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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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You know, I’ve thought for a long time that Charlton Heston has taken a lot of stick he didn’t really deserve. Most of this revolves around his personal politics, in particular a few unwise comments he made while in charge of the NRA. People who are quick to dismiss Heston as a gun-toting autocrat are invariably unaware that much earlier in his life he was a supporter of the Civil Rights movement, openly coming out in favour of Dr King at a time when it could have been extremely damaging to his career. It’s a bit like dismissing Francis Ford Coppola as a talentless hack because he directed Tonight For Sure, One from the Heart and Jack, while choosing to overlook the fact that he made The Godfathers and Apocalypse Now.

Well, anyway. Proof that Heston had his head screwed on is surely provided by his terms of engagement with Ted Post’s Beneath the Planet of the Apes. The original movie was a smash hit and a sequel was duly commissioned – but, according to his memoirs, Heston was reluctant to sign on. The story had been told, he thought: with the big reveal at the end of the movie done, all that was left in terms of story options were simplistic comic-book adventures amongst the apes.

They couldn’t make the movie without him, though, and so Heston made them an offer: he’d do the new movie, but make only a cameo appearance at the very beginning: ‘Kill me off in the first scene.’ The producers made a counter-offer: how about if he was only in the end of the movie, which concluded with… spoiler ahoy… the end of the world. Charlton Heston signed up, enabling the creation of one of the strangest studio movies ever made.

Beneath opens with a brisk recap of the climax of the previous movie, before moving equally sharply on to stranded astronaut Taylor (Heston) being swallowed alive by some slightly variable special effects, leaving his mute girlfriend Nova (Linda Harrison, the highly talented and well-qualified girlfriend of the producer) at a loose end. As luck would have it (and this is a pretty big ask to make of the audience so early into the picture) she comes across another crashed spaceship from the 1970s.

Here we are introduced to Brent (James Franciscus) and the dodgy continuity which plagues the Apes movies. The first film made it quite clear that Heston knew he’d be shooting off to the distant future and an unknown world – that his was a Mission of No Return. And yet Brent seems convinced that he ended up here by accident, and has, in fact, been sent to rescue him.

Hmm. Franciscus does a very decent job of standing in for Heston, but his problem is that this is literally what he is doing. It’s an hour before Heston reappears and there’s a strong sense of the movie marking time while awaiting this, to begin with anyway. Things aren’t helped by the fact that the audience is, by now, well ahead of Brent in virtually every way. We know that the Planet is ruled by Apes, and we know that it’s actually post-apocalyptic Earth. Watching Brent find all this stuff out for himself involves a rehash of the previous film, squeezed into thirty minutes or so and with no ideas or novelty to it this time around: there’s lots of chasing and capturing and escaping but it’s all curiously bland and uninvolving, and Brent comes across as a bit of a doofus.

That said, this section does feature Kim Hunter reprising her role as friendly chimp Zira, and she does a very good job of hiding the fact she has nothing to do but exposit to Franciscus. (Roddy McDowell for once does not appear, directing a movie in Scotland at the time.) Also prominent is Maurice Evans as Zaius, the Minister of Science. Some of the scenes with Hunter and Evans have a bizarre, sitcom-ish quality (and there’s one scene set in an ape sauna, which just seems silly), but he is mostly involved in setting up the new plot that will power the second half of the film.

Now, for a long time I thought this was just fairly broad Vietnam-era satire, but the idea of a holy war being launched on the pretext of the need to secure vital resources obviously has much wider applicability (I first saw this movie at the height of the first Gulf War and can’t believe I didn’t pick up on it at the time). The militaristic gorilla faction in the ape government is set upon invading the Forbidden Zone, an area holding the last relics of the old human civilisation (and where Heston disappeared at the start of the movie). Driven ahead of the advancing ape army, Brent and Nova are forced to take refuge there, and soon discover a colony of intelligent human mutants possessed of incredible psychic powers…

