John Chambers won an honorary Academy Award for the makeup effects in the film, and both costume designer Morton Haack and composer Jerry Goldsmith were nominated for their work.
With Planet proving to be a real hit, both Rod Serling and Pierre Boulle were approached to write the sequel. Both men offered a somewhat conventional notion of Taylor leading mankind against the apes. Looking for something that might better match the surprise and impact of the original film, they turned to British writer Paul Dehn (producer Mort Abrahams selected him after reading a book of his poetry). Dehn (pronounced “Dane” as in Hamlet or Marmaduke) had been an intelligence agent during World War II, participating in missions in France and Norway, and had utilized some of that knowledge as the writer of the film version of Goldfinger and The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. He also had traumatic feelings about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and a deep fear of nuclear warfare, which found an obvious outlet in Beneath.
Charlton Heston was not at all interested in participating in a sequel to Planet, but he agreed to appear in the film for no more than eight days of shooting and donated his guild-minimum fee to his son’s school. The film opens with the conclusion of the previous film and proceeds with Taylor and Nova exploring the Forbidden Zone. It isn’t long at all, however, until Taylor investigates a cliff-face and disappears before a horrified Nova’s eyes. We then follow Brent (James Franciscus giving good budget-Heston), an astronaut sent out to recover Taylor and his crew, now also stranded in the ape-controlled future. Brent meets up with Nova and trips through an abbreviated version of Taylor’s journey. He is shocked to find a world ruled by apes, ends up in Ape City, and encounters Zira and Cornelius (portrayed in this film by David Watson since Roddy McDowall was directing a play in Scotland). But we can observe that things have deteriorated in Ape City, as gorilla General Ursus is gathering support for an armed invasion of the Forbidden Zone and the eradication of humans. Brent and Nova escape and, after hiding in a cave, discover the ruins of New York city under ground. Even more shocking, they encounter the denizens of this underground city, a band of telepathic humans, scarred and mutated by radiation and worshipping an ancient nuclear bomb. Brent and Nova are reunited with Taylor just in time to get caught in the middle as Ursus and Dr. Zaius lead an ape army against the mutants. While the movie treads familiar ground for a bit in the early going, once we get beneath the surface the planet things get crazy and weird, and the movie builds to a truly memorable climax.
After ending Beneath on a note that seems like a foolproof way to prevent any future sequels, you could excuse the filmmakers for thinking that the story had ended. But when Beneath proved to be another financial success, Paul Dehn received a telegram from producer Arthur Jacobs that stated simply, “Apes exist. Sequel required.”
With the dual goals of getting around Beneath‘s apocalyptic ending and bringing the budget down with fewer expensive makeups and new sets, Dehn concocted a story that would only feature Cornelius (Roddy McDowall again) and Zira (and a brief appearance by a new chimpanzee character, Dr. Milo, played by Sal Mineo). The apes travel back in time using Taylor’s ship from Planet, landing in contemporary California and become the subjects of a governmental inquiry, media darlings, and eventually fugitives, with the help of two friendly human zoologists and a kindly circus owner named Armando (Ricardo Montalban!).
With its contemporary setting and recognizable locations, Escape is almost shockingly different from the first two entries. It is ultimately a sneaky inversion of Planet that redirects our sympathies from the humans to the apes, but with a disorienting opening and a hugely charming light-comedy middle section, the movie lulls the audience into forgetting they are watching an Apes film, finally reasserting that old Apes tone as Cornelius and Zira reveal new information about Earth’s future history and the screws begin to tighten.
Suspecting now that the series would be an ongoing concern, Dehn planted seeds in this film that could be revisited in the event of a fourth film, and when Escape earned the best reviews of any of the sequels and once again earned a handsome profit, a fourth film moved into production.
In 1991 (18 years after the end of Escape), we return to a world much like the one Cornelius described in the previous film. A plague has killed the world’s dogs and cats, and humans have progressed from keeping apes as household pets to a culture based heavily on ape slave labor. Armando and his young chimpanzee companion, Caesar (Roddy McDowall), are advertising the arrival of their circus near a large city, and Caesar ends up alone and enslaved. What follows is a grim and subversive (and thrilling) story about Caesar’s transition from naive and gentle chimpanzee to angry revolutionary leader, eventually leading the city’s population of apes in an uprising against the humans.
Fox had concerns that the film was too violent and provocative. The producers have talked about mothers rushing their children out of the theater at the first test screening in Phoenix due to the violence in the film’s climactic riot sequence. In other test screenings with predominantly black audiences there are reports of crowds standing up and cheering the apes on, responding vocally to imagery that strongly recalled the Watts Riots in 1965. Growing nervous about how potent their film had turned out, Fox trimmed some of the most graphic violence and brought McDowall back in to record a more moderate addendum to Caesar’s powerful call for violent revolution that originally ended the film. Despite these attempts to soften the tone of the film, Conquest went out as the only PG-rated film in the original series (all of the rest are rated G) and the negative feedback from parents meant that the fifth film would go ahead with a mandate to create a more kid-friendly story.
