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Posts Tagged ‘Planet of the Apes’

I was sitting at my desk the other other day, trying to look busy, as usual, when one of the very senior fellows from where I work sidled up. This in itself is fairly unusual, and at this point in my career I’ll grasp at any straw that floats past, so I sat up straight and braced myself for whatever was coming.

‘Have you seen the new Planet of the Apes film yet?’ To say this came totally out of left field would be a bit of an understatement.

‘Er, not yet. What they’ve done is – stop me if you find your eyes starting to close – you know how they say that nothing succeeds like success? Well, apparently the best way to have a successful film is to have a successful film; I mean, if you have a really good opening weekend, then you can put that in the publicity and it will make people go and see it on the second weekend. So what they’ve done is release it on a Tuesday, because that means they have Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday -‘ I believe I may have been counting on my fingers ‘- a six day opening weekend, to guarantee a good total.’

‘That’s just fraud.’ (Amused incredulity.)

‘That’s showbusiness. But all the early showings are in 3D, which I don’t like, so I’m seeing it on Friday.’

‘Really? I like 3D. A Planet of the Apes film in 3D is one of my guilty pleasures.’

I tell you what, you get a better class of afficionado around the Planet of the Apes films, that’s for sure. (All the more dismaying that 20th Century Fox should find it necessary to indulge in such sharp practice when it comes to the release strategy.) Yes, here we are with Matt Reeves’ War for the Planet of the Apes, the kind of title to make a cinema give up and list it on the ticket as simply WFTPOTA (with an extra 2D in my case).

The new film continues the story begun in Rise of the Planet of the Apes and continued in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. For a couple of years, elements of the surviving human military forces have been attempting to hunt down and destroy Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his tribe of genetically-uplifted apes. Caesar has been attempting to make peace overtures, but the human commander, known as the Colonel (last name not Taylor, sadly), is implacable in his hostility and a raid on the ape settlement kills several of Caesar’s loved ones. (The Colonel is played by Woody Harrelson, who is on top form.)

Consumed by rage and the desire for revenge, Caesar sets out in search of his enemy, accompanied only by a few of his closest lieutenants. In the wilderness they find evidence of a transformed world – a young girl who has lost the ability to speak (Amiah Miller), and a zoo ape who has risen to intelligence and acquired the power of speech independently of Caesar’s group (Steve Zahn). There are also strange signs that the humans are starting to fight amongst themselves. But all Caesar is interested in is the Colonel, who he learns has made his base in an abandoned military facility. The looming conflict will settle the destiny of the planet forever…

I do wonder sometimes why I’m not more enthusiastic about the new Planet of the Apes series, because these are by any metric highly intelligent, well-made genre movies, that certainly honour the classic Apes series from the 1960s and 70s (those who know their Planet of the Apes will certainly find little touches to reward them here and there in the new film). I’m not sure – maybe it’s just that the new series doesn’t have quite the same epic scope or loopy imagination as the originals, or indeed their willingness, at their best, to tackle big issues – animal and civil rights, the inherent self-destructiveness of man, the morality of self-protection, and so on. The new films may be technically more proficient and possibly more credible, but they are essentially just superior action-adventure movies, strongly characterised, but rarely very innovative.

The new movie continues this trend, albeit in an even bleaker and more intense vein: this is a dark, brooding film, full of characters driven to do the most terrible things in the name of that which they believe. There’s a very Heart of Darkness-y vibe going on – the Colonel has clearly been inspired by Brando’s performance as Kurtz, and I would have entitled this review Ape-Ocalypse Now had the gag not already been used in the movie itself. It adds up to a pretty full-on experience, with most of the leavening moments of lightness coming from Zahn’s character (who is interesting, but the notion behind his origins doesn’t really go anywhere).

And, once again, there’s nothing actually wrong with it, but at the same time it is never irresistibly surprising or thrilling, nor does it fully engage the brain. It is being suggested that this is the concluding entry in this particular incarnation of Planet of the Apes, which is fair enough. However, ever since Rise I’ve kind of felt this series was promising to build up to the big moment of revelation, when we got to see something akin to the actual planet of apes from the original 1968 movie – a dominant, technologically-advanced ape civilisation, feral, speechless humans, and so on. Key plot points in this movie just added to that impression while I was watching it, and got me quite excited about what seemed to be on the way. In the end, though, we’re told about all this but never shown it. I was expecting something along the lines of a fade to black, the caption ‘1950 YEARS LATER’, and then a shot of a spacecraft re-entering the atmosphere. But no, nothing like that, not even post-credits. So in the end I have to say I feel slightly cheated – this series of films still hasn’t made good on its promises.

Then again, while the end of this movie does have a definite finality about it, apparently plans for at least one further episode are apparently afoot, so we may yet get our shot of a famous landmark, half-buried on a beach somewhere. This is a quality movie, intelligently made and very well performed, and fans of both SF in general and Planet of the Apes in particular should find much here to enjoy. Perhaps my problem is that my own personal expectations are just too high, because by any reasonable standard this is a distinctly superior blockbuster.

