A retrospective on the Planet of the Apes Franchise (contains spoilers for basically every film in the franchise…so be warned. I would add pictures to this post but WordPress is being obnoxious and stupid so there aren’t any and I gave up. Just read the post and I’ll love you forever.)
I figured with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes coming out in less than a week and that I went ahead and binge watched every single Apes film in like three days, that’d it be a good time to make a nice retrospective/ode to the franchise and the films themselves. I find the Apes franchise to be a very interesting one for many reasons, it was a franchise before the “summer blockbuster” was really a thing, and it became something very Star Wars-like before Star Wars even existed. Sure, the original Planet of the Apes isn’t technically a summer blockbuster as it was released on February 8th, 1968 but the way the franchise exploded is why I like to put it in said category. Yet, the franchise itself is (mostly) more intellectually driven than most blockbusters especially compared to today’s films in Hollywood where Transformers is a main box office draw. The original 1968 Planet of the Apes film is an incredibly smart piece of science fiction, politically and socially.
To give some history on the franchise for myself, I actually saw 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes on opening weekend before seeing any other film in the franchise. I had no prior knowledge of the films and really I was only just “seriously” getting into movies probably a year prior to seeing Rise. I became a more serious watcher of films and what would be labeled as a “film buff” around this time. Movies became an obsession and still are to this day and Rise was certainly one hell of a movie. A near perfect summer blockbuster that wasn’t necessarily overly intelligent by any means but is still slightly smarter than plenty of blockbusters nowadays and regardless, the movie is entertaining and that is the first job of a movie: to actually be entertaining. And Rise wholly provided that in a smart way despite the fact that I didn’t really have any understanding that this was a reboot/prequel to a franchise with an incredibly long history of ups and downs but even the fans of said franchise enjoyed the hell out of Rise as far as I can tell which is pretty incredible in a day and age where reboots and prequels tend to destroy and hinder franchises rather than…well, improve them.
For some reason, I never went and watched the original Apes film until many months later but my God, my jaw was on the floor by the end. I don’t think I really caught onto all the political and social satire/commentary in the film but I was just enamored by everything: the world of this film, the set and art design, the make-up work, the rich characters who felt so real and believable…I was a sucker for science fiction but this was much more than just pure science fiction, it was smart, it was sophisticated, it was extremely dialogue driven. And there very dialogue driven nature of the film isn’t even something I thought about until I rewatched the film a few days ago…but more on that in a moment. That ending. That fucking ending. That is the biggest reason my jaw was dropped to the damn floor. I didn’t even expect it at all. Who did? Heston just screams out, you see the statue, and your mind is blown as the movie just ends right there. He was on earth the entire time, this wasn’t some foreign planet, it was his own planet, his own planet destroyed…they had finally done it they blew it all up. Again, upon first watching, I was more in the moment of the twist and hadn’t even entirely thought about Heston’s VERY cynical character as a whole and how he fits in with the twist.
But after all of that, I never bothered to touch the Apes franchise more so, I never watched the sequels nor had I rewatched the original film or Rise…until now that is. I started with the original film of course and I was just as shocked as I was the first time but I also caught so much more of the political/social commentary the film is littered in and more of what Heston’s character truly is. The movie has so much on religious vs. science throughout, ignorance vs. knowledge, reason vs. faith, emotion vs. reason, etc. All of the characters embody these ideas. The commentaries on slavery, which are more obvious of course. But we also have commentaries on racism and class systems especially with how the different species of Ape are separated: Chimpanzees are the smart scientists/doctors of the society, Gorillas are the military brutes, and Orangutans are the politicians/religious figures. It’s such an interesting creative choice that only helps emphasize the political nature of the film even if it was by accident or on purpose it doesn’t really matter it is entirely effective.