It’s taken a while, but at this point the movie stops seeming quite so silly and turgid and hokey and slams into gear. That’s not to say that the pace picks up, as such, but suddenly it’s very clear that Paul Dehn’s script is about something, and that something is the extreme danger of putting religious zealots in charge of anything. The apes have set out on a holy war to purge the humans in accordance with the teachings of their Lawgiver, while the mutants all belong to a cult which worships a doomsday bomb, left over from the good old days…

The first time I saw this movie I didn’t know what to make of it and was tremendously repelled by all things that now make it seem to me so striking and unusual. I got the idea that the mutants worshipping the bomb was a metaphor for the lunacy of life during the cold war, but I didn’t appreciate the surrounding stuff: both sides are driven into conflict by their religion, and both sides are led by disingenuous hypocrites and sophists.

It’s an incredibly dark vision for a film to have and I can only assume that with the end of the world required at the end of the movie, Post and Dehn felt themselves free to go a little crazy and not worry about usual things like taste and restraint and giving the audience a cheery time. I can think of no other way to explain the relentless nihilistic strangeness of the final third of the film. The two protagonists are psychically impelled to fight to the death. Visions of giant ape statues appear, afflicted with bloody stigmata. There’s an extraordinary scene where a congregation apparently made up of people who’ve been flayed alive sing tuneless hymns to a nuclear missile. You don’t get this kind of thing in Pirates of the Caribbean.

In the end the story develops something of the oppressive atmosphere of an unfolding nightmare, as one by one the protagonists are shot down by the marauding apes. Taylor finally cracks and decides that everyone would be better off dead, triggering the doomsday warhead. And then, after an arrestingly impassive voiceover announcing the death of the entire planet, the credits roll in silence.

For a long time I dismissed this movie as a lazy rehash of the original with some interestingly weird stuff nailed onto the end, but now I’m not so sure. For the sheer intensity, bleakness, and hallucinatory quality of its closing sections, there’s nothing else in the series to match it – and indeed, very little else in mainstream cinema anywhere. Certainly none of the other films would ever be quite so dark and strange again.

Because, of course, the final irony is that there were other films. Beneath the Planet of the Apes was another substantial moneymaker, and Dehn famously received a telegram informing him ‘Apes survive. Sequel required.’ A sequel, of course, without Charlton Heston, but that turned out not to be the end of the world. Then again, as this film teaches us, sometimes even the end of the world isn’t the end of the world.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published 21st October 2004:

‘Somewhere in the universe, there has to be something better than man.’

Two science fiction movies came out in 1968 that both, in their own way, had a huge effect on the genre. The received wisdom appears to be that Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey gave the genre brains and artistic integrity, and that Franklin J Schaffner’s Planet of the Apes gave it box-office clout and mainstream appeal – with the obvious addendum that 2001 is by far the superior and more significant picture.

Well, I’m not so sure about that, and so I would like to take this opportunity to say a few words in praise of Planet of the Apes, a film whose image has inevitably suffered from association with the far from dazzling later sequels and remake it ultimately spawned. Based on a novel by Pierre Boulle, this was in some ways a highly significant movie, simply because it was the first big-budget SF production for over a decade, and arguably the first ever to feature a major star in the lead role.

The star of Planet of the Apes is, of course, Charlton Heston, at very near the apogee of his fame and abilities. He plays Taylor, the cynical and pessimistic commander of a deep space mission. After a long period of travel at near-lightspeed velocities, Taylor and his companions crash-land on an apparently barren world. They are cut off from home by millions of miles and two thousand years (a side-effect of travel at such enormous velocities), and start searching for food and water.

