Planet of the Apes (2001)
When looking at the year of each film’s release, it might surprise some to learn of the 28-year stretch between Beneath and the eventual remake that roared into theatres in the summer of 2001. It was not, however, from a lack of trying on the studio’s part. Quite the opposite was true. The road that eventually led to Tim Burton’s reimagining in the early 21st century is enough to fill an entire chapter of a book (and has), with too many details to fit into a capsule review of a franchise retrospective. Suffice to say that names such as Adam Rifkin, James Cameron, Oliver Stone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Chris Columbus were all attached to a new Apes film at some point or another between the mid-1980s and mid-1990s. From a direct sequel to the original that would have erased everything Beneath onward (Rifkin’s idea), to a reboot in which ape astronauts land in modern day New York (Columbus’ ambition), there were no shortage of story ideas and prosthetic makeup tests with Stan Winston. Eventually, it would be Tim Burton and make up artist Rick Baker who would throw their hats into the ring.
The year is 2029, and Captain Leo Davidson (Mark Wahlberg) is part of a cutting edge mission that helps train chimps for space exploration. When bizarre electromagnetic activity is detected none too far from the space hub, Leo’s simian partner in crime Pericles is sent out to investigate. Alas, the animal and his craft vanish, prompting Leo to clandestinely go out on a one-man search party. He too is victim of the trippy spatial storm, crash landing on an unknown planet. Barely minutes after escaping his flaming space pod, Leo, much to his astonishment, comes face to face with primitively attired humans all running in fear. Their hunters are ironclad chimpanzees and gorillas! Taken back as prisoner to a lavishly decorated Ape City, Leo is forced to work as a slave alongside a small group of other humans (among them Kris Kristofferson). All is not well amongst the apes. A powerful senator’s daughter, chimp Ari (Helena Bonham Carter), is a human rights advocate, much to the frustration of chimp General Thade (Tim Roth) and his second in command, gorilla Colonel Attar (Michael Clarke Duncan). So begins a desperate adventure of survival and social upheaval.
Tim Burton’s POTA is a much maligned film. Earning a tepid critical reception back in 2001 despite relatively handsome box office earnings, on the rare occasions when brought up, it is met with derision. It feels important to get the answer to the most obvious out of the way first: no, the 2001 POTA is not as good as the original. Does that alone make it a bad film? No, or at least it shouldn’t, and yet Burton’s POTA is burdened with an ignominious reputation, almost mercilessly so. The unenviable distinction is underserving, for despite falling well short of replicating the original film’s greatness, Burton and company inject a decent level of fantastical and enjoyable ingredients into the project.
Even arguing that it lacks biting commentary is inaccurate. Whereas the ’68 film and its sequels related to the Civil Rights movement of the era, the 2001 version feels like it’s concerned with animal rights, so far as the depiction of the ape-human relations is concerned. While animal rights do not stir up the same passions as human rights (does that not sound like a concept for a POTA film?), the film is not as thematically void as some would claim. Much of this is anchored by Bonham Carter’s Ari, a feisty, fearless female ape fascinated by humans and by Leo in particular, prompting a bizarre if not uninteresting romantic tension between the two. What’s more, as is so often the case with Burton projects, the movie is wondrous to behold. The sets, the costumes, and of course the ape makeup are all of excellent, first-rate quality. The facial expressions from the chimps, gorillas and orangutans are impressive to the point where one could believe these are actual living creatures. Whereas the original franchise features dated effects and the currently running reboot features state of the art computer generated enhancements, Burton and Baker’s efforts represent the perfect middle ground.
Where the film does falter is in the dialogue and acting. Most of the human actors are dreadful, including Kristofferson, who looks completely lost and is mercifully offed at the midway point. Even star Mark Wahlberg, who would go on to become a charismatic, household name, is terribly boring and characterless in POTA. While asking for someone to ‘root’ for is strange in an Apes film given that the franchise rests on the equally engaging, dichotomous standpoints of the warring races, there is evidently no one to root for in Burton’s POTA. Ari is a nice character, but she’s fighting for humans one wouldn’t shed a tear for were they to perish.
