Do you believe in de-evolution? I do. Watch the Planet of the Apes series and you will too. More than a story of apes developing human-like culture and the subsequent domination of the human race, the franchise offers a glimpse into a world of merchandising hell. Each sequel is a little bit worse and exponentially more ludicrous than its predecessor. Such a shame as the original 1968 film is such a brilliant masterpiece of science fiction and allegory. Revisiting the entire series of five movies was like watching a beloved friend being pummeled into the ground by a parade of increasingly dumber people. I kind of enjoyed it.
The first Planet of the Apes (1968) focuses on lost astronaut, Taylor (played by Moses himself, Charlton Heston), as he travels to the distant future to a world where everything is run by damn, dirty apes and humans are primitive and mute underlings used primarily for sport in this society . Taylor is tormented by the stiff dogma of ape society that embraces tradition over facts and science. Taylor’s primary primate foe is a rigid, but highly intelligent orangutan named Dr. Zaius, played by Maurice Evans (Rosemary’s Baby). He is helped by two chimpanzee scientists, Cornelius and Dr. Zira, played by Roddy McDowell (The Legend of Hell House) and Kim Hunter (A Streetcar Named Desire). It’s a fascinating story that can be read on multiple levels. It can operate as a comical metaphor for the Scopes Monkey Trial and the battle between science and religion or it can function as a racist parable of white fears and prejudiced paranoia of what the world would turn into if the blacks were given too many rights. Edgy and controversial and lots to think about and discuss. Of course, I’d love it. The film also has one of the greatest twist endings of all time (sorry, Shyamalan). You can really see the Rod Serling watermarks on the script. Also Nova is hot.
The makeup and acting is good and the frustration endured by the main characters is compelling. It’s everything great science fiction should be and it was directed by Frank J. Schaffner (Patton, Nicholas and Alexandra, Papillon, and the kinda screwy Boys From Brazil). So where did it go all go so wrong? Answer: the sequels. If you think all the lousy sequels and remakes Hollywood cranks out by the bushel is a new trend, think again. Remember Spielberg’s classic Jaws (1975)? Remember Jaws 4: the Revenge (1987)? Yeah. Unlike the Jaws franchise, however, that really didn’t have much place to deviate from a plot about a shark that eats more people, the Planet of the Apes had a really novel concept (from the Pierce Boulle novel) and a lot of potential to expand. But instead of evolving like the great apes in this series, Apes got raped, cinematically speaking.
It starts gradually. You almost think for a brief, fleeting instant that maybe Ted Post’s Beneath the Planet of the Apes [or : how I learned to stop having a face and love the bomb] (1970) might go somewhere that’s not a total waste of time. After all, it picks up right where the first movie left off and hey look, there’s Charlton Heston again…oh, wait. No. He just disappeared into a boulder. Here we go.
The director of Hang ‘Em High seems ill-equipped to deal with the Apes series and the movie devolves into a cheaper production with thin elements oversimplified from Edgar Rice Burroughs pulp fiction and wanton rehashing of the original. After Taylor disappears in the Forbidden Zone (not the Oingo Boingo movie), Nova (the lovely and scantily clad Linda Harrison) is left alone until she finds another astronaut from another failed space mission (the one that sought to rescue Taylor…and ONLY Taylor, because forget those other guys). This new fella’, Brent, played by James Franciscus (Valley of the Gwangi) is a tedious replacement, but Linda is still foxy as ever. He spies on ape society and the film decides to portray ape society more at odds with the dimwitted, militaristic gorillas rather than the dogmatic orangutans that plagued the more scientific chimpanzees of the original.
Zira and Cornelius return (briefly) to help Brent escape and Dr. Zaius leads an aggressive expedition into the Forbidden Zone where we meet a race of subterranean mind-controllers who worship an atom bomb and like to peel their faces off. Very Burroughs. It’s hokey in a kind of stupid yet enjoyable way but it feels like this is the sort of film more suited to Doug McClure (The Land That Time Forgot) than Heston. SPOILER ALERT: at the end everybody dies—even Nova!!!—and the whole world blows up. The end. Well, if all the characters are dead and the world done got blowed up and crap then we can’t possibly have another movie, right? Dead wrong.
