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Sunday, July 18, 2010


One of the indelible cultural phenomenons during my growing-up years was the wildly popular PLANET OF THE APES movie series from 20th Century Fox. Folks of an age with Yer Bunche all remember just what a juggernaut it was in those pre-STAR WARS days and if I'm not mistaken, it was the first sci-fi series to really go insane with the merchandising (APES tchotchkes was everywhere). Taylor, Cornelius, Zira and Dr. Zaius were household names in much the same way that Luke Skywalker and friends would be a few years later, and even our parents were eager to see the next APES flick when it came out. NYC's local and lamented 4:30 MOVIE used to run PLANET OF THE APES Week to stellar ratings and great appreciation from the kiddies, and from those many viewings was born our love for these movies. Totaling five feature films and two TV series — one live action and the other (badly) animated — it seemed like nothing could stop the PLANET OF THE APES franchise. Nothing, that is, except for budgets that were drastically and visibly reduced with each succeeding installment, coupled with scripts that mostly had no chance of living up to the classic original. So let's hop in the Wayback Machine and take a look at what became a classic series, very much in spite of itself.

Oh, and while I'm willing to bet my left arm that the majority of you have already seen these films, probably many times, I think it's only fair to state that HERE THERE BE SPOILERS. If you have somehow missed it, get off your ass and rent PLANET OF THE APES (1968). It's a fucking classic for many very good reasons and is one of the films you need to see before you shuffle off this mortal coil. And in regard to some of the opinions you're about to read concerning these films, I sat through all of them in their entirety over the past ten days, so I come at them with the details fresh in my head (although a refresher was unnecessary in the case of all but the final film).

Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner

Not a bad design by any means, but I always found this a strange choice as the first-run theatrical poster for this film.

The original PLANET OF THE APES came from out of nowhere to establish itself as one of the great science-fiction films and is now so much a part of our cultural DNA that there are children still gestating in the womb who already know its plot twists. Loosely based on the 1963 novel LA PLANETE DES SINGES (trans. MONKEY PLANET or PLANET OF THE MONKEYS, depending on who you ask) by French author Pierre Boulle (who also wrote THE BRIDGE OVER THE RIVER KWAI) and re-tooled with an intelligent and sardonic script by TWILIGHT ZONE wunderkind Rod Serling, the film details the sorry fate of a crew of astronauts whose faster-than-light spacecraft accidentally passes through a time warp and crashlands on an unknown world while the crew is in suspended animation. According to what was glimpsed on their instrument panel before their ship sinks, the year is 3978 A.D., meaning our heroes have traveled approximately 2000-plus years into the future. With the sole female member of the team dead due to a malfunction of her sleep tube, the three remaining astronauts wander the planet's barren expanses for lack of any better option. The mission's captain, Taylor (Charlton Heston, in full-on gritted teeth mode), is a cynical sort and a thinker who left for the stars out of a hope that somewhere out there there would be something better than man, while the remaining two astronauts are simply rather non-descript crew members. In short order we witness the astronauts discovering a group of primitive, mute humans who steal most of their clothes, after which the humans are flushed out by unseen hunters on horseback. When revealed, the hunters turn out to be talking man-sized gorillas in leather armor, merrily netting the humans or shooting them dead with rifles. The astronauts get separated and Taylor is shot in the throat, eventually ending up in the lab of Zira (Kim Hunter, aka Stella from A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE), a chimpanzee psychiatrist and vivisectionist who specializes in the comparative anatomy of humans and apes.

Taylor, Cornelius and Zira: one of the great trios in science-fiction cinema. I could listen to them converse for hours.

Put in a cage with a tasty piece of primitive local eye-candy dubbed "Nova" (Linda Harrison, who played Wonder Woman in a 1960's TV pilot that thankfully went nowhere), Taylor, mute himself thanks to his throat wound, gets to know Zira , who swiftly twigs to Taylor's obvious intelligence and soon learns that he can express himself through writing. Keeping Taylor's ability to communicate secret from all but her archaeologist husband, Cornelius (my man Roddy McDowall! Show some love!!!), Zira gets to know Taylor and is fascinated by him. But her investigations into Taylor's origins are halted by Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans, aka Samantha's dad on BEWITCHED), the duly appointed Minister of Science and Chief Defender of the Faith (two positions wildly at odds with one another if you ask me, which I'm guessing was the point) who senses something about Taylor being not quite as is usual for their world's humans, so he orders Taylor gelded.

Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans): villain or hero? When all is revealed, that question is very much open for debate, depending on one's point of view...

Upon getting that piece of news, Taylor escapes and runs amok in Ape City, much to the horror of the residents, and discovers one of his fellow astronauts stuffed in the local museum (complete with glass eyes, and the remaining astronaut is later revealed to have been lobotomized). During his brutal re-capture, Taylor's throat is jostled to the point where he can once more speak, and he utters the famous "Get your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!" line. Think about that one for a moment: not only is it shocking enough that a supposedly dumb animal can speak, he also very effectively curses out his tormentors. That would seriously fuck you up if you witnessed that, and it's my favorite moment in the entire completely excellent movie.

Once the cat's out of the bag about Taylor, things take a rapid downward spiral and we go along with him as he once more escapes (with help from Cornelius and Zira) and makes his way to the Forbidden Zone, an archaeological dig that Cornelius had worked the previous year and where he discovered many truths that got him in trouble with his government. The artifacts Cornelius found deliver concrete proof of an intelligent human civilization that predated ape society and Dr.Zaius reveals that he knew this all along; his villainous actions were motivated by the desire to keep his people blissfully ignorant of the planet's true history. As Cornelius and Zira prepare to face trial for scientific and religious heresy, Taylor and Nova ride away on a horse into the unknown for what could be days, only to discover that Taylor's been on Earth all along — the apes speaking and reading perfect colloquial English should have been his first clue, but I'll let that slide — and that the devastation of the planet was due to a man-caused nuclear war. The film's final image of Taylor pretty much having a nervous breakdown when he sees the half-buried and kinda-melted Statue of Liberty has gone down as a pop culture landmark and is so well known that it's been referenced and parodied innumerable times since 1968.

One of the biggest downer endings in cinema history.

Everything about PLANET OF THE APES is a solid winner and the film deserves its lofty place in the annals of sci-fi cinema. Rod Serling's influence on the story is palpable and lends the proceedings the feel of a long-form episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE, especially when it comes to the film's none-too-subtle allegorical content. The script touches on issues of religion, racism, animal rights, you name it, and thankfully the long form allows its ideas time to be fleshed out in a way that the half-hour seasons of THE TWILIGHT ZONE never had. All of the performances are outstanding and the level of the actors' commitment is such that the events of the potentially ludicrous story are only funny when they're meant to be, although I personally find uber -hot post-apocalyptic babe Nova to be hilarious due to her being so impossibly toothsome after a lifetime of foraging in the dirt like the animal she is and possibly flinging her own feces at her enemies.

Linda Harrison as Nova: proof that there is an upside to the post-apocalyptic wasteland.

Also of note is Jerry Goldsmith's terrific and sometimes bizarre score. I've always thought it was one of the most distinct I've ever heard and every time I see the film I swear I hear something new in the score.

The makeup effects of John Chambers for the apes are classic stuff and revolutionary for their time, so much so that Chambers won the first Oscar awarded for excellence in makeup effects. Each of the three ape types, chimpanzee, gorilla and orangutan, are fully expressive and the prosthetics don't get in the way of the actors' performances one bit.

Bottom line: if you only see one PLANET OF THE APES film, the original is all you'll ever need and you will not be disappointed. The same, unfortunately, cannot necessarily be said for some of its sequels.

BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES (1970) Directed by Ted Post and Arthur P. Jacobs (uncredited)

The second APES film was inevitable thanks to the original's box office performance, but this time around there was a noticeable cutback on the budget and the ape makeup suffered somewhat as a consequence. Also, Charlton Heston was not keen on reprising the role of Taylor, but he agreed to do it on the provision that the character be killed at the end so he couldn't possibly dragged back for another round.

BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES conveniently has a another astronaut, the boring Brent (James Franciscus), go through another time warp and end up almost exactly where the first batch of astronauts found themselves, and upon arrival he encounters Nova, who is wearing Taylor's dog tag. But where is Taylor? Brent is led to Ape City by Nova and once more we find ourselves dealing with Cornelius (played in this outing by David Watson, who conveys little of Roddy McDowell's charm),Zira and Dr. Zaius, with militaristic asshole gorilla General Ursus (James Gregory) added to the mix. Ursus wants to invade the Forbidden Zone and use it for a variety of reasons that make little or no sense, much to the very vocal objections of Dr.Zaius , and so a gaggle of Gorillas is soon deployed into the wastes. Brent has already made his way into the Forbidden Zone and it is at this when point the film comes to life.