After Paul Dehn’s original treatment was deemed too dark for the follow up to the too-dark Conquest, John and Joyce Corrington created a story about Caesar, softened from violent revoutionary to paternal leader in a post-nuclear society, trying to create peace between apes and the humans that have survived the wars that have ravaged their cities. Caesar faces opposition from the gorilla general Aldo, as well as, unbeknownst to him, a band of irradiated humans that still live in the ruined city. Things come to a head as Caesar must lead a battle against the mutants for the survival of his society and against Aldo for its soul.
The film’s story is framed as a flashback in a wraparound sequence featuring the much discussed Lawgiver (John Huston as an orangutan!) telling a group of human and ape students the story of Caesar, and despite the stated goal of making an uncomplicated children’s movie with a happier ending, the final Lawgiver scene introduces a note of ambiguity. When asked by a human child, “Who knows about the future?”, the Lawgiver muses, “Perhaps only the dead.” as an ape child pulls the human’s pigtail and she pushes the ape to the ground. The camera continues to drift over to a statue of Caesar and, in close up, we see that a tear runs down the statues cheek. Is it a tear of joy that man and ape are living together, avoiding the future Cornelius and Zira warned about? Or is he weeping because it is in the nature of both man and ape to seek aggression and destruction? Is the series a circle or a loop that straightens itself out with a new future ahead?
APES ON TV
With Battle for the Planet of the Apes wrapping up the film series in 1973 to tepid reviews and a series-low (though still rather successful) at the box office, the ratings for TV broadcasts of the first few films must have convinced Fox and CBS that there might be some life left for the concept on television. CBS ordered 14 episodes of a Planet of the Apes television show in 1974. Set between the end of Battle and the beginning of Planet (a spaceship chronometer gives the year 3085, though it is mentioned that it could have stopped while they were traveling), the series follows two astronauts, Alan Virdon (Ron Harper) and Peter Burke (James Naughton), as they traverse the Planet of the Apes looking for any information or technology that might help them return to their time. Virdon and Burke are joined in their journeys from settlement to settlement by fugitive heretic chimpanzee Galen (Roddy McDowall) and pursued by gorilla General Urko (Mark “Mr. Spock’s father, Sarek” Lenard). The show was cancelled due to low ratings after those fourteen episodes, and in 1980 ten of the episodes were repackaged into five made-for-TV movies, with each movie including material from two episodes.
When these movies (Back to the Planet of the Apes, Forgotten City of the Planet of the Apes, Treachery and Greed on the Planet of the Apes, Life, Liberty and Pursuit on the Planet of the Apes & Farewell to the Planet of the Apes) later entered syndication, ABC created new openings and closings featuring Roddy McDowall as an older Galen looking back on his adventures with the astronauts. This new material also revealed that, despite there being no resolution in the series proper, Virdon and Burke “found their computer in another city and disappeared into space as suddenly as they’d arrived.”
The last new Apes production for 25 years, Return to the Planet of the Apes combines elements of both the film and live-action television series, as well as concepts that were discarded as too expensive to execute in live action (an advanced ape society with big cities and automobiles). The series ran for 13 episodes on NBC in 1975 (no further episodes were produced, but it wasn’t cancelled until 1976). The show’s animation, by DePatie-Freleng Enterprises, is not well regarded, but the design work is often striking and the scripts are rather good for this sort of thing, and do justice to the tone of the material they were adapting.
APES IN THE 21ST CENTURY
Planet of the Apes had been a sensation primarily in a pre-Star Wars, pre-blockbuster franchise world. As the culture at movie studios shifted in that direction in the 1980s, 20th Century Fox realized they had a franchise gone fallow that needed exploiting. Starting in the late 80s, Fox developed a variety of potential Apes sequels/reboots.
- Ron Rifkin wrote an alternate sequel to the original film, a story that was apparently something like Gladiator, with a descendant of Taylor leading a human slave revolt.
- Peter Jackson & Fran Walsh pitched a version that woud have featured Roddy McDowall as an ape Leonardo da Vinci figure in a Renaissance ape society dealing with controversial art, human uprisings, and gorilla anger about a half-human, half-ape child.
- Oliver Stone was involved as a producer and possible director on a story that involved a geneticist, in the hopes of preventing a plague described as a “genetic time bomb,” time-traveling to the Paleolithic where primitive humans are at war with highly evolved apes. Stone spoke publicly about ideas including frozen apes being discovered who knew about a secret code in the Bible that predicted all historical events.
- Chris Columbus worked with Sam Hamm on a version wherein an ape astronaut crashes in New York and exposes humanity to a virus that will render them extinct, two humans use the ape’s ship to return to his planet in search of a cure, finding an urban ape environment where humans are cruelly subjugated, returning with the cure, and finding that in their absence apes have taken over Earth as well.
- James Cameron was in talks to write and direct a version that was rumored to have been an in-continuity sequel to the original series, taking place thirty years after Taylor and his crew had landed on an Earth that had a different ape society than the one the original Taylor encountered, thanks to the changes to ape history that Cornelius, Zira, and Caesar had wrought.
Finally, in 2001, Fox got their new Planet of the Apes in theaters.