Next came Escape From the Planet of the Apes (1971) directed by Don Taylor (The Island of Dr. Moreau). Nova is missed. Who am I supposed to look at now?! Cornelius and Zira (once again, Roddy McDowell and Kim Hunter) evidently found Taylor’s spaceship and somehow got it to fly back in time to earth in the 1970s (not sure how). They just miss the explosion that obliterates earth in the future. All of this information is really only mentioned in passing. It never deals with the actual escape part! The bulk of the film concerns Cornelius and Zira reenacting scenes from the first film only in reverse—apes studied by sympathetic scientists while misunderstood by the general public. The film chiefly features Cornelius and Zira doing press conferences and special events and shopping for clothing.
Although the ape society they came from was pretty basic and they were living in rocks and didn’t have much technology beyond cages and nets, they are never impressed by TVs or cars or anything or even by how much more gracious and accepting humans are of them than they themselves were of Taylor. They continuously believe 1970s earth to be dim and primitive because apes are treated like animals here despite our technology being centuries ahead of theirs and apes actually being animals here. This drove me nuts!
The apes conceal their knowledge of the destruction of earth because they just know that human society will see that apes blow up the world and thus will try to exterminate them to prevent the ape revolution of the far distant future. I know what you’re thinking. It disrupts the laws of cause and effect. You can’t go back in time to be your own grandfather and expect to be in the same timeline. Well, an evil human scientist (who is a self-professed expert on time) misses this detail as well and sends the government out to stop them.
Cornelius becomes a fugitive after he kills a hospital orderly by knocking a tray out of his hand. Also Zira is pregnant. Eww. SPOILER ALERT: all the monkey characters die, but not before Zira’s baby is switched with a baby chimpanzee at a circus run by a kindly Ricardo Montalban (Wrath of Khan). Everything Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home did right and had fun with is handled so ridiculously in this movie it defies description. The tone is all over the map. You don’t have happy, campy ape shopping montages and then the brutal slaying of these characters (along with a regular baby chimp) in the finale.
The last shot isn’t bad and it’s a decent twist. Zira’s baby in the circus grabs the bars and says “mama” over and over and the credits roll. Chilling.
So the last two sequels were getting progressively silly, but there was still a bit of odd appeal to them. This time things get so unbelievable and stupid that you feel bad for even laughing at it. For Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972) Don Taylor leaves the directing chair and hands over the franchise to J. Lee Thompson. How could the guy who directed The Guns of Navarone and Cape Fear screw up so bad? Well, he also did King Solomon’s Mines. It doesn’t help matters that Paul Dehn who wrote the last two sequels is still attached. Wait! Paul Dehn has been writing these things? The guy who wrote the scripts for Goldfinger, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, and Murder on the Orient Express?! What is going on? It’s a mad house! A MAD HOUSE!
Anyway, here’s the big, dumb story in a nutshell: all of the world’s cats and dogs have died in a plague therefore the human race makes apes our slaves, so ostensibly in this distant future  there are only two jobs: fascist ape-hating leaders and people who violently train the apes to do every other job. Everyone else just pickets to try and get their jobs back. You have not lived until you’ve seen grown people dressed as apes dressed as waiters and barbers. Another humorous point is the way they train them is so primitive and bizarre. They hold bananas out and then blast them with fire sometimes, but mostly they sit them in front of any given task (pouring a glass of water or operating a computer) and simply bellow the word “do!” at them and then whip them when they don’t comprehend English. The funniest thing about this whole mixed up society is that the apes are actually comically terrible at most of these jobs and the economy is evaporating and a lot of people seem to be jobless and unhappy, but they stay the course (because the dogs and cats are dead).
Enter Caesar (played by Roddy McDowell who really couldn’t seem to get out of this series), the son of Zira and Cornelius. He leads a revolution because he discovers that he can tell apes to do things via telepathy. A battle ensues and so begins the conquest. There are so many insultingly dopey elements to this film, but perhaps the most insulting of all is the ape makeup. Up until this fourth movie I was under the impression that the civilized apes looked the way they did because they were more evolved or mutated. This film tells me that this is simply what all apes would look like if we put clothes on them. Chimpanzees, orangutans, and gorillas would all have the exact same proportions as people and I am supposed to accept this because there is a serious commentary about racial oppression in the subtext.