But one of my favorite aspects is Heston’s character as this very cynical man who left Earth simply because he couldn’t take it anymore, humans disgusted him…so he left. That establishing prologue where he is in the spaceship is actually one of the most important parts of the film oddly enough. “Tell me, though. Does man, that marvel of the universe, that glorious paradox who sent me to the stars, still make war against his brother? Keep his neighbor’s children starving?” Those opening questions that Taylor gives are crucial. He questions whether humans have changed or could possibly ever. He hopes, he wants changes, the negative nature of existence/society swallowed him up for so long that he could only hope that hundreds of years later that humans finally figured out that killing each other or letting others starve is an awful solution to problems which calls into play the ending. The ending is actually quite cynical (but it ain’t anything like Beneath the Planet of the Apes…more on that later) it isn’t very hopeful by any means …the humans did fuck up. We caused our problems. We caused the Apes to somehow take over. We caused our own society to go completely ass backwards. Why? Well, the sequels try to answer that but it is quite irrelevant if we look at this original film singularly (which is what I recommend despite my enjoyment of some of the sequels), maybe humans can’t ever fix their problems; maybe we are stuck in an endless circle until everything has gone to shit. It asks a terrifying question in the midst of all its political and social commentary as well as its entertainment value…it is a Hollywood film that asks challenging questions, that is intellectually demanding, and I think we need more of that. I’m glad a film like this exists. I could go on and on about the original but we still have a couple of sequels to talk about so…yeah, let’s do that now.
Beneath the Planet of the Apes was released May 26th, 1970 with a lower production budget and also released in the summer (so now it can totally be considered a “summer blockbuster”). The original actors sorta all returned with one exception of Roddy McDowall being unable to reprise his role as Cornelius for this film at the very least but he certainly returns in the sequels in a HUGE way and Heston kinda returns but doesn’t…well, he is in the beginning…and the ending and helped paved the way for one of the WORST film endings of all time. This sequel is very forced in many ways but that doesn’t mean it is “awful,” it still manages to be enjoyable.
Another spaceship crashes on earth with more astronauts but only one survives, Brent (James Franciscus) who is basically the poor man’s version of Heston since Heston disappears for most of the film. Brent discovers how apes are all over the place and eventually runs into Nova from the first film and heads into literally “beneath” the planet where he discovers New York City is basically buried under there and also discovers a strange society of humans who are very intellectually advanced in some ways but not entirely, they can speak with their minds and they do in a very annoying sequence of scenes with Brent. They are a strange cult who pray to an atomic rocket (yeah…) and they are actually mutated as revealed in a scene from radiation of some sorts (which is fully explained in the fucking fifth film in the franchise, no big deal) and eventually the Apes attack them underground, Taylor is also there and is locked up with Brent and the weird intellectually mutated humans who aren’t really that smart because rockets make Brent and Taylor start to kill each other but they fail and Brent and Taylor manage to kill the guy who made them try to kill each other with hokey mind control, cheesy 1950s sci-fi stuff. Nova dies if anybody cared (nobody cares). The Apes are raiding everything underground and Taylor gets shot and then and this takes the fucking cake, he sets off the fucking atomic rocket and the movie ENDS. IT JUST FUCKING ENDS WITH THE ENTIRE PLANET BEING EXPLODED! WHAT IN THE LIVING FUCK IS THIS SHIT? WHO THOUGHT THIS WAS A GOOD IDEA? WHAT KINDA OVERLY CYNICAL, NIHLISTIC CHOICE WAS THIS? I get it, Heston convinced the producers or whatever to make it that ending in order to end the franchise but Jesus, nobody was like, “this is an awful idea!” It’s so utterly stupid and may be one of the most pointless endings in cinematic history with a message of “nothing even fucking matters.” And that’s Beneath, mostly lackluster with a few highlights (one of those being the moment where the Chimpazees act like people against the Vietnam war as the Apes ride to the underground in some of the most obvious political commentary in the franchise despite being very enjoyable in my opinion). Strange, strange movie but also the last film in the franchise (in my opinion) to really hold the visual look of the first film before it changed a lot into more standard “Hollywood” stuff visually.
Escape from the Planet of the Apes is an entirely different animal, released not even a year later on May 21st, 1971 with Roddy McDowall returning once again as Cornelius and Kim Hunter as Zira. This movie reaches a completely different tone of much lighter and comical (for the first half anyhow) and is my favorite sequel of the franchise. SOMEHOW, the writers managed to write their way out of the awful ending in Beneath and made Zira, Cornelius, and a new character Dr. Milo (Sal Mineo) escape from the future earth just in the knick of time before it explodes. Does it make any real sense? No, not really. How could they have possibly known about the explosion or the rocket anyhow? I haven’t a fucking clue but I just put reason behind and decided to enjoy the ride and I’m glad I did. The Apes are obviously picked up by the U.S. government immediately with the movie-taking place in 1973 (for some reason) but the Apes become likeable to the American public. They become media figures. They start to attend silly media shit. It becomes this weird, comical, light but very, very fun movie but starts to have a very dark tone shift once we find out Zira is pregnant.
