For the uninitiated here’s a critical primer to the original Planet of the Apes series. See ’em before you see Rise. See ’em after. It doesn’t really matter.
Planet of the Apes (1968)
I love the series more than I love any of the individual films, if that makes sense. The original is easily the most impressive and sports the most exciting and innovative make-up effects. (A decline in budgets meant a decline in effective make-up in subsequent entries.) Chuck Heston devours scenery with such gruff gusto we’re partially relieved when his 20th century astronaut Taylor loses his voice for several scenes. As holds true of the whole series, even for sci-fi, the logic is wobbly and the social subtext, blunt and anvil-heavy. But I always return for the performances, particularly those of Roddy McDowel (Cornelius), Kim Hunter (Zira) and Maurice Evans (Dr. Zeius). And of course, Linda Harrison as Nova, the mute human slave girl, is pretty easy on the eyes. The action sequences are well realized and the ape town sets impressive, but there’s no denying that PotA is one lucky B-movie in A-movie clothing. Despite a dreary twist ending — no surprise considering Rod Serling wrote the script (which is based on a novel by Pierre Boulle) — PotA shies from getting too high-falutin’ and knows to incorporate a sense of playfulness that would make it perfect fare for rainy Sunday afternoons in front of the TV with Dad for decades to come.
Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970)
My vote for the silliest and least imaginative entry, Beneath, does little more than recycle the entire first half of the original with James Franciscusas part of a crew of astronauts sent on a reconnaissance mission to rescue Taylor and his (unbeknownst to them, dead) crew. After a few expository clips from the end of the first movie, Franciscus’s trajectory (discovery of talking apes, realization that he is in danger, acceptance of assistance from Cornelius and Zira, hiding, escaping, etc.) is the same as Taylor’s. When Beneath finally does get around to doing it’s own thing, it does so by introducing a mysterious society of deformed telepathic humans, led by Victor Buono, who worship, pray and chant about nuclear warheads underground (?!). It pretty much loses its way from there and even Franciscus crossing paths with Heston’s Taylor (who, by now, is firmly off his nut) does little to salvage any coherence left in the cash-grabbing direct sequel. Spoiler alert: In the end the Earth is pretty much nuked to nothing. “It’s ARMAGEDDON!” Heston hamily emotes.
Escape from Planet of the Apes (1971)
Now we’re getting somewhere. This marks the first time our simian leads get to play the fish out of water. Cornelius and Zira do the titular escaping, back through time to the “present” when humans still held the keys to Earth’s destiny. Perceived by the government as a threat to human existence they go from being sensations (“Talking apes!”) to hunted pariahs. This is easily the most cerebral and well-acted of the original series with McDowell and Hunter, as the tragically pregnant talking ape, giving career-highlight-type performances, both droll and heartbreaking. By now the downbeat finale is a series staple, and no Apes conclusion has yet to top the THEY-DIDN’T?! shock value of Escape’s borderline-cruel last act. With fewer apes in attendance, it’s obvious that the make-up of the two primaries has returned to it’s original grandeur.
Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972)
One of the most surprising things about Rise of the Planet of the Apes is how much it owes to both Escape and Conquest. For one, Caesar (McDowell playing his own character’s son) — Zira and Cornelius’ surviving offspring who was switched at birth with another chimp by a benevolent circus animal trainer (Ricardo Montalban!) is originally a product of the second and third lesser-known sequels. In conquest, upright (but suspiciously silent) apes have become Earth’s domesticated pet of choice after a mysterious virus wipes out the world’s dogs and cats. Every bit as smart and sophisticated as their human counterparts, Caesar loses faith in the human race after Montalban is murdered, and leads a revolution of apes against humans. The revolution begins with the previously subservient and apes uttering the single syllable “No!” Rise brings much of this premise full circle while simultaneously setting the stage for the original Heston Apes via several subtle but well-developed prequel strategies. Conquest suffers from being relative-to-the-series slow. The political agenda of the first film is resurrected and employed even more heavy-handedly, which is no good this late in the game. The movie ends with what is essentially a poorly executed race-war riot. Budget constraints are clearly visible especially in group shots of ape extras. But the next entry would trump that distinction…
…with Claude Akins in a gorilla mask that looks about as impressive as Claude Akins in an Official Planet of the Apes Halloween Mask from Woolworths. That’s good for laughs, anyway. Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973) also features the diminutive singer/songwriter/Phantom of the Paradise, Paul Williams, as an orangutan voice of reason. Battle is easily the cheapest looking of the original series’ sequels but also sports a decent enough story that relies more on action than dramatic exposition. Roddy McDowell appears again as Caesar; now the ruler of a peacefully integrated society of apes and humans. Yeah, how long do you think that’s gonna’ last? I should also mention that African Queen director, John Huston, appears a handful of times as the ape “Law Giver.” No shit. –and I’m not sure whether to upgrade or downgrade for the movie’s parting shot of an ape statue shedding a single tear.