Even in the future, man still worships the bomb.

Once below ground, Brent discovers a civilization of telepathic mutants who have formed a religion around a still-working "Omega" bomb, a thermo -nuclear device powerful enough to incinerate the entire world. He also finds Taylor, now a prisoner of the mutants. As the forces of the Apes enter the city and clash with the mutants, Taylor and Brent escape and join in the melee, but both are mortally wounded. As Taylor's life comes to a pitiful end, his hand lands on the bomb's activator and the world perishes in the ultimate nuclear orgasm (which we are told about in narration but not shown, presumably to spare effects costs, but I find the ending more effective with its fade to black).

BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES has some interesting ideas but they don't really come to the fore until the film's final third, by which time we've endured enough TV movie-level mediocrity to half lull us into a torpor. The mutants and their culture are fascinating but they're a case of too little too late, and the presence of Taylor is also too small to have much effect other than giving the viewer hope for a better script (and human protagonist) that does not come. In my opinion, BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES is a frustrating study in "Sequelitis" that gives the audience more of the same while somehow coming up with less to engage the audience. This one gets my vote as the second worst in the series, despite the mutants.

ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES (1971) Directed by Don Taylor and Arthur P. Jacobs (uncredited)

Considering how the world was destroyed in BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES, exactly how the fuck do you continue the series from that point? Easy! Since time travel was the MacGuffin that allowed allow this mishegoss to happen in the first place, who's to say that some one couldn't travel backwards in time? Well, that's exactly what happens in this one and if you can swallow genius chimpanzee Dr. Milo (Sal Mineo) salvaging Taylor's sunken spaceship, figuring out how it works, and enlisting Cornelius (thankfully played once more by Roddy McDowell) and Zira to take it for a test drive, then you'll have no problem with them turning up on the Pacific Coast of America in 1972.

Cornelius, Zira and Dr. Milo: strange visitors from another (?) planet.

Taken into custody by the government and held at the Los Angeles Zoo, the simian trio opt not to reveal their intelligence and find themselves in the care of kindly behavioral scientists Lewis (Bradford Dillman) and Stephanie (Natalie Trundy), aka "Stevie." Their ruse does not last long as Zira loses patience with being treated like a dumb animal and, needless to say, their observers practically shit a Humvee when they hear them speak and immediately twig to the fact that the apes are not only intelligent, but downright brilliant. Unfortunately, Milo is killed by an agitated gorilla in a neighboring cage, leaving Cornelius and Zira to defend themselves, while chained, to a tribunal of government, military and religious figures. Once freed, thanks to their considerable charm and eloquence, the chimpanzee scientists become media darlings and are given a swanky apartment and whisked on a whirlwind tour of 20th century American culture in all of its frivolity and horror.

Cornelius: media darling.

But the good times are short-lived as statements made by the apes during their hearing arouse the suspicions of the reptilian Dr. Otto Hasslein (Eric Braeden, in a chilling performance), a government-connected futurist who believes the apes to be a threat to the human race. Hasslein's paranoia escalates when Zira announces she's pregnant, so Hasslein gets her drunk and doses her with sodium pentathol, making sure to record all she says in answer to his questions. Zira's revalations are shocking, to say the least, as she outlines man's eventual fall into mute animalistic savagery, a state brought about by apes becoming sentient, developing the power of speech, and violently overthrowing humans worldwide. Armed with such damning evidence, Hasslein rallies the government to have Zira's pregnancy terminated and both she and Cornelius sterilized, but upon finding out his plans the couple escapes from the zoo with the aid of Lewis and Stevie, just as Zira goes into labor. Unfortunately, Cornelius accidentally kills an orderly during the escape, so now the authorities have an excuse to shoot him and Zira on sight. Brought to the traveling circus of the totally sympathetic Armando (Ricardo Montalban), Zira gives birth and names her baby Milo in honor of her dead friend, after which the ape family once more takes flight. It all ends in heart-wrenching tragedy as the couple take refuge on a rusting derelict ship at the local docks, only to be mercilessly blown away by Hasslein and a small army of heavily-armed police. As the dying Zira dumps her baby's corpse into the water, Cornelius shoots and kills Hasslein, only to meet his own horrid end in a hail of gunfire. Zira crawls to her husband's body and expires atop his stone-dead carcass, leaving the authorities to believe it's all over. But, unbeknownst to the government, Zira, with the aid of the kind circus owner, switched her newborn with that of one of Armando's chimps, so the line of super-intelligent apes lives on. The final shot of the baby chimp plaintively repeating "Mama" over and over will tear your heart out and grind it into the dirt with a hobnailed boot heel.