 

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Not quite 13 years ago, Tim Burton released his reimagined version of Planet of the Apes. I watched it, thought I had some things to say about it that people might be interested in, and persuaded someone to put my opinion on their website.

626 more film reviews later, here we all are: the website is a different one, but everything else is pretty much the same, including on this occasion the film under consideration – Matt Reeve’s reimagined version of a certain franchise, in the form of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Rupert Wyatt did a sterling job of restarting the series three years ago in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and his replacement by Reeves (best known for the so-so Cloverfield and the underrated Let Me In) was taken by many as an ill omen. Which just goes to show that sometimes nobody knows anything.

dawn_of_apes_teaser_poster

Maintaining unprecedentedly good continuity with the previous film, Dawn opens with virally-uplifted chimpanzee Caesar (Andy Serkis) leading his colony of similar simians in the forests of northern California. The apes are enjoying a rather idyllic existence, and some of them are beginning to believe that the humans who once tormented them have done everyone a favour by dying out in the plague which was just getting underway at the end of the last installment.

There’d be no movie in that, of course, and a remnant of human survivors are indeed ensconced in what’s left of San Francisco, led by a man named Dreyfus (Gary Oldman, who’s not in the film as much as you might expect). The humans are running desperately low on fuel and other resources, and Dreyfus despatches his lieutenant Malcolm (Jason Clarke) to look into the possibility of reactivating the hydroelectric generators attached to a dam in the wilderness. Unfortunately, the dam is squarely in ape territory.

Relations between apes and humans do not get off to a good start, but the best efforts of Caesar and Malcolm result in a wary truce between the two groups. However, the history of mutual suspicion and prejudice between man and ape means that open conflict may only be a matter of time…

The consensus last time round was that Rise of the Planet of the Apes was, on some level, a superior rethinking of 1972’s Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (look, just to save wear on my keyboard, I’m going to start referring to these films by the first couple of words of their title, okay?). Logic therefore dictates that this sequel should be drawing on 1973’s Battle for… Doing a really good remake of Conquest is a neat trick but nothing particularly remarkable, as that was a movie with a strong central idea, undone by the exiguencies of running time and budget. Making a good version of Battle, on the other hand, is a different kettle of fish, as that film is the closest thing to a complete waste of time this side of Helena Bonham Carter.

And yet that is arguably just what Reeves has managed to do. In terms of actual plotting, Battle and Dawn have about in much as common as Conquest and Rise (which is to say, not very much at all), but when it comes to theme and characterisation the two films are very much on the same page: a clash between human and ape communities, with entrenched zealots on both sides, and an oddly tragic moral awakening amongst the apes themselves. Indeed, I would even suggest it’s as if Reeves and the films’ writers have got their hands on a copy of Paul Dehn’s original unmade script for Battle, which concerned itself with the apes’ fall from grace and the overthrow of Caesar by less emollient forces.

These ideas are present in Dawn, too, along with a distinct focus on the ape characters rather than the humans. It’s a tribute to the astonishing work of the VFX team, not to mention Reeves’ own storytelling skills, that a story primarily set amongst a non-human community, with largely mute characters, is as compelling as it is. Reeves’ first storytelling coup is to create an opening sequence which is thoroughly engrossing despite not featuring a single word of spoken dialogue, and his second is to make the unexpected appearance of a common-or-garden human being feel like a viscerally jarring shock.

Tellingly, it’s only at this point that the apes begin speaking, and it seems to me that this ties into the underlying message of the film: prior to meeting the humans, it’s strongly implied that the apes have lived in peace and harmony for years, and there’s nothing to suggest that the same is not true of the humans. Yet, within days of their first encounter, bloody conflict has broken out between the two – perhaps inevitably. Humans and apes have more in common than either side wants to admit, and perhaps this explains why they seem almost predestined to fight each other to the death.

This is a bleak, dark, strange theme for a big studio SF movie, but exactly what you’d expect from a proper Apes movie, and the various action sequences are brilliantly realised. It doesn’t have quite the same degree of social commentary as the films in the original cycle, but then that’s the state of SF movies these days, I suppose. Dawn certainly feels very confident in its own identity: it contains nothing like the same number of references and in-jokes as Rise (although the score does sound very familiar at certain points).

And, accomplished as it is, this is a film with every right to a certain swagger. It works very well as both an action blockbuster and a dark, intelligent SF movie, and extremely well as a Planet of the Apes film. I am just forced to wonder where this revitalised series is going to go next: having run out of original-cycle films to reinterpret, the only options left are either more of the same, or to take a really radical step of some kind. I’ve no idea which way Reeves will take the series next: but at the moment everything on the planet of the apes is rosy, in a grim and twisted sort of way.