Dr. Otto Hasslein (Eric Braeden) plays the main antagonist who wants to know the real truth of the future and what happens. He manages to get his answer after getting Zira drunk (what kinda asshole gets a lady drunk when she is pregnant?). He finds out of the apocalyptic future waiting for the earth and the eventual takeover of the Apes and the way humans are actually treated in the near future, he wants to kill the baby…and more so, kill Zira and Cornelius. Blah, blah, blah, things happen and Cornelius and Zira eventually escape with the help of two sympathizers who are doctors right from the beginning of their arrival (oh yeah, Doctor Milo dies by the way…a gorilla kills him…yeah…) and Zira delivers her baby at a circus and names it Milo in honor of…Dr. Milo of course. But a switcheroo happens, baby Milo is switched with a baby in the circus…though, I didn’t really even make the connection until it is made obvious by the very final scene in the movie, which was a real surprise, and twist for me honestly. Zira and Cornelius are killed though…which would have been a complete fucking downer after getting so connected to these characters but at least the damn baby survives. The movie has small amounts of political and social commentary but nothing overly major, it is more of a tragic love story between Zira and Cornelius than anything, the viewer becomes incredibly attached to these very likeable Apes, it’s very different than the two other films but a welcome change.
But…Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (released June 30th, 1972)goes back to dark, very fucking dark. It takes place in 1991 and Armando (Ricardo Montalban) who was the guy running the circus in Escape is still taking care of Milo…err, or Caesar? (who is played by Roddy McDowall by the way, who in the fuck has ever played the father and son of a character before, that’s fucking badass) I’m still very confused as to why his name is changed in the film. It is never mentioned why his name is changed, I mean Caesar is a cooler name and makes more sense in the context of the film but why? Or at the very least a simple explanation placed somewhere? The only thing I can assume is he changed the name just in case Milo was too obvious? But people thought the baby died…so…fuck it. Who cares? Moving on. The world of this film is very different, the prophecy explained by Zira and Cornelius in Escape about a disease killing the world’s cats and dogs which in turn leads to humans keeping apes as pets happened which led to humans eventually training them to carry out household tasks and they have essentially become slaves at this point (it’s hokey, kinda stupid, and doesn’t even totally make sense-especially in context of the knowledge Zira and Cornelius are supposed to only hold inthe original film which is to say I don’t think they knew how the world ended up the way it did but apparently the fucking scrolls explain it all-but fuck it. Suspend your disbelief. You’re gonna have to in order to enjoy).
Eventually, Caesar/Milo/Name Changed For No Reason is captured and is treated like shit and gets pissed the hell off, he starts to form a revolution with the other apes, which leads to an extraordinarily dark riot. The reason Caesar forms this riot beyond his torture is that Armando is killed which was really the only sympathizer Caesar had left until he befriends MacDonald (Hari Rhodes) who is African-American for obvious reasons which allows for some commentary on slavery toward the end of the film.
The end riots and the speech given by Caesar are the strong points of the film and this is by far one of the better sequels along with Escape. The riots by the Apes were also inspired by the real-life Watts Riots which is a good use of political commentary without being overtly obvious about it, they don’t really try to point it out with “obviousness” or “hey look at what we are doing” rather it is has some subtly. The Apes are successful and Caesar gives a speech that is dark but also slightly optimistic and has slight empathy for the humans by the end though it wasn’t always that way. The original ending fully ended on a dark note of the Apes pretty much outright fucking hating humans but post-filming through editing tricks and narration recorded later on, they added onto Caesar’s speech to add slight optimism which I’m okay with as the film was already incredibly bleak and a little bit of hope is alright I suppose.