A big departure from the previous films, largely due to further budget cuts, ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES eschews all of the previous films' fantastic visual elements except for the talking apes, and as a result the film revels in character. We may have liked Cornelius and Zira from the get-go, but by the time this film is over we have gotten to know and care about them as people (be they apes or not) and as a result we adore them and want to see them somehow overcome odds that are impossible for them to surmount. Theirs is a touching and heartfelt relationship that you cannot help but get caught up in if you have anything resembling a heart, so when the inevitable happens it's just devastating. It is that deep emotional resonance that made this my favorite of the sequels during my youth, but with age comes wisdom and opinions can change...

CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (1972) Directed by J. Lee Thompson

Continuing the history of the ape-dominated future's origins, CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES is by far the darkest and most bitter film in the series, which is only appropriate since it is an allegory about slavery and what happens when the enslaved finally get it together and say "Fuck this shit."

In 1983, a plague wipes out all of the planet's cats and dogs (as first described by Cornelius in the previous film and leading one to imagine how the world's rat population must have consequently boomed) so of course mankind, unable to live without its pets, decides it would be a good idea to domesticate apes, specifically chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans. No explanation is given as to how the apes develop to human-size, but these man-scale simians are soon trained to do household chores and are met with brutal punishment if they blunder or fail in their appointed tasks. By the time CONQUEST starts, it is 1991 and those pet apes are in practically every household, acting as slave labor for their human masters. In the midst of all this, Zira and Cornelius' son, Milo, renamed Caesar (Roddy McDowell, rocking a far more intense ape persona than one would expect), has grown to adulthood and performs as a bareback rider under the sheltering care of kindly circus-owner Armando (a returning Ricardo Montalban), forced to hide his great intelligence and ability to very eloquently speak, as well as being degradingly led around on a chain leash as is common for his species.

Armando (Ricardo Montalban) and the ticking time bomb that is Caesar (Roddy McDowell).

There is much love and respect between Caesar and Armando and for all intents and purposes their relationship is that of father and son, but Caesar must be forever vigilant in keeping up a front of docile obtuseness or else face execution, a state that understandably eats at him like vitriol.

During a circus tour stop in an unnamed major North American city, Caesar finally snaps upon seeing an ape getting beaten and drugged by Nazi-like human enforcers. Blowing his cover by loudly shouting "Lousy human bastards," Caesar comes to the attention of the authorities and local government, but Armando claims it was he who screamed the damning epithet. Knowing watchful eyes are upon them, Armando hides Caesar among a group of newly arrived orangutans from Borneo while he goes to the authorities in an attempt to lie his (and Caesar's) way out of trouble. What Armando didn't plan on was Caesar being trained for slavery, where the innocent chimpanzee beholds all manner of torture, er, "conditioning" (that includes beatings, cranial electro-shock and flame-throwers) which only serves to further offend the intelligent ape and harden his heart against man...

While Caesar endures his unwilling indoctrination and comes to understand cruelty firsthand, Armando is gruelingly interrogated by government officials, led by the sadistic Inspector Kolp (Severn Darden). About to be subjected to a machine that would force him to tell the truth and realizing there's no other way out, Armando throws himself out of the interrogation building's window and plummets to his death. Caesar, meanwhile, is sold into slavery and ends up in the home of Governor Breck (Don Murray), where he is handed an encyclopedia volume and allowed to page through the book in order to provide a name for himself, an activity considered amusing and cute by the Governor. Apparently well-read, Caesar seems to randomly flick through the book, finally indicating his own name in the text (good thing he was handed the "C" volume), with a mildly disturbed Breck noting that he's chosen the name of a king. Also citing Caesar's intelligence and seeming docility, Breck puts the ape to work within the local government's main building under the supervision of MacDonald (Hari Rhodes), Breck's right-hand man and a black dude who sympathizes with the apes, recognizing and being appalled by their obvious state of slavery.