 

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I have to report another outbreak of the Twilight phenomenon, in and around cinemas as far as the eye can see. Now, as you can imagine, this is not without consequences. One of them is that – if all I hear of the plot of the new film is correct – I shall have to retire my Twilight limerick, which runs thusly:

‘There once was a vampire named Edward

Reluctant to lead his girl bed-ward

When she found herself faced

With a boyfriend so chaste

She said ‘Maybe he simply can’t get wood.’

(Farewell, good and faithful servant.)

The other is that, as the new movie is infesting the majority of theatres in town, and many of the others are occupied with precipitously-released Christmas children’s films, there isn’t really anything on worth going to see at the cinema (yes, this from the man who spent money watching The Three Musketeers, Immortals and The Future). And so I have decided to take this opportunity to snip off a particular dangling thread and conclude my look at one of my favourite SF movie series with a review of J Lee Thompson’s 1973 movie Battle for the Planet of the Apes.

A dangling loose end is perhaps a not inappropriate metaphor for this least impressive cinematic product of the Planet of the Apes phenomenon. Opening with a brisk recap of the previous film-and-a-bit, it finds North America in the early 21st century in agrarian post-holocaust mode: the ape revolution fomented by Caesar (Roddy McDowell) has indeed culminated in nuclear war (apparently on a fairly limited scale) and now the survivors, both human and ape, are living in peace, though life is not without tensions – the humans are uneasy with the dominance of the apes, while the militaristic gorillas are chafing under Caesar’s rule…

Apropos of pretty much nothing (but they have to get the plot started somehow) Caesar’s human aide Macdonald (Austin Stoker, playing the brother of Hari Rhodes’ character from the previous movie) persuades him to mount an expedition to the ruins of Los Angeles in search of secret documents that may reveal the destiny of the planet (relics from the third film in the series). However, in doing so they attract the attention of xenophobic and paranoid humans also living in the ruins.

Not entirely unexpectedly (but they have to get a climax from somewhere) the humans assume the expedition’s intentions were hostile and decide to launch a counterattack in force against Caesar’s settlement. Matters are, inevitably, complicated by an ill-timed grab for power by gorilla leader Aldo (Claude Akins).

Battle for the Planet of the Apes is perhaps not quite as unremittingly awful as some reviewers would have you believe, but compared to the quality of most of the other films in the series it is a deeply unimpressive offering, built around sentimental melodrama and underpowered action where the other films had genuinely interesting ideas and engaging characters to drive them along.

What’s particularly galling is that, at every step of the film’s production, the makers seem to have chosen the least interesting, least challenging option. The series’ main screenwriter, Paul Dehn, had his concept for the movie rejected and was replaced by John and Joyce Corrington, whose work is only competent at best – the plot is uninspired, and while some of their dialogue raises a smile – ‘We may be irradiated, but at least we’re still active,’ says chief bad guy Severn Darden, enjoying a promotion from assistant villain in the previous film – some of it is… well, look, I just feel sorry for Paul Stevens, playing pacifist human Mendez, who at one point gets the choice assignment of delivering the following monologue: ‘This bloody chain reaction has got to stop. A destroys B, B destroys C, C destroys A and is destroyed by D who destroys E. Before anyone knows where they are there won’t be anyone left to know anything, anywhere.’ Er – yeah. No wonder he doesn’t get taken along for the war.

Paul Dehn’s original treatment for the movie – or at least something claiming to be it – is, inevitably, available on t’internet, and while still flawed the tone of the piece is much more recognisably part of the same series. Knowing this was to be the last film, Dehn set out to close the circle of the series by showing the beginnings of the situation to be found in the first film – the on-line treatment features the nuclear attack that destroys Los Angeles, the origins of the Forbidden Zone and the human mutant society within it, and the human population being rendered mute through primitive surgery. Pretty heavy stuff, and given how young the films’ core audience was by this point perhaps it’s understandable why the producers shied away from it.

Even so, some of this material survived in a toned-down form in the Corringtons’ script, most notably in a number of scenes in the ruined city where it is revealed that the humans still have one nuclear weapon left: a very special one, which may explain their very reverent attitude towards it. This got filmed, but was then cut from the final movie on the grounds that it wasn’t really relevant to the plot and was simply a superfluous exercise in i-dotting.

So we’re left with a weary runaround, with only Roddy McDowell’s strong performance, a few other familiar faces in the supporting cast, and the trademark rotten continuity (no more than a decade or so seems to have elapsed since the previous film, yet someone claims to have lived in the post-apocalyptic settlement for twenty-seven years, for one thing) to really show this is part of the same series as the other films. On its own merits, Battle for the Planet of the Apes is a negligible, feeble little film, with nothing to suggest the real merits of the series which it represents. And viewed as a part of that series, it is inevitably a terrible disappointment – it’s difficult to imagine any future movie with the Apes name on it plumbing quite such depths of pointlessness.

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‘I was very disappointed that the National Film Theatre would not let me electrocute the audience.’