They find them, along with primitive, feral humans. But there is another civilisation here as well. The humans are raiding the crops of this world’s masters, several species of intelligent apes, and they respond by ruthlessly hunting down and killing these pests (as this is only two thousand years in the future, the government’s ban on hunting has still not quite come into effect). Taylor finds himself captured, and about to be treated like an experimental specimen by the ape scientists…

Taylor eventually manages to convince two of his captors, veterinarian chimpanzee Zira (Kim Hunter) and her fiance, archaeologist Cornelius (Roddy McDowell), that he is an intelligent being – but this only serves to worsen his predicament. The Minister for Science, Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans) seems to have a pathological terror and hatred of even the idea of an intelligent human, and an equal determination to destroy Taylor and the threat he represents. It seems the ape civilisation has a dark secret at its heart…

The most impressive thing about Planet of the Apes is not its production values and make-up effects, striking though they both are, but the way in which it succeeds in operating on many different levels. First and foremost, you can watch it as an adventure-thriller, with Heston put into personal jeopardy on a regular basis and a number of big set piece action sequences along the way. The story’s various revelations are skilfully handled, as are the grisly revelations of the diverse but uniformly horrible fates met by the other members of Taylor’s crew. The eerie score by Jerry Goldsmith is another significant asset.

But beyond this, and setting the movie apart from nearly all modern SF movies, is the way in which it quite casually touches upon a large number of different ideas and issues. To be sure, it doesn’t explore most of them in any great depth, but at least they’re there for the perceptive viewer to pick up on. And most of them are topics which mainstream non-SF movies would probably shy away from – most obviously is the film’s commentary on animal rights, achieved through a simple reversal of the status quo. But equally central to the story is a startlingly incisive critique of religious fundamentalism: the ape ruling caste sneer at the theory of evolution which some of the younger chimps are proposing. By implication, the villains of the film are creationists: something you almost certainly won’t find in many mainstream films these days. Admittedly some of the satire in the film is clumsy and obvious, but this is limited to minor elements of the script.

Even so, what gives Planet of the Apes its’ memorably grim quality is the fact that, at its heart, this is a very simple story about one man’s journey. It’s somehow blackly comic that Taylor begins the film by turning his back on human civilisation, convinced that there must be something superior out there – but as the film goes on he finds himself an advocate for his own species, determined to prove man can be more than just the destructive animal Zaius insists is the case. This is what gives the movie’s famous ending its power: Taylor, having rediscovered his belief in the worth of his own kind, suddenly has it snatched away from him again, and is left a howling wreck in the surf.

Heston’s performance is equal to the task, both physically (one suspects he found the shoot every bit as demanding as his more heavily made-up co-stars) and emotionally – he even manages to make some of scriptwriter Rod Serling’s more peculiar dialogue sound quite natural. But the rest of the principle cast are equally impressive, even if Hunter and McDowell wouldn’t really get a chance to shine until a couple of sequels later.

And I do think that in its own way this is every bit as impressive a movie as 2001. Admittedly, it is frequently clumsy and unsubtle, some of the humour is laboured, and in places it’s rather implausible. But it’s involving in a way the Kubrick movie rarely is and, while not wholly immune to portentousness, neither is it overwhelmed by its own profundity. The first three sequels are really rather good, too. I think this is a genuine classic of the cinema, and a landmark movie of the SF genre.

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Should anyone be wondering, this is the very first of my online film reviews from August 2001, without which this blog probably wouldn’t exist. I have resisted the temptation to rewrite it:

The Statue of Liberty casts a long shadow. If this year’s blockbuster remake of Planet of the Apes was the first film to bear that title, it’s likely it would’ve received much better reviews than it actually has. That’s simply because, as modern day summer blockbusters go, for the most part this is rather good.

Mark Wahlberg (Marky Mark for those of us of a certain age) plays Leo Davidson, a sort of zookeeper for the USAF (Johnny Morris obviously not being available for the role). His job is to train chimps to pilot space probes. By far the greatest suspension of disbelief this movie will require of you is the concept of the USAF either wanting or being permitted to make use of our simian cousins in this manner. Anyway, Marky Mark’s favourite chimp gets shot off into a blue swirly thing in space and our hero disobeys orders to go and rescue him.