Upon learning of Armando's horrible end and being devastated by the loss of his beloved foster parent, Caesar's hatred of man fully ignites and he begins teaching his brethren the basics of revolutionary thought and tactics.

Caesar gets serious.

His status as an anomaly comes to light when the shipment he was in draws suspicion because there are no chimps in Borneo, so Caesar is immediately placed at the top of the Most Wanted list and sanctioned for execution. Though allowed to escape by MacDonald, Caesar is soon apprehended and put though cruel electro-shock torture to make him talk, which he unfortunately does. Having concrete proof of his identity, Breck orders him to be shocked to death, but MacDonald turns off the power to the shock table, allowing Caesar to convingcingly fake his death and once more escape. Once more on the loose, Caesar wastes no time and he organizes the already disgruntled apes of the city into a brutal throng of retribution. Taking over the city by violent overthrow, Caesar declares that this is but the first strike against the reign of man and thus sets in motion the downfall of human civilization and the rise of what would become the Planet of the Apes.

While most of the APES series in some way provide commentary on various issues as veiled within a sci-fi context, most of them were quite heavy-handed and groan-inducing with the handling of the allegorical material, but not so with CONQUEST. It's obviously a commentary on the evil of slavery, with Caesar as an anthropoidal Nat Turner, and the allegorical thrust could not be made any more clear if one replaces the word "ape" in the script with "nigger." Despite the film's budget yet again being lowered (with the majority of the ape makeup looking to be pullover masks), CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES is very strong meat and now that I've seen it again a few times from an adult perspective, I find it to be hands down the best and most intense of the sequels.

A major point of interest among the many found in this film is that its events call into question the statements about the rise of the apes that were made by Cornelius and Zira in the previous film. In ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES, the chimp scientists state that the revolution was started somewhere around what we would reckon as the year 2100 by an ape named Aldo. It is also noted that between the year when the plague wiped out all the dogs and cats and the time of Aldo's revolution, the apes who became pets/slaves had a couple of centuries to physically and mentally develop to near what they became by the time of the first film. It them took another three centuries or so after Aldo's revolution for the new status quo to be firmly established, with no explanation for mankind's descent to a state of mute animalism. So with all of those historical notes and what is seen in CONQUEST, it may be construed that the history known to Cornelius and Zira is full of either significant gaps or outright apocrypha accepted as fact in their time. Just a wee something to think about.

The Blue-Ray release of CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES includes the more violent director's cut version which ends with zero show of compassion from Caesar, which is the polar opposite of how the theatrically released version ends. I always found his sudden softening of his stance to be a total fucking cop-out, but the darker, more violent version was apparently toned down by the studio and the more familiar and "safe" ending tacked on. I don't own a Blue-Ray player, but I will pick up that version of the disc and invite myself over to the house of a pal with one and someday see this version for myself.

BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES (1973) Directed by J. Lee Thompson and Arthur P. Jacobs (uncredited)

Having simultaneously twigged to the facts that kids really dug the APES movies and that the series had more or less come full circle and reached a creative dead end, Fox once again slashed the budget and cranked out one last APES film, only with all of the heavy elements dumbed down or excised to create a straight-up kiddie film.

Opening with an expository prologue delivered by the Lawgiver (John Huston in orangutan makeup) some 600 years after Caesar's death, the story proper takes place twelve years after the events of the previous film and finds Caesar leading an agrarian community of both apes and humans. While dim-witted, power-hungry, human-hating gorilla General Aldo (a pre-SHERIFF LOBO Claude Akins) plots to overthrow Caesar, the ape leader sets off to the irradiated "dead city" in order to view videotpaes of his dead parents that reveal the ultimate fate of the world, tapes he was alerted to by MacDonald (Austin Stoker), his human adviser and brother to the character from the previous film. (No explanation is given as to the fate of the original MacDonald but I bet he was killed during the revolution, sympathetic to the cause or not.)

Caesar (Roddy McDowell), MacDonald (Austin Stoker) and Virgil (Paul Williams).

Taking MacDonald and the brilliant orangutan scholar Virgil (composer Paul Williams) with him, Caesar views the tapes, but the presence of his party is detected by the resident radioactive mutnats, the ancestors of the bomb-worshippers from BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES, led by Inspector Kulp (a returning Severn Darden), who was surprisingly not executed during the revolution.

Our heroes arrive in the dead city.