I don’t go to the theatre very often – maybe they should show trailers for upcoming plays to entice me back on those rare occasions when I do – but every now and then news of a forthcoming performance penetrates my brain with sufficient force to actually motivate me to sit in a different kind of auditorium and have a wholly different experience.

And so it was with the coming to Oxford of the noted film critic Mark Kermode, bassist, harmonica-ist, lover of elaborate hair and The Exorcist, holder of a Doctorate in Horror Movie Studies, and all around good guy, in town to promote his new book The Good, the Bad and the Multiplex, give a brief talk, and screen a rare print of one of his favourite cult films (hmm, maybe not such a wholly different experience after all).

I have some meagre track record when it comes to writing about films, but for me Kermode is one of the examplars of the craft and someone whose opinion is always worth listening to even when we disagree (which is relatively rarely). People say I am passionate and knowledgeable about cinema, but compared to Dr K I operate very much on the lower slopes. That said, part of me was still hoping a segment of the evening would involve him inviting all-comers up on stage for a mano-a-mano review-off: there’s nothing like seeing how you measure up to one of the masters, after all.

Anyway, we take our seats – a fairly full house and a diverse crowd: young and old, singletons, couples, and families, well-adjusted relatively sane individuals and me. The lights go down and then straight back up again, and sure enough the Good Doctor’s quiff appears from the wings stage left, followed a few seconds later by the rest of him. Big applause: this is a friendly audience, as you’d expect.

‘We’re going to start by watching William Peter Blatty’s masterpiece, The Ninth Configuration,’ Dr K announces. ‘Is it in 3D?’ shouts a voice from the back. ‘What a riotous evening this is going to be,’ the great man (famous for his hatred of the stereoscopic format) ripostes, deadpan. But he goes ahead and shows the movie anyway.

With that out of the way (review possibly to follow, but basically it’s one of those deeply personal, hugely eccentric movies that major studios don’t make any more) Dr K gets on with his own appearance. He admits he can’t do reading-out so rather than delivering key bits of the new book verbatim (subtitle: What’s Wrong With Modern Movies?) he speaks off the cuff for an hour or so. It’s very much stand-up film criticism, touching on most of the things we’ve all come here hoping to hear in person – familiar riffs on Dr K’s well-known bugbears.

So, bad reviews from critics don’t ruin movies, badly made movies ruin themselves – I expect Dr K feels obliged to make this point as he is even responsible for coining a new adjective, Kermodian, usually preceding the word ‘rant’ – his not-entirely-equivocal verdict on Sex in the City 2 was that it was ‘an orgy of dripping wealth that made me want to be sick’. Critics shouldn’t make friends with movie stars as it will compromise their critical independence – happily, this prompts Dr K to touch on his relationship with geezer-actor Danny Dyer. Dr K is wont to do impressions on his radio show, and Dyer finds Kermode’s impersonation of him so objectionable he has repeatedly threatened to beat him up. (A genuine ripple of excited delight goes round the theatre as Kermode starts doing his Dyer voice. I wonder how many people came here just in the hope of hearing it?)

Sadly Dr K doesn’t go into one of the most interesting sections of his book, on the topic of ‘What’s the point of film critics?’ (surely one of the most pressing questions today). There’s a bit in the book where Kermode contrasts ‘proper’ film criticism with ‘the bedroom ramblings of somebody writing about movies for no amusement but their own’, which obviously made me very nervous, but happily I found we agreed almost entirely about the elements of what makes a good review. Nice to hear you’re on-side, Mark.

But primarily Dr K discusses the unnecessary stupidity of the modern blockbuster (a few very distinguished movies excepted) and the collapse in standards at modern cinemas, most of which, he argues, are now not much more than sweetshops with a DVD player. It’s very difficult to disagree with anything he says on these subjects, and his respect and passion for both cinema and the cinemagoing experience shine through.

Then it’s signing-session time. Normally I am ambivalent when it comes to the whole asking-for-an-autograph experience, as it seems to me there’s an element of deference to the proceedings to which my massive ego reacts very poorly – but in this case, why not? To my delight Dr K is pausing to have a brief chat with every person when their time at the front of the queue arrives and I rack my brains to think of an appropriately impressive opening gambit. So:

Your correspondent: ‘What did you think of Rise of the Planet of the Apes?’

Dr K: ‘Still haven’t seen it! I wanted to see it the other day but I had to see We Need To Talk About Kevin instead as I’m interviewing Lynne Ramsay for The Culture Show.’

(YC: (thinks) That’s so weird! I wanted to see Troll Hunter the other day but I had to teach some Syrians how to use the Past Perfect instead. Our lives are in some eerie parallel!)

Dr K: ‘…what did you think of it?’

YC: (reserved as ever) ‘Pretty good.’

Dr K: (surprised) ‘Only pretty good? Everyone else I’ve spoken to says it’s great.’

