In the 1960s, producer Arthur P. Jacobs purchased screen rights to Pierre Boulle’s novel “Monkey Planet” for Twentieth Century Fox. It became Jacobs’ dream project, facing an uphill battle with skeptical executives. Not helping the producer’s cause was Boulle’s public statement calling “Monkey Planet” his worst novel. ((Boulle had previously written the novel “Bridge on the River Kwai” and received credit for the screenplay, but declined to show up for the Academy Award. The reason for the no-show was that Boulle did not write the script, but agreed to receive credit for the film’s back-listed writers.))
Rod Serling and Michael Wilson co-wrote the screen adaptation for the original Planet of The Apes (1968). The script is far more “Twilight Zone” than Boulle. Jacobs wisely cast Charlton Heston in the lead role. Heston, who loved the script, was helpful in influencing studio heads to greenlight the project and to assign director Franklin J. Shaffner, whom the actor had worked with in the underrated The War Lord (1965).
Studio misgivings were laid aside when Planet of the Apes (1968) proved to be a monstrous success. Before Star Wars, Batman, etc, Planet of the Apes was the original blockbuster franchise, spawning four sequels, a short-lived television series, an animated series, and a comic book. The original film retains its classic pop status, despite revisionist opinions, usually by those who have not seen it and dismiss it as a cheesy byproduct of the sixties and seventies. Actually, it is science fiction cinema at its most preferable: the cinematic equivalent of Cracker Jacks with its prize being smart dumb fun amidst caramel popcorn and salty peanuts. Who, in all honesty, would find Stanley Kubrick ‘s academic psychedelia 2001: A Space Odyssey, made the same year, as fun an experience as American icon Heston being put through Sterling’s pulp karma in the form of gorillas on horseback? Heston’s Col. Taylor, disdainful of mankind, is replete with character flaws, yet we root for him as he is catapulted through a physical and emotional nightmare, in which he is forced to do a philosophical about-face, only to learn in the end he was right all along. Heston’s physicality responds perfectly to Sterling’s blunt ironies.
It is the hippest performance of the actor’s career and one can understand his hesitancy regarding the sequel, Beneath The Planet Of The Apes (1970). Heston’s performance there amounts to a cameo, with James Franciscus filling in, albeit in a second-rate Heston imitation. Still, once past the unnecessary rehash of the first film, Beneath, in its innovative second half, proves to be the strangest, most underrated entry of the franchise. It is also the only sequel that retains the original’s flavor.
Escape From The Planet Of The Apes (1971), the best of the sequels, benefits from the quirky performances of Kim Hunter and Roddy McDowell. Writer Paul Dehn crafted an inventive, humor-laden narrative that delighted in seventies pop culture. Dehn, a noted film critic, drew on Rod Sterling’s original script draft for the first film, as well as Boulle’s novel in which Apes and humans coexist in a modern society. Escape‘s Sterling-esque first half gives way to Dehn’s pre-apocalyptic sensibilities and pop social commentary on racism and violence.
Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes (1972) is Bazooka Bubble Gum Armageddon,especially in the unrated version found on home video. The slavery theme, in the decade immediately following the civil rights battle, made Conquest an enormously popular entry, and Dehn sells its preposterousness by sheer style alone. Battle for the Planet of The Apes (1973) fatally erred by switching horses in the middle of the ride (i.e. taking script-writing duties away from Dehn). The result was hopelessly dull family fare with a vapid happy-happy joy-joy New Age peace-and-harmony ending that contradicts everything before it. The short-lived television series, while hardly classic, was a slight step up from the intolerable Battle. By now, the reputation of the original was suffering from overexposure and the inevitable law of diminishing returns.
