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Revisiting the Planet of the Apes

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Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, released today, is easily one of the most anticipated films of the summer – if not the year! For a die-hard fan of the original film franchise, the excitement over the new film is at a fever pitch. In celebration of this sequel (or prequel, if you will), I’ve compiled a brief primer of what you need to know about each of the seven films that predate Dawn.

Planet of the Apes (1968)

The original Planet of the Apes was spectacular for a number of reasons. It was an adaptation of a clever political satire by French novelist Pierre Boulle and was co-written by Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling. In case you weren’t sold on the revolutionary premise (what if humans were subservient to animals who treated us like we do them) and stunning visuals (John Chamber’ makeup design looks quaint today, but was innovate for late-60s standards), the twist ending remains one of the most iconic moments in all of cinema. The film hooked a generation on science fiction years before Yoda was a household name and just slightly after Captain Kirk first appeared on television.

Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970)

With Charlton Heston, the star of the first film, reluctantly appearing in only a few minutes of the film, the second installment of the series suffers from a bit of narrative redundancy. Another astronaut is brought to the upside-down planet, befriends Nova (a mute human) and two kind chimpanzees (Cornelius and Zira) and his life is once again threatened by anthropomorphic apes. There are some interesting twists, most of them involving mutant humans trapped underground, but a lot of the film feels a bit flat. Luckily the film was still a commercial success, as better films followed.

Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971)

Easily one of the most fun and enjoyable Apes films to watch, Escape sees Cornelius and Zira venturing via spaceship to the present day, 1971. Now they are the foreigners in a strange environment and are considered a threat to humanity. By this time, fans of the series had come to love the two chimpanzee protagonists and the filmmakers accurately gambled that audiences would align their support against the humans. We do, which is what makes this film so great to watch. It’s worth mentioning that this is Kim Hunter’s final film playing Zira and she gives one of the most human performances of the entire series in this movie.

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972)

The only movie of the original franchise to earn a PG rating, the fourth film in the series is a violent, exciting, deeply political tale of Caesar, played by Roddy McDowall who also appeared in every film but Beneath as Cornelius, who leads an ape revolution. According to the filmmakers, a great deal of the visual look and style was inspired by news footage of the Watts race riots. Conquest isn’t the best Apes film, but it is certainly very enjoyable and might be the most important. Science fiction works best when it holds a mirror to our modern society, and this film did just that to one of the most significant issues of the day.

Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973)

This isn’t a perfect movie, or even close to it, but Battle is a fitting conclusion to the original franchise. The story establishes one of the central tenants of simian law (“Ape shall never kill ape”) and explores how a society reacts when one of its most basic commandments is broken. Additionally, as the title suggests, there is an epic battle between the apes and humans. The movie suffers a bit from a low-budget (watch out for all the extreme close-ups and quick cuts!), but the central story still works. This film also introduces a witty little orangutan named Vergil, a character that probably works well in small doses only.

Planet of the Apes (2001)

I’m sure I’m not alone in saying that I anticipated this film greatly in 2001 and was majorly let down in the theaters. Tim Burton’s horrendously misguided reboot of the franchise is part accidental parody (“Get your stinkin’ paws off me, you damned dirty human!”), part weird love story, and completely unnecessary. Mark Wahlberg’s acting is at its worst here and even good actors like Tim Roth and Paul Giamatti manage to be swallowed by a vapid story. The twist ending, which was an obvious attempt to one-up the 1968 original without any rhyme or reason, was the final nail on a coffin that was already pretty tightly secured by that point. Despite my criticism, I will give credit where it’s due and say that Rick Baker’s makeup design was pretty fantastic.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

It took ten years for Fox to get over the ridicule of Burton’s massive flop, but they thankfully went back to the well. This film, again, was highly anticipated by Apes enthusiasts (maybe not the general public), but became a surprise hit of the summer of 2011. The story is set in the modern-day, a wise move, and establishes the origin of how apes came to rule over humans. This is a story that couldn’t have been told until the invention of motion capture technology, because Roddy McDowall as a full-grown human could never have looked like an actual chimpanzee infant with 1960s-70s special effects. The film was a technical achievement, with actor Andy Serkis earning all of the accolades he received, but like with all good films, the story was the best aspect.

Caseen Gaines is a pop culture historian. He is currently working on a book about the Back to the Future trilogy that will be published next year by Plume. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at www.facebook.com/caseengaines and www.twitter.com/caseengaines.

Caseen Gaines

Caseen Gaines' upcoming book, A Christmas Story: Behind the Scenes of a Holiday Classic, will be released this fall from ECW Press. His first book, Inside Pee-wee's Playhouse: The Untold, Unauthorized, and Unpredictable Story of a Pop Phenomenon, was the 2012 recipient of Independent Publisher Book Award's silver medal in the popular culture category. His writing has received the praise and recognition of journalists from The A.V. Club, Gawker, Ain't It Cool News, The Advocate, The Village Voice, In Touch Weekly, and a host of other publications. He is a high school English teacher and the co-founder of Hackensack Theatre Company, a non-profit in New Jersey. He posts regularly on Facebook (www.facebook.com/caseengaines).

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One thought on “Revisiting the Planet of the Apes

  1. Cool overview of this killer series of films! I’d really dig it if you did a “Part Two” that included the various TV incarnations (both live action and animated)…that would really make me go ape…HAHAHaaaa, oh lord I’m ashamed…

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