YC: (backpedalling frantically while maintaining cool facade) ‘Well, it’s good for what it is, but it’s a bit corporate. It’s not as good as the first three original movies. I know you like Conquest…’

Dr K: (masterfully) ‘Well, Conquest is what Rise of the Planet of the Apes is based on.’

YC: ‘Mm-mmm…’

Wow! Me and Mark Kermode are shooting the breeze about the Planet of the Apes movies! What a lovely moment this is.

Dr K: ‘…anyway my favourite is Beneath – it’s just so bleak…’

YC: ‘I know, but I prefer Escape.’

Dr K: ‘That plays a little young for me.’

YC: ‘Yeah, but it has such a mature emotional palette. The second half of Beneath is just fantastically weird but the first half is a retread of the original movie with no new ideas to it and no Heston.’

Dr K: (starting to look a little taken aback at the rigour of my criticism) ‘Actually, I think James Franciscus is pretty good in that movie -‘

YC: ‘Yeah, but he may as well be wearing a badge saying ‘Heston stand-in.”

Dr K looks rattled and possibly even slightly defensive. Hmmm. Me and Mark Kermode are having a row about the Planet of the Apes movies (on top of which I’m suddenly aware I may be hogging the front of the queue). Possibly not such a lovely moment.

You know what they say, never meet your heroes – you’ll just end up arguing with them about Charlton Heston movies. In the end we part on genial terms, and later it occurs to me that maybe I did get my review-off after all.

Anyway, I emerged with my respect and admiration for Dr K undiminished (and I expect he would say the same about me). In retrospect, he came across rather as a man trying to whip up a crusade, arguing that if cinema as we know it is to survive, we need to treat it with respect, in terms of both how films are made in the first place, and how we experience them as an audience. Culturally, I can think of few more worthy causes, and no-one better qualified to ride at the head of the column than Kermode himself. Count me in, Doc, count me in.

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Normally, approaching the seventh film in a series I would expect to be entering distinctly Oh God Not Another One territory – let us not forget, even the mighty Bond and Star Trek franchises had quality control issues round about that point. With Rupert Wyatt’s new movie, however, all bets are off and my trepidation sprang from an entirely different source. This is, of course, because Wyatt’s movie is Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a new take on one of my very favourite SF series (regular readers will be in no doubt as to my affection for this particular branch of simian cinema).

The movie is trading heavily on the Apes brand in some ways, but it’s really something new and startlingly different. Our story opens in a peculiar world dominated by apes and their strange society – the apes in question being human beings and the society being a market-driven western democracy. Chief human this time around is Will Rodman (James Franco), a neurological researcher trying to develop an effective therapy for Alzheimers, which his father (John Lithgow) is suffering from, despite the scepticism of the heartless suit he works for (the suit is played by David Oyelowo).

A fairly major lab setback forces Rodman to start again, almost from scratch, and leaves him the unwilling paterfamilias of an infant chimpanzee (Andy Serkis – no, really), the child of one of his lab apes. It soon becomes apparent that his mother’s exposure to the therapy has affected young Caesar’s development, giving him a vastly boosted IQ for a start. The problem is that he’s no longer merely an ape, but neither does he have a place in human society.

Caesar’s growing self-awareness coupled to his alienation and attachment to the Rodmans eventually leads to trouble with the law and Will and his girlfriend (Freida Pinto) are forced to place him in a local ape shelter. The fact that the shelter is operated by Brian Cox (whom you may recall as the bad guy from The Bourne Supremacy, X2, Troy, etc) and Tom Felton (whom you may recall as the bleach-blond kid at Hogwarts) should tip you off as to the kind of establishment this turns out to be. Caesar’s intelligence does not prepare him for the brutality of his new life, but – characteristically – he rapidly adapts to it and is soon planning a break for freedom, not just for him but for all the inmates…

Most people, I expect, will have two starting points when it comes to talking about this movie – either the last attempt at an Apes reboot, directed by Tim Burton and released almost exactly ten years ago, or Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, which is the original movie this most closely resembles. That said, the resemblance is not a particularly strong one – while the Burton excrescence didn’t reference any of the original films, the whole look and style of the film made it very clear it was wholly in their thrall. Rise, on the other hand, would only need a few fairly minor changes in order to operate as a wholly original independent movie.

Possibly aware of this, the writer-producers have opted to shotgun the movie with what felt like dozens of references to the cast, characters, and stories of the original films, some of which are very obscure indeed – I’m not even sure I spotted them all myself. (That said Pierre Boulle, Rod Serling and Paul Dehn aren’t credited, which struck me as a little cheeky.) The subtle ones work best – when Tom Felton is required to recycle dialogue from the original series the effect is wearying rather than iconic. On the other hand, this does set up a moment which manages to be quintessentially Apes-y and yet also wholly and satisfyingly original: it certainly had your correspondent horripilating in his seat.