Things perk up considerably after the blue swirly thing deposits Marky Mark and his pod over a mysterious unknown planet. The pod crashes and in the jungle he comes face to face with a savage, hairy, beastlike figure… yes, it’s Kris Kristofferson playing a semi-feral human. Marky Mark, Kris, and some other actors who haven’t been singers get captured by – intelligent apes! Because this is, like, their Planet, right? – and dragged off to the Apes’ city to be sold to a comic-relief slave trader orang-utan who sounds as if he’s played by the late Jimmy Stewart. Marky Mark gets on the wrong side of nasty chimpanzee Thade (played by an unrecognisable Tim Roth) and makes friends with liberal human-loving chimpanzee Ari (an alarmingly recognisable Helena Bonham-Carter, who gives an extremely eccentric performance). Helena helps Marky Mark and his not-very-funky bunch of fellow humans escape and they all head off into the wilderness so our hero can rendezvous with his mother ship. Tim and his ape army pursue and the scene is set for a big battle and plot-twists by the dozen.

Like I say, there’s a lot to enjoy here. The ape makeup is, for the most part, stunning, though not as much of an improvement over John Chambers’ original work as you might think (Michael Clark Duncan on horseback cuts a particularly fine figure). The plot is also pretty good, but I don’t really want to give away any of the really nice bits so you’ll have to take my word on that. Marky Mark’s performance is a bit subdued, but he’ll doubtless improve in the sequel. There is much visual splendour and the sight of the ape army on the march is enough to warm the heart of any Apes fan.

So why is this movie ultimately disappointing? Well, because it’s called itself Planet of the Apes. That’s a title with a lot of baggage attached to it, it’s the title of a 1968 movie that’s a tough act to follow. Not much of POTA 1968 survives through into the new version. It keeps the basic concept and some of the iconography but that’s about it. POTA 2001 seems to be inviting comparisons, though, by sampling the most memorable dialogue from its’ forebear and reinterpreting it. This backfires badly as it reminds you of all that was great about the ’68 version and all that’s missing from this one. Oh, and Charlton Heston pops up in a brief uncredited cameo – the actor taking time out from his campaign to make home ownership of cobalt-cased nuclear missiles legal under the Second Amendment, no doubt.

Where POTA 2001 falls down in comparison to the first one is in its’ moral complexity, and this arises from the changes inflicted upon it. The human characters are more human – they can speak (though not many of them do) and have a rough sort of society. The apes, on the other hand, are more bestial and, well, apelike, which inevitably makes them seem less intelligent. Whereas the first film was partly about animal rights (the apes treat the dumb humans no worse than we treat dumb apes), and presented complex moral issues without comment, here we just have clearly-in-the-wrong apes enslaving poor (but noble) humans. If anything the subtext is racial in nature – apes sneer at the possibility of humans having their own culture, one (coloured) character describes another who serves the apes as a ‘house human’. It’s not a subtext that appeared in the original series until the third sequel and there it was the downtrodden apes who rose up against the oppressive humans in a very morally ambiguous tale.

The other big problem with POTA 2001 is the ending. Anyone who knows about movies surely knows about the magnificently powerful twist ending to POTA 1968. All the original movies have startling or powerful conclusions and the new version is placed over a barrel by this. It can either neglect to do some kind of twist ending completely and be criticised by comparison as a result, or it can try to do a twist ending in a film where a) everyone’s expecting it and b) knows what it’ll be anyway. Apparently five endings were shot, and if the one they used is the best then I weep for Hollywood. It’s hugely unoriginal, adds nothing to the storyline, is (slight pun coming up) monumentally silly and doesn’t make sense in the context of the movie. Ironically, it’s also almost the only bit of the movie that remotely resembles Pierre Boulle’s original novel.

The original Planet of the Apes was an intelligent movie that held up a mirror to the concerns and moral issues of its’ time. Its’ ultimate message was that man is a violent, ultimately self-destructive savage beast. This time the mirror is cracked. The big messages are that slavery is wrong (well, thanks for the scoop, guys) and that you should never go chasing after a chimp no matter how fond you are of it. It’s full of sound and fury but signifies very little indeed, and anything calling itself Planet of the Apes should be so much more than that.

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