Barely escaping from the mutants, the trio returns to Ape City — which looks more like it should be called "Ape Commune" or "Ape Dude Ranch" — and alerts the populace to the possibilty that the mutants, now aware of their existence, may soon come a-knockin'. As Ceasar ponders that inevitabilty and the mutants mobilize a low-budget assault force of beat-up jeeps, convertibles and school buses, Aldo and his equally-rockheaded gorilla soldiers secretly meet and, with Aldo as the agitator, decide to steal all the weapons from the city's armory and "smash" both the humans and Caesar. This plan is overheard by Cornelius (Bobby Porter), Caesar's young son who was obviously named after the beloved character so cruelly murder two films previous, and so the poor kid is killed by Aldo in direct violation of their society's most sacred law, namely that "Ape shall never kill Ape." MacDonald discovers evidence that the child's death was not an accident and brings his discovery to the attention Virgil, but before anything can be done about it, the radiation-sick mutants pretty much figure, "What the fuck? We're gonna die anyway, so let's take those hairy fucks with us!" and engage the apes in all-out combat. The gorillas, having commandeered the city's guns and such, and the rest of the apes kick much ass ("Now, fight like apes!!!") and rout the mutants, after which Caesar is made aware that his son's death was actually murder, leading to an unexciting to-the-death showdown between the ape king and Aldo in the branches of the tree from which young Cornelius was forced to fall. When all is said and done, Caesar remains king and his integrated ape/human community lives on, while the remaining mutants return to their underground city and establish the cult of the bomb in order to prevent its use and the consequent total destruction of the world.

And from there, there really wasn't anything more to tell, so the film series fizzled out and it would be another two years before Ape-mania finally gave up the ghost with the horrible animated series (1974) and the turgid live action TV series that lasted for a mere fourteen episodes in 1975.

The nadir of Ape-Mania: the 1974 Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade float, with a musical number!

Come to think of it, around the same time there was a ridiculous APES-based float in the 1974 Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, complete with actors in ape costumes and bored-looking local kids in shabby "human" getups that resembled minstrel show leftovers, accompanied by a truly awful song that went something like this:

The is a planet of the aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaapes
Where evolution changed its plaaaaaaaaaan

Yeah, if that wasn't the clear death knell of the franchise, then I don't know what was. Even at the age of nine, I found this embarrassing and knew the tit had run dry. For more on this affront to common decency, including an MP3 of the heinous sing in question (track 13), click here.

Thanks to its dumbed-down kiddie movie flavor, BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES can easily be considered the weakest of the lot; it's not flat-out terrible, but considering what came before, it's pretty feeble and its cheapness makes it look and feel like a made-for-TV movie. The re-purposing as kiddie fare gave us a Caesar who was no longer the righteous and violent revolutionary firebrand of CONQUEST and his persona is only slightly less warm than Cornelius as seen in the first three films. He is now a family man, married to Lisa (Natalie Trundy), a minor character first seen in the previous film, and his little community/commune/dude ranch has the aspect of something out of a late-1960's naive stoner fantasy in which man and the animal kingdom live in vegetarian harmony (the humans are forced to cease eating meat). The characters are nearly all the most basic of cardboard cutouts, with little or no shading to their characters, and General Aldo in particular is a laughably lazy piece of character writing. While the gorillas had previously been written as the ape society's military bully boys, they at least had motivations that displayed levels of intelligence. Aldo is portrayed as nothing more than an empty-headed jock-type who has virtually no capacity for sensible thought, and as such he amounts to no more than a rote "baddie," little different than what the kiddie audience knows from the daily arena that is the schoolyard.

I saw this film when it came out and even then I had already seen the previous films and enjoyed how they took a concept that could easily have been laughable and infused it with intelligence and (ironically) humanity, but even at the age of eight I could see what had been done with BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES and as a smart kid I felt it was an insult not only to my intelligence, but also to the intelligence of children everywhere.

When it came to the self-proclaimed "most incredible showdown ever filmed," the battle itself looks exactly like what any kid could have accomplished in his backyard in the '70's with an assortment of G.I. Joes ("With life-like hair!"), some random PLANET OF THE APES dolls and disparate toy vehicles that the figures could fit into. I would not have been surprised in the least to have seen the filmmakers stick a handful of mutants into the Partridge Family's Mondrian-looking school bus, or even a replica of the 1960's Batmobile crafted in someone's driveway from fiberglass, chickenwire and Bondo. So pathetic is this melee that it is only slightly better than the reenactment of the Bay of Pigs invasion in the Coleman Francis "epic" RED ZONE CUBA (originally entitled NIGHT TRAIN TO MUNDO FINE, 1966) that featured maybe ten guy in gear culled from the local army surplus outlet. APOCALYPSE NOW this ain't.