Conquest Grade: C
Battle Grade: B-
by Will Nepper
If you’d have told me a decade ago that there was any banana juice left in the Planet of the Apes franchise, I’d have expected you meant it in a straight-to-video capacity. Tim Burton’s Apes — just like his Alice and Willy Wonka — seemed to reflect a filmmaker with little understanding of what made the source material great. (And when I apply the adjective “great” to anything PotA-related, I don’t mean it so much as in a “cinematic-achievement” way, as I do a “Tony-the-Tiger” way.)
The PotA series is beloved by many but not because its all that special. It’s a sci-fi movie that was in the right place at the right time. Its effects were state-of-the-art and fairly convincing. (I mean, if man evolved halfway back to ape … I could see it looking like that I guess.)
Rise of the Planet of the Apes may represent the first shot of dignity the series has ever been allowed. It’s a well-acted, well-structured prequel that establishes a loose origin story for a series that actually deserves one. (How did those apes get so smart anyway?)
James Franco looks a little bored as some top-shelf genetic medical mad scientist-lite type of guy who has invented what is supposed to be the “cure to Alzheimer’s” (or just “The Cure” in the original trailer). When tested on apes they find that its brain-building properties turn chimps into little cheeping Steven Hawkings! Cool! –wait! Not cool! That’s how the Statue of Liberty got buried!
When things go to shit in the test-monkeys-to-cure-Alzheimer’s wing of Franco’s Mega-Medical-Corp employer, he finds himself adopting Caesar, the first recipient of the AMAZING only-temporarily-cures-Alzheimer’s-but-makes-monkeys-rule-the-Earth serum.
Franco is impressed with Caesar’s ability to communicate, emote, and make it okay to like CGI again (and let’s not forget how uh-dor-a-bullll and natural he looks in kids’ clothes!) that he decides to bring the hairy kid home to meet Dad (John Lithgow, underplaying it for as change) who — and you may be one step ahead of me here — happens to have Alzheimer’s.
But as much as Franco seems to love living with his genetically-altered monkey-old-man sitcom-ready duo, his genetic animal specialist or whatever girlfriend has the good sense to mention that this situation might be on a collision course with an action-packed last reel. After an unfortunate incident in which Caesar damn near takes Franco’s neighbor apart he’s sent away to an ape … storage … facility? … or Hell Zoo? … or some Animal Planet version of the Truman Show? I don’t know…it’s been a few weeks since I screened the movie.
When Caesar sees that he’s rejected by both human and ape alike, he makes like Charlie Bronson and takes the law(s of nature) into his own hands. After making friends with a gorilla and an orangutan, he breaks out, steals the secret formula and blesses all of his monkey pad-mates with the gift of accelerated evolution. You can guess what happens next? Or maybe you can’t — either way, Rise is worth your time.
Its story is constructed with the dramatic heft found in a lot of late 70s sci-fi without sacrificing the stuff that makes you want to see a PotA movie, like battles and clumsy sociological subtext.
Fans of any of the Apes’ earlier incarnations with a keen eye are endlessly rewarded with references, in-jokes and meaningful connections. For a broad example, Rise establishes the Gorilla-as-militant, orangutan-as-thinker, chimps-as-sensitive-and-kind dynamic that runs consistently through all Ape endeavors.
Some of the dialogue is clunky and as much as I usually enjoy James Franco (really!), I didn’t buy him in Rise. It kinda seemed like hiring Cheech Marin to play Albert Schweitzer. Beyond that though, I don’t have many bad things to say about Rise. It represents the best that the science fiction genre has to offer; the binding together of known science and fantasy in a way that takes hold of the imagination. Add to that what may be the most convincing digitally-rendered characters I’ve ever seen (How about that motion-capture technology? Amiright?), an impressive (if not completely absurd) action finale, and it makes sense that Rise has become the sleeper hit of a summer stuffed with crap you couldn’t pay me to see…and Captain America. Grade: B