And lastly, we have Battle for the Planet of the Apes released June 15th, 1973 and was labeled as the “final film” of the franchise at the time. It isn’t a great film by any means but is by far one of the more “optimistic” films in the franchise. Nothing of real interest honestly happens for most of the film. It takes place in the early 21st (besides the opening and closing scenes given by the Lawmaker which take place in 2670) and the apes and humans are trying to coexist. Caesar is a much wiser and empathic ruler and less of a rash revolutionary. The nearby city has fallen to pieces and Caesar and some humans and some apes live in a nearby community they have formed yet the humans are still basically 2nd class citizens and aren’t really treated fairly. Caesar is married and has a child named Cornelius. Caesar is very curious about his past which leads to him going to the radioactive city ruins in order to visit the archives to find the tapes of his parents (My God though, this is so convince of plot though, he is just thinking about this? it took you ten fucking years to think about doing this?) and he finds them but also finds the beginnings of the weird, stupid cult in Beneath but they aren’t really a cult yet, just a bunch of survivors.
Caesar and gang leave the ruins after nearly getting killed by the mutated humans Cornelius is killed at the community by some shitty ape guy (who cares what his name is?) who wants to fully rule over the humans and take down Caesar.
A “battle” (get it? That’s the title) is waged between mutated humans, gorillas, and apes and shit and a bunch of people fight for like twenty minutes and you as the viewer don’t really care a whole lot. Some of the gorillas do more drastic violent shit, which is bad or whatever. The shitty gorillas also locked up the humans in the community behind some bars which Caesar didn’t appreciate and then he also finds out the main gorilla guy killed his son which pisses him the fuck off so he kills the gorilla guy in which the only decent political/social commentary is waged with the line uttered by African-American guy/Caesar’s companion: “I guess you could say they just entered the human race” after Caesar kills main-gorilla-guy. And we get a final scene with the Lawgiver which reveals that human and ape children have been listening to his story and thus far, they live in harmony and the final shot is of a statue of Caesar with tears coming out of his eyes which is meant to given the movie an ambiguous ending meaning that “hey this could go many ways: they could continue to coexist or apes could take over or humans could take over,” but I prefer the coexist one just because I’m an optimist mostly…although that does kinda cancel out the entire first film which would suck. The movie isn’t very good is my point (if you couldn’t tell by my lack-of-caring voice). Is it watchable? Sure. Is this certainly a franchise on its last legs? Abso-fucking-lutely. The movie lacks the political/social commentary it should have and feels more like general Hollywood fluff I guess. It isn’t great or bad. Just kinda lackluster.
The franchise ended for a while (well there was a couple TV shows that lasted for a season each but who cares?) until the god-awful 2001 remake of Planet of the Apes made by Tim look-at-my-over-the-top-zany-style Burton. I don’t even wanna talk about this piece of shit, it’s (mostly) awful except for the make-up work and the ending makes absolutely zero sense at all, it was an awful attempt of trying to revitalize an already dead franchise…or so it would seem. This remake is what I consider the Batman & Robin of the Apes franchise. We may have never gotten Rise and Dawn had it not been for this shitty remake that doesn’t work at all, it’s just as how we got The Dark Knight trilogy due to Batman & Robin. IT DOESN’T EXCUSE THAT FUCKING AWFUL ENDING THOUGH! IT MAKES NO SENSE!
But I look at the future of this franchise brightly. Rise was an impressive and entertaining flick despite its mostly lack of political/social commentary but all I hear about Dawn is that is even better than Rise which makes me incredibly excited and I cannot wait to see it this Friday.
But really what makes the Apes franchise stick out is that it was the “summer blockbuster” franchise before Hollywood had even established that as a thing and what it now seeks out and capitalizes upon as much as possible (for better of for worse), it came at a changing time for movies, movies weren’t a singular thing anymore, they were much more, people wanted more and more, people wanted to see the worlds of these films explored more, these movies became larger-than-life, they were not just a “movie” anymore, they became an “event,” an “experience,” and for better or for worse, Planet of the Apes may have just started it all…without even realizing it.
Lucius: “Dr. Zaius, this is inexcusable! Why must knowledge stand still? What about the future?!”
Dr. Zaius: “I may just have saved it for you.”
Dr. Zira: “What will he find out there, doctor?”
Dr. Zaius: “His destiny.”