The Planet of the Apes franchise is truly a wonder to behold. Starting as a novel written by the French author Pierre Boulle, it was adapted five years later as a film in 1968 starring Charlton Heston. Within the next five years, four more sequels would be made to build upon the philosophy and the mythology that was started in the first film. The franchise doesn’t end here, however. In 2001, Tim Burton remade the original film and most recently in 2011, Rise of the Planet of the Apes showed a brilliant return to the series and acted as a reboot that changes the original format in a very interesting way.
This will be part 1 of a two part review. In part 1, I will go through the original series from 1968 to 1973. Part 2 will highlight Tim Burton’s remake, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and what the future may hold for this franchise.
For the sake of covering all of the movies in the original series in one blog post, I’m only going to give a very skeletal outline for every movie.
In 1968, Planet of the Apes told the story of a group of astronauts led by Taylor (Charlton Heston) who crash land on a mysterious planet that seems uninhabited at first. As they astronauts travel further and further, they come across humans who seem very primitive and unable to speak. More importantly, they find that the humans are subservient to a race of talking, civilized apes who use the humans as slaves and for experiments. They are shocked to find Taylor who defends himself and humanity with his ability to speak and understand the apes. In 1970, the sequel Beneath the Planet of the Apes continued the story. Taylor now knows that the planet is a post apocalyptic earth and that humans completely ruined the world for themselves. A new astronaut, Brent (James Fransiscus), is sent to find Taylor and lands on the planet. What Brent finds is the Ape City but also an underground civilization of mutant telepathic humans who know that the time for battle against the apes is close at hand.
In 1971, Escape from the Planet of the Apes told the story of Zira (Kim Hunter) and Cornelius (Roddy Mcdowall), who in the same manner of time travel as Taylor in the first film, finds themselves in the 1970s. They are at first welcomed, but soon paranoia begins to grow around their existence and what they say the future holds. 1972 brought about Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. This film is the story of how the apes realized that their subservient nature to the humans didn’t have to happen. Cornelius’ and Zira’s son, Caesar (also played by Roddy Mcdowall), teaches the other apes through his higher intelligence and ability to speak to revolt against their masters and begin thinking for themselves. Finally, the series ends in 1973 with Battle for the Planet of the Apes. Caesar is in charge of both humans and apes, but when a hidden group of humans radiated by nuclear fallout threaten the apes, gorilla general Aldo (Claude Akins) plans a revolution of his own. This makes the defense of the new ape city more complicated than it needs to be.
Trying to cover the entire series in two paragraphs isn’t really giving the movies too much justice. Despite being called a “B-movie franchise” by many people, it still offers plenty of things to think about. The first film is an excellent piece of science fiction film making, which means it offers a grand warning. Taylor condemns all of mankind when he stumbles on the remains of the Statue of Liberty, and even makes mention of our violent nature in the beginning monologue. This, in and of itself, should serve as a clue of what’s to come. Science and religion are both contrasted in this movie, and even though it seems that science is favored throughout most of the movie, the end reveals that it carries the same weight of human error and evil that religion carries. In doing this, the film is stating that science and religion aren’t to blame. We are.
Beneath the Planet of the Apes and Escape from the Planet of the Apes deal a lot with paranoia. In reality, Beneath should have been the one and only sequel, although Escape is very entertaining. Anyway, back to the paranoia. A main plot element in these two films is the destruction of earth by a huge doomsday missile. Why is this such an important plot point? Think of the time that these were made: 1970 and 1971. The Cold War is in full swing, and with that is enough suspicion and fear to practically crumble an empire. In my opinion, these are the last films in this series that truly succeed in what they are trying to say, despite the budget being cut in half after the first film.
Conquest and Battle are when things start to get iffy. The thematic elements are still there, this time with slavery, acceptance, and the chance of corporate dictatorship and governmental problems, a la 1984. These are all well and good, and Roddy Mcdowall does very well as an actor, as he has in all of the films he’s been in in this series. The problem lies in how cheap everything appears to have become. Conquest is really dark looking, and there were times where I was struggling to see what was actually going on. Battle looks a lot better, but by this point, I was more than ready for the series to be over. There was some weird editing and continuity problems in this movie that were glaring, but definitely something I could forgive. The real problem is that this series went on for way too long. Five movies? We really didn’t need that many. Two would have sufficed, although the third is entertaining enough.
I don’t have too much to say about the last two other than they seemed thrown together and haphazard. I could talk about the first three until tomorrow morning, but I feel like this has gone on for long enough. All five movies are on the right track with their dystopian warnings, and I feel like that, the cool make up, and Roddy McDowall are the reasons to watch this series. You have to really be in to sci-fi to really appreciate these movies, but if you love dystopian literature, cool make up, and over the top performances, then this is a cool and ground breaking series. For the history of the movies alone in relation to film history as a broad topic, these movies should be checked out.
This concludes Part 1. As I said before, Part 2 will cover Tim Burton’s remake of Planet of the Apes, the newest film Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and what to expect in the future for these movies.