What’s slightly unexpected about this film is what a small-scale and relatively personal story it tells, and the story is that of Caesar rather than Rodman. With the first act completed, all Franco gets to do is to drive around trying to keep up with a plot that doesn’t really centre on him any more (Freida Pinto is even more ornamental). By this point Andy Serkis has already stepped into the spotlight and proceeds to dominate the rest of the film.

While Wyatt’s direction is good, this film really belongs to Serkis, the other ape performers, and the motion-capture techies at Weta: the special effects in this movie are truly astounding, creating each ape as a separate individual with his or her own personality. The creation of convincingly photorealistic apes is flawlessly done, and yet the wizardry still permits Serkis’s remarkable and deeply moving performance to shine through.

As with The Lord of the Rings, the action sequences of the movie are immaculately done but it’s the character interactions and performances that really make the film work. You should probably be aware that the action stuff is really only limited to the final act of the film, and given the promise of man-on-simian conflict and genuine ape-ocalypse which the title suggests, I think it would be remiss of me not to mention that the film doesn’t really go down this route. That’s not to say that the status quo is unchanged come the end of the film: it’s quite clear that the balance of power may well be undergoing a signficant alteration very soon, but they’re leaving that for the sequel. I would have appreciated a little more of the darkness and fatalism that ran throughout the original series.

In fact, my only real grumble about Rise of the Planet of the Apes is that it does suffer a little from reboot syndrome: rather like Batman Begins, it painstakingly puts everything in place for a follow-up which will contain all the cool stuff you really want to see in this kind of movie, but the problem is that as a result this movie seems ever so slightly underpowered in its climax and resolution. Deferring many potential good bits to a potential sequel is a slightly annoying thing to do, but the overall quality of this film means Wyatt and his associates get away with it. Rise of the Planet of the Apes may on some level be only an exercise in setting up targets to be knocked down at some indeterminate future date, but it does so with such aplomb that you emerge looking forward to seeing how they’re going to do it. A superior blockbuster and a worthy (if slightly iconoclastic) addition to the series.

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Constant readers may recall the fulsome praise I recently lavished upon the 1971 movie Escape from the Planet of the Apes, but unfortunately I cannot be so generous about J Lee Thompson’s follow up from the very next year, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. However, it is a film not without numerous points of interest: permit me to explain.

In defiance of ever-dwindling budgets, this film finds the ongoing story jumping forward to the ominously near-future year of 1991, and an America transformed. Viral plague in the year 1983 has wiped out most household pets and the monkeys originally used as substitutes have in turn been replaced by full-sized apes – chimps, gorillas and orang-utans. The apes occupy the lowest position in a society basically dependent on slave labour to function. The slave apes are horribly mistreated and kept in line by brutal police in jackboots – hell, the police are basically wearing Gestapo uniforms. Whatever virtues this film has, subtlety is not amongst them.

Arriving in a grey and impersonal Los Angeles are circus owner Armando and his ape ward Caesar, played by Ricardo Montalban and Roddy McDowell respectively. They have a dreadful secret, which they nevertheless share with the audience with unseemly haste and via some painfully obvious expository dialogue – alone amongst apes, Caesar has the power of speech, the result of his parents being time-travellers from the ape-dominated 40th century. This faculty would lead to his death were the authorities to learn of it, but just so he understands how awful everything has become Armando has decided to show him a city for the first time. Good plan, Armando. That’s what I’d do. Yeah.

Caesar inevitably loses his cool after being confronted by endless scenes of his brethren being exploited and abused, and draws the attention of the police. Armando surrenders to the cops to cover for Caesar, who infiltrates a shipment of apes arriving for slave conditioning and finds himself the property of the tyrannical governor Breck (Don Murray). Although some of the other humans are sympathetic to the plight of the apes, most notably Breck’s aide MacDonald (Hari Rhodes), the news of Armando’s death in police custody causes Caesar to vow a terrible revenge against the human civilisation, and he sets about fomenting revolution amongst the apes…

Well, where does one start with this movie? In many ways this is a turning point for the whole franchise, most obviously in that the three previous movies were all genuinely good and possibly even great, while this movie and (to date) everything that’s followed it have all been to some degree disappointing. But it’s also the case that this film is the first to be based solely around writer Paul Dehn’s own characters and ideas rather than those of Pierre Boulle or Rod Serling. Given that Dehn also wrote the previous two movies, you wouldn’t really expect this to be a problem, but where they were interesting because of their scripts, this one is somehow interesting in spite of it.

Possibly it was just Dehn’s misfortune to be writing this, arguably the key movie in the sequence, at a time when the budget cuts were really starting to bite – down to less than $2 million, only a third of that of the original movie. The film has to introduce and sell to the audience a radically-transformed version of American society, a new set of characters, the politicisation of the protagonist, and then an apocalyptic rebellion with epic scenes of violent struggle – and do it all very cheaply and within an 88 minute running time.

