Thursday, 17 July 2014

The Forbidden Zone! A Planet of the Apes retrospective (1968-1973)

The Planet of the Apes is one of the longest running sci fi franchises of all time, with enough action, adventure, satire and an ear bleedingly complicated timeline to boot, it has captivated generations for nearly 50 years . Initially adapted from a controversial 1963 novel by Pierre Boulle (La Planete des Singes) , the original film would go on to spawn 5 sequels in as many years as well as a short lived TV series and cartoon. In the 40 years that followed the end of the original incarnation the franchise was nearly forgotten, dragged through the mud by an ill advised remake (Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes, 2001) and finally restored to it’s former glory by a dazzling reboot (Rise of the Planet of the Apes). To celebrate the imminent release of the highly anticipated sequel, and middle entry in a planned trilogy, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, TMMDI takes a look back at the original series 1968-1973.

Planet of the Apes was released in 1968. Based on the aforementioned French novel the film starred Charlton Heston, the blockbusting action hero of the day, as Taylor and followed the story of 3 astronauts who crash land on a mysterious planet 2000 years in the future where Apes have been able to evolve into the dominant species. After being captured, then helped to escape by 2 sympathetic chimpanzees Zira (Kim Hunter) and Cornelius (Roddy McDowell), Taylor ultimately learns that the planet of the apes is planet earth, and apes were allowed to take control after a nuclear war destroyed the human race. What initially strikes you about the first film are the incredible special effects, for the time and still to this day, employed to bring the ape city to life as well as the ambitious premise and legendary shock twist ending. Underpinning all of this spectacle is also a great deal of political satire carried over from the book ie. Chimpanzees are the middle class intellectuals, Orang-utans are the bureaucratic church and state and Gorillas are the military class. All things considered, you have to class The Planet of the Apes as a film that was well ahead of it’s time (no pun intended) and especially ambitious in terms of it’s plot, subtext and production.

Hot on the heels of the first entry came the sequel, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, in 1970. As Heston would only agree to a small role in the film where his character would ultimately die a replacement was brought in, in the form of James Franciscus, who would portray a very similar character named Brent. The film is very much a retread of the first film with astronauts crash landing on the planet, being apprehended in ape city and Brent heading off into the forbidden zone to find Taylor. However, The difference with Beneath, and the redeeming feature of the film, is Brent’s adventure leading him underground into the remnants of New York City where he discovers that the human race have evolved into a telepathic, atom bomb worshipping clan of mutants. Ultimately it all ends in tears after Taylor is rescued, apes attack and the bomb is detonated (cheers for that Heston). Whilst not given nearly enough time in the film, the segments focusing on the “cult of the bomb” are really fascinating and rescue the film from being an otherwise dull and repetitive sequel.

My personal favourite of the original series followed 1 year later in 1971 with the quirky Escape from the Planet of the Apes. Whilst on the surface appearing as an incredibly dated and goofy “fish out of water” comedy, the film is actually the most witty and satirical of the original series. Finally pulling focus back to the stars of the franchise, Cornelius and Zira, the film follows their implausible journey back to to present day earth from the future as a result of the climactic blast of Beneath. Although the apes are initially treated as celebrities in 70s American society it’s not long before humans start to discover their eventual fate as slaves to the ape race, and try to prevent that future from occurring. What you get along the way is plenty of time travel based “would you go back and kill Hitler as a baby” type ponderings as well as layers of political satire ranging from civil rights, animal testing and feminism and stands as one of the least action based, but most intelligent entries. 

After this the series flashed forward 20 years to 1991 with 1972’s Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (are you still with me?). The film plays close to George Orwell’s dystopian nightmare as apes have been enslaved in camps and are systematically demoralised and re-educated. Cornelius and Zira’s son Milo (now renamed Caesar and yes, still played by Roddy McDowell) has found himself in one of these camps but the authorities are well aware of the ape prophecy that the offspring of the talking apes will bring about the fall of man and so, understandably, give him a bit of a hard time about it. The film served to be the blueprint for the 2011 reboot and certainly has it’s fair share of apes rising, whilst exaggerating the political satire once again and drawing strong links to black slavery. It’s a fairly downbeat affair compared to the other entries but no less gripping and really pushes the envelope of how political and existential the franchise can be.

The final instalment of the original series would be 1973's Battle for the Planet of the Apes. The film is set (presumably) several decades after the events of Conquest and the nuclear war that wrecked the earth. Apes and humans are tentatively co-existing under Caesar's rule but warmongers amongst the Gorillas and the mutant humans threaten to plunge the planet into an all out war. As the end of the original series and the culmination of 4 other films you'd think this would be a pretty explosive climax but, sadly, it isn't. Having exhausted the concept and lacking much of the previous satire the film plods along and ends up being a pretty dull conclusion to the whole saga.

So there you have it! I'm not going to waste my time talking about the 2001 remake or bang on and on about how great Rise was, you can read my original review for that, but safe to say the Planet of the Apes franchise is here to stay. Reinvented by staggering digital technology, incredible mo-cap performances and two of the finest screenwriters in Hollywood, there has never been a more exciting time to be a fan of intelligent, compelling and emotional science go ape and see Dawn this weekend!

Which original film is your favourite? How does the original series compare with the rebooted one?


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