Since we’re getting a new Planet of the Apes film this month I thought it was a good time to revisit one of my favorite sci-fi series of all time. The original movies may seem a bit quaint to modern audiences used to expensive CGI spectacle, but there was a time when the Apes movies were a real phenomenon. Between 1968 and 1973, five movies were produced. Apes were everywhere. They were on lunchboxes and bed sheets. Kids bought the toys and wore the masks. The films were shown on TV stations on Saturday afternoons and everyone loved the apes. But it all started with a single movie, based on a book, by Pierre Boulle.
PLANET OF THE APES (1968)
The first film, which stars Charlton Heston as Taylor, is clearly the best one. Never intended as the first of a series, the film was the story of a group of astronauts who travel far into the future and crash land on a world rules by apes. The apes consider humans to be nothing but simple-minded animals, and treat them accordingly. But Taylor can speak. And this revelation challenges everything the apes believe. Taylor escapes with the help of friendly chimps, Cornelius and Zira, and flees into the Forbidden Zone, where the truth of the ape planet is revealed in one of the greatest twist endings of all time.
The film was a success, but where could this story go?
BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES (1970)
Two years later, we had the first sequel. But what story could they tell that would be an enjoyable adventure and still have something to say about humanity’s destructive nature? Heston didn’t even want to return for another film, which caused the writers even more problems. The solution was a novel one. This film would continue right where the first one left off and explore the idea that there were other humans out there besides the primitive mutes we’d seen before.
Bland actor James Franciscus was brought in as another astronaut, Brent, who is looking for Heston’s Taylor. Franciscus visits the ape city and finds the gorillas ready to head to the Forbidden Zone to make war. But what is in the Forbidden Zone? Why, an underground human civilization of telepaths who worship a nuclear bomb with the power to destroy the entire world.
If the first film was saying humans will ultimately destroy themselves, the second seems to say that the apes have it in them to also make war. But the humans still top the apes by setting off the bomb and destroying the world. That’s right, a children’s film about apes riding horses ends with the Earth being blown up.
ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES (1971)
But where to go now? The series had seemed to end. But here is where things get really interesting. Paul Dehn, the screenwriter, got real clever with the story. He flipped the concept and sent three apes back in time to the 1970s where Taylor had come from. Now it was apes in a human world.
The setting wasn’t the only change. The film was much more light-hearted than the first two. After a short stay in captivity, the apes become stars. People are thrilled by the novelty of talking apes until the apes’ secret is revealed. In the far future humans will be ruled by apes and the world will be destroyed. Well, modern day humans can’t have that. The movie changes from a fun romp into an ape versus human conflict that ends in tragedy as the apes are murdered because of a possible future, a future that will be, has been, and might be caused by men. The end of humanity is never the apes’ fault, yet they pay the price here.
It was clear at this point that the films were creating a sort of time loop, where the far future was created by apes from the future. Taylor travels to the future, the apes travel back in his ship and create that future. So now the series is on its way to showing us how that first film came to be. That is an incredibly clever way to move forward. These films are sequels and prequels.
CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (1972)
This is where the series gets very dark and brutal. The future apes have changed everything, leaving behind a child, Caesar, who can speak. He’s spent twenty years hiding in a circus and during this time, humans have turned apes into slave labor. See, cats and dogs have been killed off by a virus from space. Humans turned their new pets, apes, into waiters and servants. An entire ape-reliant civilization has sprung up.
Caesar comes to the big city and discovers the ape repression and gets the apes to rebel. Caesar’s rebellion works and the film ends with the apes beating to death their oppressors. It’s a thin commentary on the issues of the day but it’s also an effective Apes film. As it cuts to credits, Caesar and the apes tower over their oppressors, blood everywhere, fire in the streets.
It is the darkest film in the series. It may seem timid by today’s effects standards, but there is something powerful and brutal about seeing piles of human bodies covered in blood. It’s another tragic ending for the humans. So we’re well on our way to being the subjugated race.
BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES (1973)
As the series continued, it was both more ambitious and more restricted by budget. The final film in the series is severely hampered by its lack of funds, but it does a nice job of closing the loop. Caesar and his apes have their civilization, the humans have destroyed theirs. And when the humans who live in their bombed out city discover the apes nearby, they attack.
The film works well thematically, but the script has major holes. How did the remaining apes gain the power of speech exactly? The film doesn’t care, instead focusing on whether the future of the first film has to happen. Can apes and humans live together? Caesar’s apes live with humans as slaves, but these are not dumb brutes. And the humans in the destroyed city are the precursors of the telepaths in the second film.
The film ends with a little bit of hope and it questions the idea that ape can never kill ape.
The films declined in popularity, but the Apes stuck around for some time. There was a live-action TV show and a cartoon. But by the 80s, the series was effectively too old-fashioned. There was talk of revival for decades, which eventually led to Tim Burton’s remake of the original film in 2001. But we’ll forget that one exists. It wasn’t until 2011 when we got Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a film which took a very different approach to the series, by taking the Caesar character of Conquest and starting the story there. The film was a success and all indications are that the follow-up, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is even better. I never thought they’d effectively reboot this series in a way that works, but they have.
Watch the original and watch Rise if nothing else. The sequels do vary in quality and are great if you’re a completionist, but the original and the 2001 reboot are the most accessible films. A marathon of these films on a rainy day is a much better use of your time than a trip to the theater to see another Transformers mess.