To me, the only items in the film worth noting are the following:
  • Forearmed with full knowledge of the future that is to come, Caesar's early efforts appear to be an attempt at fostering a peaceful accord between apes and humans, but those were the early days and who knows what happens to change that state of affairs over the next two-thousand years? Nonetheless, does that foreknowledge establish a new paradoxical timeline, one of eventual harmony that does not witness the complete destruction of the planet?
  • The establishment of the bomb cult, initially established to keep the Omega warhead's use from ever occurring.
  • Paul Williams as Virgil is by far the most interesting and fun character in the film and his erudite brilliance is something I would have liked to see more of. But, alas...
And so ended the run of the PLANET OF THE APES franchise, a fondly-remembered cultural artifact born of the 1960's and fine-tuned in the 1970's. Such is its popularity that it managed to survive Tim Burton's horrendous 2001 "re-imagining" and is currently set for a reboot that does not feature his wankery. The new film will chronicle the rise of the apes beginning with Caesar, who will be played by Andy Sirkis, the gifted actor who so memorably brought Gollum to motion-captured life in the LORD OF THE RINGS movies. I have high hopes for that film, but then again it would have to really go out of its way to be anywhere near as bad as Burton's take on things. Anyway, long live the Apes!


Scott Koblish said...

Holy Cow, this thing is epic. Glad I have the day off, i'll brew some coffee and dig in. As ever, you are the greatest critic of popular and unpopular culture I have ever known. Razor sharp and brutal - just like it needs to be.

You need to get a gig writing stuff for a living. That brain needs a paid outlet.

Bunche said...

Thanks for the kind words and all I have to say about getting paid to do this kind of thing is "Tell me about it."

anthony0358 said...

I am having a terrible time at the office. But reading this blog entry just cheered me up!

I grew up with Planet of the Apes
and these were some of my most precious childhood memories.

I love the Thanksgiving Day float from 1974.

I did not rembember that


Blue Shirt said...

Everyone did "go ape" over Planet of the Apes when they came out with most of us seeking them out on tv. But as you mentioned the inconsistencies did not go unobserved even as kids. Particularly the walking apes that replaced pets and the scientist repairing a sunken advanced space craft. Regardless these movies were great to watch.

Kevie said...

That was ridiculously fun to read, sir.

I saw the whole series for the first time straight through on one of those local-TV "Ape Weeks" ( I was a raving ape-lunatic for some months thereafter). While the dropoff in quality was obvious (I find "Beneath" repellant in just about every way) I was fascinated by the closed circular continuity.

But mostly I just found the original to be breathtaking in its perfection, in the uncompromising force of its ideas. The fact that I knew all the major swerves going in didn't dilute the experience in the slightest. The "hunt" sequence still manages to feel shocking no matter how many times you see it.

Mindlesskirby said...

When I saw U2 in concert they opened with Little Milo's "Mama" cry. Man, that is one scene that always makes me feel bad. I always have to look away

Glenn Greenberg said...

A WONDERFUL overview, Bunche.

I still like to pretend that nothing was ever made after the original, but I have to admit, your column makes me think that maybe I should at least try to check out the director's cut of CONQUEST one of these days.

Jim Browski said...

I located the original, more brutal ending to "Conquest" on Youtube. I must say it is much more effective than Lisa's plaintive cry of "No" and Caesar's subsequent show of mercy.

However, I can see why the theatrical ending works in the context of the entire series, as Caesar's benevolence towards the humans in "Battle" wouldve been too contradictory otherwise.

Great overview of the series!

Robert H. said...

The original cut of CONQUEST is incredible - wish they'd put it out on standard DVD.

Timothy Tuohy said...

In the Blu-Ray Box set, the contradiction between what Cornelius and Zira describe with Aldo vs. what Caesar does is explained with the creation of an alternate time line.

Smilodon said...

I still can remember watching the live action tv series with my dad when I was a kid. Not that it was on for very long. The movies have been long since burned into my memory.

btw: Rod Serling's script wasn't used but was rewritten by Michael Wilson. Serling also took a shot at the first sequel but his ideas were rejected for that as well.