Ending on an bizarre twist in which Leo makes his way back to present day Earth only to find that it is ruled by apes (yet somehow looks exactly like our modern real world), 20th Century Fox was not encouraged by the result to rush a sequel into production.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)
In the mid-to-late 2000s, the husband and wife screenwriting team of Rick Jafa and Amanda Silver, who worked for 20th Century Fox, were intrigued by two concepts they had read about. The first was a series of stories about chimpanzees being raised in human households, but due to their insatiable thirst for stimuli and other animalistic instincts, the dreams tended to end in tragedy. The second were the advancements in genetics technology. It soon became apparent to Jafa and Silver that something could be made by the convergence of these two ideas: a new Apes reimagining. The studio was fully on board, as was director Rupert Wyatt. The real debate was how the animals would be brought to life. Conversations about the physical difference between gorillas, chimps and orangutans squashed the idea of actors in costumes. Using real animals would directly counter the theme of those very animals fighting for equal standing with humans. The solution came in the form of computer effects company Weta, which had already made a name for itself with the Lord of the Rings trilogy, in addition to motion-capture technology having already come a long way since the early 00s.
In present day, a brilliant scientist named William Rodman (James Franco) is working on a cure for Alzheimer’s at Gen-Sys, a major chemical-pharmaceutical laboratory. Under the auspices of money crazed Steven Jacobs (David Oyelowo), Dr. Rodman believes he had made a breakthrough, but his announcement is violently disrupted by one of the female chimpanzees they had been testing on. The animal is eventually killed. Whereas it was initially believed the drug had made her go mad, her outburst had in fact been an instinctive response to protect her newborn. William brings the baby home where his sick father (John Lithgow) resides as well. As the progeny of an ape on whom genetic experiments were conducted, the child, baptized Caesar (Andy Serkis), proves remarkably intelligent. But domestic life cannot last, as an unfortunate incident with a neighbour results in Caesar being sent to a primate shelter along with a host of other apes. Mistreated and feeling abandoned, Caesar conspires with his brothers and sisters to free themselves from their human overlords…
No one expected much out of Rise when it was release in August of 2011. The most recent Apes film that could be qualified as being good came out back in the early 1970s, and, as previously established, the most recent attempt in 2001 had earned a dubious reputation. One supposes that when expectations are at an all-time low, it favours a film’s odds at gaining popularity. While that certainly came into play to varying degrees with Rise, the truth is that Rupert Wyatt’s effort is an all around solid, respectable, and at times quite thrilling science-fiction tale. Where the current Apes series differs from its two predecessors is its emphasis on drama and character more so than on lofty sci-fi twists. The original series and Burton’s remake were steeped in shock value. Wyatt’s picture paves the way for a linear telling of how our world slowly becomes the infamous planet of the apes, therefore making the people that inhabit the world and their stories more important than the bells and whistles.
The effort, while imperfect, deserves some praise. Franco is always an interesting character actor, if not always for the same reasons, as is Freida Pinto, who plays his love interest. Franco’s William is desperate to find a cure to what ails his father just as his superior at Gen-Sys salivates at the prospect of making billions off the patent. Both push themselves to success for completely different reasons, and in the end, it is their collective gee and hubris that brings forth a medicine that makes apes smarter than they’ve ever been, while weakening Man’s immune system. It’s a great idea for a story of unchecked ambition gone awry.
At the same time, Caesar, and eventually his brothers in arms, benefit from the humans’ folly. Caesar himself, brought to life via digital effects and the king of motion capture acting Andy Serkis, is a brilliant character. He loves his human family but yearns for freedom. Even in the final frames he never wavers on his bond with William, whom he does not blame for the violent outcome of unfortunate circumstances, but ultimately his liberty and that of his fellow apes are what matters most. Again, richly drawn drama ripe for a science-fiction yarn.
Among the film’s few faults are the rest of the roles for the human cast. Brian Cox and Tom Felton (of Harry Potter fame) are interesting choices, but they represent the obnoxiously evil people one tends to find in these stories. Some nuance would have been appreciated, and their scenes come across as hammy more anything else, landed like a sledgehammer.
It is fair to argue that Rise feels like set-up, a description many have used to harshly criticise a slew of recent Hollywood franchise efforts. That may be so, and it would have been nice to have a complete story with a beginning, middle, and end, but Rise is at least really well made set-up.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)
Unlike with the original series, a sequel to Rise was not rushed. Whereas Beneath came out 2 years after POTA and all other chapters a single year apart from one another, it wasn’t until 3 years later, in the summer of 2014, that Dawn emerged. While waiting longer for a sequel to a good film can be annoying, there is solace to take in the fact that more time between chapters increases the chances that the next one is being well planned and executed. Despite that, the previous film’s director, Rupert Wyatt, actually left the project out of misgivings that a summer 2014 release date did not give him enough time to make the best film possible. Enter Matt Reeves, coming off very interesting projects like Cloverfield and the Let Me In.