As a result the film does seem very rushed and struggles to make all of its ideas really convincing. All the structures of control and slavery we see in this movie have supposedly evolved within only eight years? Hmm. Caesar also only spends about five minutes setting up his revolt (which involves such terrifying acts of sedition as spreading shoe polish on unsuspecting people’s socks) before the secret police track him down (rather easily). Most seriously of all, this is a corny and melodramatic film where nearly every character in the film is a cipher, with but a single trait which they endlessly exhibit, and their behaviour is dictated by the demands of the plot rather than their personalities. The main villain here, Breck, is a cartoon, with nothing like the depth or borderline-sympathy of Hasslein in the previous film. To be fair, Roddy McDowell does his very best with a part that requires him to be mute for large sections of the film, and Caesar’s personal journey is not entirely unconvincing. Hari Rhodes, as the sympathetic human, has to project ‘decency’ a lot and actually does it rather well.

That said, if we’re going to talk about Rhodes’ character, then we have to talk about the politics of this film, which takes us into some odd and slightly uneasy territory. At this point when talking about Conquest I usually mention the South Africa episode of The Goodies. You what? I hear you ask. Well, in South Africa three well-meaning and intelligent guys set out to express their abhorrence of racial prejudice and the apartheid system, which is fair enough, but do so by putting on blackface make-up and affecting ‘yassuh boss’ accents, which to a modern viewer surely seems incredibly racist in its own right.

In the same way, it’s very clear that Conquest of the Planet of the Apes is in some way trying to say things about America’s own history and the Civil Rights movement. It’s surely not a coincidence that Caesar’s only human ally at the end of the film is black – at one point another character suggests it’s only to be expected that MacDonald be sympathetic to the apes – and parallels are made more than once between the ape struggle for freedom and that of African Americans in the past.

So the film is pro-civil rights, which is great, but at the same time it’s an allegory in which the role of black Americans is played by apes. Something about that just makes me extremely uncomfortable – although this may just be my own liberal oversensitiveness, as this film was apparently a huge hit with coloured audiences, many of whom apparently saw it as a fictionalised retelling of some of the race riots which plagued America in the late 1960s.

By the end, of course, one is in the uniquely science-fictional position of rooting for a protagonist whose goal is to bring about the end of civilisation, more-or-less as we know it. The climax sees Caesar addressing MacDonald in the heart of a burning city, with Breck in shackles and at the mercy of a mob of club-wielding apes. Caesar, in the grip of a strangely triumphant rage, prophesies the day when the dominion of man will end and the apes will dominate the Earth, concluding ‘…and that day is upon you now!’ The apes set about beating Breck to death, the film cuts back to a striking wideshot of apes silhouetted in the fires of rebellion, Jerry Goldsmith’s original score crashes in, and one is left in no doubt as to how this will all end: with the twisted world into which Charlton Heston will crashland in the original movie.

However – and this may be the single most glaring problem with this movie – this probably isn’t the climax you’ll have seen. It tested very negatively with the young audience who were the main fans of the franchise at this point and so a horribly obvious and mealy-mouthed alternative was contrived, where Breck is spared and Roddy McDowell provides a new dialogue-track (dubbed over the original closeup, reframed to exclude his mouth) where he declares the apes will be humane and compassionate towards the humans they are violently overthrowing. Er, what? At which point we’re back to the wide-shot of the burning city and Goldsmith’s music, which both now seem rather incongruous. While this version does conclude with the killer line ‘Tonight we have seen the birth of the planet of the apes!’ on the whole I really prefer the uncompromising, unreleased ending.

(I suppose I could also grumble about the way the film fudges the issue of what ultimately causes the collapse of the human civilisation – is it an ape uprising, as the previous film and most of this one has led us to believe? Or is it a nuclear war, as the first two films and some dialogue in the climax here strongly implies? Does the former cause the latter? As I say, it’s a fudge, but then the continuity between these films is almost always ropey.)

It was all downhill from here, anyway, with Paul Dehn’s ideas for the fifth and final movie judged too dark and uncompromising and the assignment being given to other writers. Hamstrung by budgetary and narrative concerns it may be, but Conquest of the Planet of the Apes still has got just enough going on to make it interesting to watch – it’s much more obviously an example of unfulfilled potential than any of the other films in the series. In fact, if I were going to remake a Planet of the Apes film with a blockbuster budget and modern special effects, then… oh, hang on a minute…

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Watching Don Taylor’s 1971 movie Escape from the Planet of the Apes these days, I find myself becoming intellectually aware that to a young audience with a modern sensibility this movie might seem incredibly kitsch and almost impossible to take seriously. Personally I have no such problems – and for this I suppose I have the unusual scheduling policy of UK TV networks in the early 1980s to thank. This is a movie which ultimately goes into some very dark and thoughtful places, and concludes with violence sufficiently graphic to earn it a 12 rating under the modern system, and yet I first saw it in the early 80s as a Saturday tea-time movie. I found it interesting and affecting even then, while my sister was utterly traumatised and left in floods of tears at the ending – which, in an odd way, I would say was a sign the movie really worked.