There are too many silly and stupid things in this movie to count. I do wonder about Caesar’s motives too. He is an ape, but can reason and communicate as well as the humans, but he still identifies with the oppressed apes who are still dumb beasts. I wonder if I went back in time and witnessed the enslavement of neadertals by a race of lizard people—who I could actually relate to—if I would lead a caveman revolution. Ultimately it’s sad because it could have been so good. A lot of the societal ideas the movie wanted to explore were fascinating, but poor execution killed it (there is a serious indictment of racism…but it’s a littler racist itself to compare the black Civil Rights movement with the oppression of dumb apes).
Finally comes Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973). Thompson directs again and Dehn writes again, but this film is actually slightly better than Conquest. There is just one gargantuan logical leap you will have to make at the very beginning. This leap is so big that it pretty much destroys any fragment of respectability Battle was hoping for. The leap is this: the film takes place about 10 years after the events of the previous movie and in that time there has been nuclear warfare and all of the great apes have evolved and developed a complex culture, military, educational system, history, morality, hierarchy, and can speak English perfectly. At first I thought maybe Caesar (again, Roddy McDowell) just banged everybody and their kids got his smarts, but no. Caesar has only one child and many of the apes were part of the revolution when they were still non-sentient beasts with no civilization. Some humans are subservient to apes and others try to work with the apes, but many apes are much smarter than people. Don’t make sense, do it?
They live in the forest and build a town and a strongly defined caste system is established along with dogmatic principles of society. The chimps are the brainy ones, the orangutans are wise keepers of law and religion, and the gorillas are dumb and love violence (the gorilla stereotype was hinted at in the original, but ever since the second movie they played it up more and more). There is one really bad gorilla named General Aldo who wants to kill all humans (Bender!), but Caesar wants to keep them around and learn from them.
When a human tells Caesar that recordings of his parents might exist in an irradiated ruin of a city, they go on the first journey to “the Forbidden Zone.” One new character, Virgil, an orangutan, is a nice addition (interestingly Virgil is played by Paul Williams who voiced The Penguin on Batman: the Animated Series while Roddy McDowell voiced the Mad Hatter). In the destroyed city they discover a warped subterranean culture of radiation-poisoned humans (the seeds of the skinless, mind-controlling, atom bomb worshipers of Beneath the Planet of the Apes???). Caesar’s intrusion is unwelcome and they launch a very underwhelming attack that plays like a poor man’s Road Warrior. A very poor man’s Road Warrior.
SPOILER ALERT: Aldo kills Caesar’s son—disobeying the first rule of ape society, “ape must never kill ape”—and so Caesar kills Aldo and then we see in the far off future the Lawgiver (John Huston. I know, right!) narrating the events to a group of ape children and human children. So we all live in harmony together in this alternate universe and the first movie never happened. Interesting to note that Caesar claims that throughout all of ape history no ape has ever killed another ape and that only humans kill members of their own species. I think Caesar (or Paul Dehn) should have watched the Discovery Channel.
It didn’t end there, I’m afraid. There was a live-action series and an equally short-lived animated series (the likes of which rival Clutch Cargo for sheer production value deplorability). Roddy McDowell was also in the show. The funny thing is that for all the crap the Tim Burton Planet of the Apes (2001) got, it’s actually a far superior accomplishment in comparison to most of the series. It’s not good, but it’s not laughably bad. How did the franchise fall so far?
Planet of the Apes was a cultural phenomena. It was such a popular science fiction series that they just couldn’t stop. The Apes were on lunchboxes and toys and everywhere. It’s just a darn good thing Star Wars came along. The first Planet of the Apes is still a great movie several decades later and watching the whole series can be fun (if you’re like me and like bad cinema sometimes just as much as good cinema), but man did they wreck it. The new film, Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) is actually a bit of a remake/re-imagining of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. 43 years later and the Apes ain’t dead yet…no matter how many bad movies they make. I’d still say they already blew it all to hell.
A parting shot. We miss you, Nova.
Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” May 20, 2011.