Dawn’s story is set a full decade after Rise. In a creepy opening sequence, a montage of news reports informing the viewer that the virus created in the first film that made simians hyper intelligent also began to kill off humans. As the years go by, so to does society as we know it evaporate. Now the apes, led by Caesar (Serkis), live in peace and quiet in the forests. They hunt, build homes, teach one another, and communicate predominantly through sign language, but are capable of uttering a few simple words. Having not witnessed the presence of humans for nearly two years, they are startled when a band of people, immune to the virus, emerges in search of a hydroelectric damn that can power what remains of San Francisco. Among the group is Malcolm (Jason Clarke), Ellie (Keri Russell), and Malcolm’s son Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee). A truce is settled between the humans and the apes, although not everyone on each side relishes such an opportunity. Pseudo leader of the humans Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) and ape military leader Koba cannot hide their misgivings, and are ready to act on them at any moment.
At the risk of sounding obvious, what began in Rise continues in Dawn, by which it is meant that the intent to further develop the high stakes drama of a difficult relationship between two mistrusting societies is acted on. Whereas the sequel could have remained content by depicting constant all out war between humans and apes for the sake of cashing in on some thrills, director Reeves and company are allowed to slow the pace and explore the character-driven possibilities of when two civilizations collide. Each struggles with the concept of fully trusting the other, but both are keenly aware that they cannot live in complete ignorance either. One way or another, their respective lives will inevitably intertwine, the real question being how will their leaders dictate the terms? As such, Dawn can be described as much a science-fiction drama as a science-fiction action movie. 20th Century Fox, a studio that has earned more than its fair share of criticisms for butchering beloved properties (Alien, Die Hard, Star Wars with the prequels) can be applauded for once. They let the filmmakers take their time in making the movie, and what’s more they were allowed to make a motion picture that hinges on story and character almost more so than action.
Further to that point, Matt Reeves, if he hadn’t already carved a bit of a reputation for himself with his two previous films, certainly makes tremendous strides as one of Hollywood’s leading filmmakers, capable of balancing all the important ingredients when creating a big budget, large scale epic. Dawn is imbued with equal levels of hope and desperation. From a visual standpoint alone it is a much darker film than Rise, but that proves true on a thematic level as well. There is so much potential for good if the apes and humans can get along, even if their interactions are intermittent, yet certain forces on both sides always seem more comfortable by giving in to fear, paranoia, and racism. One of the film’s most bitterly ironic truths is that, as tension mounts within Caesar’s camp, the apes are themselves becoming more human.
What more plaudits can be written about Dawn’s visuals that have not already been said? The film was deservedly showered with praise for its production design and the monumental special effects to make the apes look as real as possible. While Rise, even by 2017 standards, looks very good, the visuals in Dawn are even better. True to its name, Dawn feels like the actual dawn of a new era in motion capture technology. Although visual effects technology will undoubtedly improve as the years go by, at this point it seems as though what improvements are left to be made are limited to subtleties, rather than drastic overhauls to make creatures in film and tv look more real.
Blood is shed in Dawn. Friendships and allegiances are challenged. When the dust settles, an extremely tenuous peace is arrived at, but both parties know it cannot last. Word has already spread that human reinforcements are on their way to take back what once belonged to them. Caesar and his tribe have survived, but for how long? The War for the Planet of the Apes looms.
Lawgiver’s Final Ape Scripture
Planet of the Apes is a tremendously captivating property for how it helped shape science-fiction cinema. Creature feature, cautionary tale, action epic, trippy time travel adventure, replete with political and social commentary informed by the times in which each series was released, Apes is in many ways la crème de la crème of sci-fi. Just as the series itself speaks of revolution and evolution, so to have movie visual effects improved by leaps and bounds as the property has been reinvented and reshaped throughout the decades. It isn’t a perfect franchise, but for every Battle there is a Dawn. For every Beneath there is an Escape. Shocking, thought provoking, funny, adventurous, and always politically relevant, Apes is very much worth digging into. If you’re willing to accept its many interpretations and go along for the ride, well, once you start you might just never be able to get your stinking paws off of it, you damned, dirty human.