Anyway. Following the literally earth-shattering conclusion of the previous movie, this second sequel opens with a neat visual joke – the first scene depicts a barren beach with the tide rolling in. This was how the first film ended and the second began, but the nature of this latest installment is instantly signposted when a contemporary helicopter flies into the frame.

For the ongoing story has, for reasons both narrative and budgetary, relocated to present-day California. A spacecraft has landed in the Pacific and is dragged ashore, and the assembled military are startled to find it is crewed by a trio of chimpanzees. Two of them should be familiar to viewers of the previous films, as they are Cornelius (Roddy McDowell) and Zira (Kim Hunter), who befriended Charlton Heston’s character, and who have been thrown back in time by the catastrophe at the end of the second film. The third character is basically there as a plot device – a chimp genius (Sal Mineo) responsible for salvaging and relaunching the spaceship despite the numerous and massive implausibilities involved – and, role completed, he is rapidly killed off.  

The wider American public is startled when the intelligence and power of speech possessed by the apes becomes known, but their wit, warmth, and benevolence result in their soon becoming celebrities and feted as such. Elements in the government, however, are rather less well-disposed towards the time travellers. In particular, the President’s scientific advisor, Hasslein (Eric Braeden), develops his own suspicions about the destiny of the planet and the nature and origins of the ape society they have come from. Becoming convinced that Cornelius and Zira’s very existence poses a threat to the human race, Hasslein sets about removing that threat as rapidly and completely as possible…

Beneath the Planet of the Apes was a movie that finished very strongly but was, overall, rather uneven: to my mind, Escape from the Planet of the Apes surpasses it on every level except that of hyperbolic weirdness. Producer Arthur Jacobs’ original plan for the Apes sequels was that they should be built around a succession of startling visual incongruities and innovations, but this movie really abandons that principle – beyond the moment near the beginning where astronauts remove their helmets to reveal they are actually apes, this movie is told in a very straightforward but nevertheless effective (and affecting) way.

About the only thing it has in common with its immediate predecessor is the fact that it’s almost impossible to tell from the first twenty minutes exactly how the climax will play out. The first half of the film is a combination of relatively thoughtful SF and gentle social satire, in some ways mirroring the original movie – we see the apes’ responses to the human society which is as alien to them as the ape society was to Heston’s character in the first movie. That said, Heston’s stoic philosophising is entirely absent, replaced by something milder and more engaging.

As the film goes on the tone grows much darker, with the stakes both personal and epic, and the movie becomes more of an action thriller. All the indignities the apes inflicted on Heston are repaid in full and the protagonists are forced to go on the run from the government. (Ricardo Montalban pops up briefly in this section and turns in another rather operatic performance as a circus owner.) The climax is neither so uncompromising nor so bleak as in the previous film but somehow just as unsettling.

(I suppose you could argue that Escape does share one other thing with Beneath; namely, dodgy continuity. Once again we are told that Taylor’s craft was lost in space due to some kind of accident, which certainly doesn’t tally with the original film. Also, in the first two episodes the origins of the ape civilisation are a mystery to the majority of the population, but here we are told that the anniversary of the overthrow of the human race by their ape slaves is a public holiday for the ape civilisation. Sigh.)

While Beneath the Planet of the Apes these days appears to be a fairly obvious anti-war jeremiad, Escape is a story which functions on a more personal level and is perhaps more involving as a result. That said, it’s arguably just as much a film of its time, with a deeply ambivalent attitude towards the establishment – and given the repeated significance to the plot of various tape recordings, one has to keep reminding oneself this is a pre-Watergate movie.

If the movie does have a wider theme, it’s about destiny and the perils of trying to influence it. Mostly this is articulated through the heavy of the piece, Hasslein, who’s brought to life via a very good performance by Eric Braeden (in his pre-soap opera days). One of the things which raise this film well above the level of a routine runaround is Braeden as Hasslein: he’s clearly the bad guy, inasmuch as he wants to kill Cornelius and Zira, but Braeden (aided by Paul Dehn’s excellent script) brings enough grace notes of thoughtfulness and intelligence to the character to make his motivations entirely understandable. Hasslein is clearly motivated by deeply humane concerns; it’s just that he acts on them with a detachment and dispassion that crosses the line into outright ruthlessness (the novelisation of the film goes even further to make him sympathetic, making him the father of a disabled child). When I watch the film now, I always find myself wondering what I would do if I were in Hasslein’s position: from a certain point of view, he is very clearly in the right throughout.

There are so many good things about Escape from the Planet of the Apes – I haven’t even touched upon Jerry Goldsmith’s funky and groovy score – that I was not surprised, a few years ago, to discover a review somewhere online which rated it more highly than the original film. It doesn’t have the visual ambition or quite the narrative or intellectual strength of the first film, but where it does score heavily is in its breadth and depth of emotional content, and in the strength of the performances throughout. Nothing else bearing the Planet of the Apes name since has come anywhere close to the quality of this film.

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