After Tim Burton‘s failed, all-gloss reboot from 2001, Twentieth Century Fox waited a full decade before handing a new Apes project over to producer and writer Rick Jaffa (among others), feeling the time was finally ripe to right Burton’s wrong. Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) justified their patience. Director Rupert Wyatt and actor Andy Serkis were considerable assets to the film’s critical and box office success. Rise is the first of the Apes to utilize CGI, and the results are mixed. The primary detractions come in the form of egregious homages to the original film, including Heston’s infamous line, which is a disservice to this wily pulp. Rise also set a new pattern in dull human counterparts. James Franco is adrift, and his browbeating may possibly have been the result of realizing he had been upstaged by CGI. Freida Pinto is wasted, reduced to decor. The only genuine interaction between actors is found in John Lithgow’s Alzheimer victim’s relationship with Serkis’ chimpanzee Caesar. Rise is also waterlogged with the most vapid and dull of subplots: the big bad wolf capitalist executive playing havoc with science for profit, before his inevitable comeuppance. The epic social underpinnings of the 1968 original are scaled down to a commentary on animal testing, but one that smartly yields to a revamping of Conquest. Wyatt’s stylish direction mostly overcomes the sloppy writing. Flaws aside, Rise was successful enough to warrant this year’s entry.
A sequel was planned from the beginning, with Serkis returning for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014), directed by Matt Reeves, who previous credits include Cloverfield (2008) and Let Me In (2010). Some critics are hailing Dawn as the best of the entire Apes franchise, and although a distinct improvement over its immediate predecessor, this proves to be a slight exaggeration—but only a slight one. As Rise was conscientious folklore retelling of 1972’s Conquest, Dawn uses 1973’s Battle as a springboard and, fortunately, transforms its source (the worst of the Apes films) into one of the best.
Dawn, with returning writers Jaffa and Amanda Silver, repeats some of the missteps of Rise. Homages to the original abound and still serve as distractions. However, new writer Mark Bomback seems to have assisted in upping the ante (although his resume would not indicate that potential) delivering a script with the primary message that “Us-or-Them” is synonym to “Bigotry.”
Dawn, like the best Apes films, has a Rod Sterling-esque sheen, but it also indebted to Dehn’s somber, subtle as weapons of mass destruction Apes-branded social commentary. Additionally, there is a distant aesthetic relationship to Budd Boetticher‘s style of hyper-complex, cryptic characterization filtered through the sensibilities of independent filmmaking (despite Dawn’s status as a big studio enterprise). It is, or rather should be, within our nature to root for the underdog, but as in a Boetticher film, we are unsure just who the underdog here is. Both simian and human are prone to profiling and race demonization, but often this is born from the desperate struggle to survive, rather than being a genetic trait. Although for the most part the character shading is laudably complex, Dawn, like Rise, slightly falters in a vital area: the human counterparts themselves are mostly a dull lot, with only a few performances rising above a sketch. On the other hand, focusing primarily on the apes proves to be a good choice.
Aided by motion capture, Serkis’ powerhouse performance as Caesar is even more impressive this time around and is the most, if not the only, successful collaboration between actor and CGI to date. Unlike the recent Spider-man travesty, the effects are utilized only to strengthen performance and narrative. Although clearly the protagonist, Caesar is fallible and fears change, which is Dawn‘s second big theme, practically shouted at us through a bullhorn (which is hardly a criticism). Almost matching Serkis is Toby Kebbell’s performance as the radical militant Koba. It is a given that Dawn will not be a favorite among a good number of NRA members or George W. Bush foreign policy fans, but Kebbell avoids degenerating into cartoon territory, which would have been easy to do. His Koba is not entirely without sympathy and an understandable motive. A third, notable performance is found in Karin Konoval’s reprise of the orangutan Maurice (the name being a nod to Maurice Evans, who played Dr. Zaius in the 1968 original). Maurice has taken on the mantle of a pedagogical simian. Anti-war, anti-racism, pro-gun control, pro-civil law, and pro-education, Dawn Of The Planet Of the Apes, is, quite possible, a summer nightmare for obtuse summer blockbuster zealots and social media forum kooks.
Some criticisms have been leveled against this film for its preachiness and pacing. Aesthetically echoing its message that trust is hard earned, Dawn is more akin to a gradually convincing homily as opposed to a banging-the pulpit Transformers sermon. Yet, this is not a summer move devoid of visceral excitement. Indeed, it is a rare, flavorful popcorn, aided immensely by Michael Giacchino’s score, building to a dynamic, Orwellian crescendo.