Burton’s Planet of the Apes arrived as a mild breath of fresh air in the summer of 2001, garnering mixed-to-positive reviews, but now you’d be hard pressed to find defenders in the wild. Certainly, it disappoints as both an Apes film and as a Tim Burton film. The film tells the story of perpetually confused astronaut Leo Davidson (a perpetually confused Mark Wahlberg) crashing on a distant planet ruled by apes and leading a band of human slaves to discover the planet’s secret history, and its connection to Wahlberg’s own ship and crew. The biggest problem with the film, from both the Apes and Burton perspectives, is how generic it is. Still, there are elements that work well. Danny Elfman’s score is excellent, particularly the main title cue. Rick Baker’s make-up work is phenomenal in its variety, expressiveness, and detail. The look of the film also isn’t as epic-western as the original film (or as crazy imaginative as people demand of Burton) but it’s a handsomely designed and shot film. Philippe Rousselot’s photography is attractive, and while it is more set-bound and reliant on matte paintings than the original, the sets and matte paintings are good. Similarly, the ape performances (and the notion of making them less evolved and more simian in their behavior) lend the movie some dynamism that it doesn’t have thematically or in its deadly-dull human characters. It’s interesting to look at these particular areas of failure in the film, because they actually assembled a number of the elements that made up a good Apes story in the first five films. The intermingling of government, science, and religion (the story of Michael Clarke Duncan’s Attar is particularly intriguing in concept, as he learns that his religion is a lie that is used to ensure his participation in an exploitative social structure), the way that history and buried secrets become integral to the current narrative (with time travel playing a big role), a dominant population oppressing the other are all represented in the new film, but they aren’t explored in any depth and they aren’t connected to what’s going on today. (Incidentally, I wonder if they’d have had a shot at fashioning that narrative, with some tweaks, into something actually resonant a couple of years later once the country was again bitterly divided politically, debating the role of religion in government, and entangled in racially/culturally charged conflicts abroad.)
Burton’s film was financially successful, but Fox opted not to produce a sequel, instead waiting a few years and then developing a film that would be a very loose remake of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes.
After it became apparent that Fox wasn’t moving forward with a sequel to the 2001 film, rumors began to circulate that they were instead interested in doing a remake of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. And that is, after a fashion, what they did. Scott Frank was seemingly in the running to make a film titled Caesar for a while (the script was always written about with excitement by those who had procured a draft), but the version that ended up moving forward was written by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, apparently inspired by an article they’d read about the owners of pet chimpanzees who were struggling with the fact that their chimps had become troublesome and weren’t suited for their human environment.
In the film, Will Rodman (James Franco), a scientist working on a cure for brain diseases like Alzheimer’s, adopts the offspring of a laboratory chimp and raises it as a son. Caesar (Andy Serkis), the chimpanzee, turns out to have inherited the effects of the drug that had been tested on his mother and displays greatly increased intelligence. As he grows up, he finds that he occupies an uneasy space between pet and human. After he loses control and attacks a neighbor to defend Will’s ailing grandfather, Caesar is taken from Will and remanded to a primate sanctuary. Infuriated by the conditions at the sanctuary and frustrated with the behavior of the other apes, Caesar executes a plan to take leadership of the apes, use Will’s experimental drug to boost their intelligence, and lead them on a thrilling escape to the redwood forest in Muir Woods. As Caesar and his apes gain their freedom, we also learn that the latest iteration of Will’s experiment may have dire effects on humankind.
In a move that would initially prove controversial among Apes fans, Rise utilized performance capture technology to create digital apes, making this the first live-action Apes project that didn’t feature prosthetic makeup effects. However, this turned out to be a masterstroke, as the story called for characters that were meant to be actual apes as we might know them today, and the design and performance of these digital apes was beautiful and incredibly convincing. Caesar, as created by Andy Serkis and the team at Weta Digital, is the true star of the movie and has a shocking depth of emotion and soulfulness.
Rise is an interesting contrast to the Burton film, because while it doesn’t check some of the Apes boxes that film does (there’s no involvement of religion and there are no buried secrets that radically effect the story), it succeeds wildly with the elements it does include (a study of oppression and revolt and that downbeat knife-twist ending). Like the 2001 film, Rise does include winks to the original series (we get glimpses of news stories about the launch and then disappearance of the Icarus; Caesar plays with a statue of liberty toy; many of the characters are named for characters and creative personnel in the original film; famous lines of dialogue are referenced), but perhaps the difference in tone can best be perceived in the way the two films shout out to Taylor’s famous “Get your stinkin’ paws off me” line. In the 2001 film, it’s a simple flip, where the gorilla Attar snarls the line at Leo Davidson and calls him a “damned dirty human.” In contrast, Rise has Tom Felton’s Dodge say the line to Caesar in the middle of a tense confrontation in the primate sanctuary. Both times that I saw the movie theatrically this line got a knowing laugh, but the magic trick here is that Wyatt uses the laugh to put the audience off guard for the following beat: Caesar bellows, “NO!” The audience gasps.
I could go on about how beautifully directed the movie is, how fantastic the action climax is, how bracing the mostly wordless sequences in the primate sanctuary are, but really you should just watch the movie. And get ready for Dawn.