The first time an ape speaks in the 1968 science fiction classic The Planet of the Apes you’re left in awe. Well, you should be, at least.
No matter who wrote the stories, directed the films or turned in the performances, the true hero of the original Apes series is creative make-up master John Chambers.
Chambers’ captured the imaginations of a generation of moviegoers with his make-up work that transcended the rest of Hollywood. His ability to turn Roddy McDowall, Kim Hunter, Maurice Evans into intelligent human-like apes elevated the original classic beyond the area of B-movies, tucking itself away in the warm arms of Hollywood legend and lore.
The Planet of the Apes is such a successful series for a number of reasons. It begins with Chambers and it ends with strong societal confrontation and a keen sense of awareness. The original classic and its four sequels – Beneath, Escape, Conquest and Battle – with all their hits and all their misses is one of the most consistently strong series of films of its kind.
In fact, despite being more than 40 years old, the series of films, which were churned out at a fast pace between 1968 and 1973, are still relevant and timely in its ideas and concepts and still challenges you to think about aspects of society ranging from man’s attempt to conquer nature to evolution to nuclear – or any kind- of warfare.
On Wednesday I decided to go ape crazy and marathon all five of the original films that I had just bought on Blu-ray. I had only seen the 1968 original and was eager to rewatch that along with satisfying my urges to finish the entire series. Instead of reviewing each film I’ve decided to contain my thoughts to one post, which will still probably end up being too long.
I consider the first two films of the series to be classics for different reasons. The Charlton Heston original is iconic and for me is placed in the upper echelon on 1960’s science fiction. It resounds with its 60’s style and a mysterious aura that surely captivates a viewer throughout the entire experience. Outside of Chambers’ outstanding make-up, the film appears, just from a quick glance, to be simply put together. I think it’s safe to say when the make-up effects are as good as Chambers were, turning McDowall, Hunter and Evans into living, breathing and talking apes, the surroundings don’t really matter.
Also thriving in the first film is an intelligent conversation presumably first presented by Pierre Boulle’s novel the film is based on. Twilight Zone master Rod Serling was part of the screenwriting team, but if I believe what I read it seems a lot was changed in revisions. Either way, the screenplay asserts a dominance over most of the film. It isn’t the most eloquently written thing but it does force you to ask about the responsibility of man to care for his world and conveniently flips apes and man on opposite sides. It’s cheeky and easy but still so worthwhile.
But still, most of the series’ success comes in its charm. The performances by Hunter and others, some of whom would return later in the series to reprise iconic roles, are full of a loving sensibility that probably could only be achieved with the great work of Chambers to guide things. His love for his work and the dedication insisted upon it is the reason why these characters like Zira, Dr. Zaius and Cornelius are remembered and loved.
Beneath the Planet of the Apes is another story. The first sequel repeats the original’s concept of having another astronaut, searching for lost Heston character George Taylor, land on the ape’s planet. But after that, things get weird. The men and the apes encounter a race of human living underground. Their God is a nuclear missile. Having man praise this, after presumably destroying their world thousands of years earlier with a similar kind of missile or some kind of warfare, is an obvious but appropriate way to jump at giving Beneath the extra depth it needs.
This film and the rest of the series quickly deviates from the charming original. Escape from the Planet of the Apes, the third film, is at times a bit of a mess with almost nothing progressing the lore and story of the series. In it, Zira and Cornelius escape the battle between the apes and the veiny missile-worshiping humans in an American space craft, only to go back and time and land off the coast of California. But the thing is, while it’s a strong story and adds to the future of the series, it really doesn’t lend itself well to what made the first two films so successful in my book. We follow Zira and Cornelius around in what is a textbook tale of mistrust, lies and deceit handed down from the human race to the apes. It’s all kind of unremarkable.
But the tag team performance of McDowall and Hunter is once again able to become a centerpiece to this film. If you loved the first two films, you will find it hard to criticize the third one too much. The two actors are just too charming and the characters are just too lovable to find yourself thinking bad about their latest story. It surely is a film that deviates from the awe-inspiring nature of the first film and the battle-tested strangeness of the second film, so it might put off fans a bit, but in the end it is a valuable middle piece to the series.
The final two films in the series, Conquest and Battle, serve more as an attempt to cash in on a dystopia feeling more than anything else. Conquest is a weird film. The story is fashioned off some of the lore the series issued us before. The son of Cornelius and Zira, Caesar, is the only talking chimp and surfaces inside a world that has embraced the act of ape slavery. Apes are trained to clean, deliver items and so on. The whole thing takes place in this strange, weird compound that has a dark, oppressive feel. I wasn’t able to feel much of a world living outside of what we’re watching, which really bothered me at times, but I understand the concept of not venturing too far beyond the actual story. This is, after all, the story that fulfills the prophecy that apes would eventually become too strong and smart for humans and start fighting back.
The whole thing concludes in Battle for the Planet of the Apes. It is just like it sounds. Humans and apes, living sort of peacefully but not really, square off against one another. Humans are on the down, living in darkness and in a wasteland. Apes actually have human slaves and workers, showing a clear turning of the tables. These final three films still do a decent job at challenging us with questions, but they just aren’t strong enough.
In its entirety, the Apes series is magnificent. Sure, only the first film gets placed among the best of the best, but together the other four films have more than enough satisfying and pleasing moments for newcomers and fans of the series. I’ll have a review of the reboot Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which is an exciting restart to the charming series, coming soon.