Before the third and final installment in the Planet of the Apes reboot trilogy, War for the Planet of the Apes comes to theaters, I decided to revisit the entire Planet of the Apes saga. I was struck by the relevancy of the social commentary and by the epic scope of the series. Part One of the series is here.
The following is Part Two of a two part series on Planet of the Apes:
Battle for the Planet of the Apes marks the final film of the original film saga first envisioned by Franklin J. Schaffner and Rod Serling in 1968. If Planet of the Apes and Beneath the Planet of the Apes were the films that told the story of our future, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes and Battle for the Planet of the Apes tell the story about our present. Escape from the Planet of the Apes is the film that bridges the gap between future and present.
J. Lee Thompson resumes his roll as director after his work on Conquest, essentially a horror film. Thompson draws, heavily, from his work on the film The Guns of Navarone with Battle. It feels like a futuristic sci-fi western. Caesar (the great Roddy McDowall), the savior of his fellow apes in Conquest is now the lord and god of his people. Caesar’s “people” aren’t just the apes, but the humans, too. Everyone lives in respect and fear of Caesar. He has gone from being a Christ figure to being an emperor. The character of Caesar is still thoughtful, compassionate, and gracious, but, he rules with an iron fist. Everyone is equal under Caesar’s rule.
The entire film revolves around the use of the word “No.” It is truly a powerful narrative. In the film Conquest, we see a world in which human beings have turned apes into slaves. “No” is the word that binds the apes to slavery. It is the word that keeps them down. Caesar teaches his fellow slaves “Yes” and they never look back. For a human being to use the word No against an ape is expressly forbidden by Caesar.
One of the first things I noticed while viewing Battle is that Austin Stoker, an actor of color, is cast in the role of MacDonald, Caesar’s right-hand human. His is the voice of calm and wisdom in Caesar’s ear. Caesar does not keep MacDonald as a slave. He gives him a position of authority and counsel. I do not believe that this was a mistake by Thompson or the production team behind Battle. MacDonald is Caesar’s yes to humanity, once again proving that the claim that we are more evolved now in Hollywood when it comes to race is absolute bullshit.
Governor Kolp, the remaining leader of the humans, has built a human colony underneath the Earth, following the destruction of America by atomic bombs. Kolp and his colony are the predecessors of the atomic bomb-worshipping telepaths in Beneath the Planet of the Apes. The “battle” of the title is between Kolp’s people and Caesar’s people. The catalyst of the violence is Aldo, a hotheaded gorilla general who has it out for humans and apes alike. Caesar had originally called off the violence at the conclusion of Conquest but now he is forced to lead his free people on a mission of defense and destruction.
The narrator of Battle is John Huston himself, playing the part of The Lawgiver. Huston’s presence makes Thompson’s conclusion to the POTA saga very western. Battle however brought me back to the greatness of the original Planet of the Apes film starring Charlton Heston. Beneath, Escape, and Conquest aren’t great films. They feel like filler between the first and last films. Thompson is right to re-engage with the epic scope and social commentary of Schaffner’s Planet of the Apes. It makes for a great final film.
6. Planet of the Apes (2001)
I have often said that Tim Burton’s 2001 remake of Franklin J. Schaffner’s 1968 sci-fi classic Planet of the Apes is one of the worst films ever made. I stand by this. Mark Wahlberg, who has proven his acting abilities in films like Boogie Nights and The Departed, is at his very worst in Burton’s disgraceful film about an Air Force pilot, Leo Davidson, who crash lands his vessel on a mysterious planet ruled by talking, armored apes.
The ape make-up and costumes are, frankly, a huge upgrade from the original films of the 60’s and 70’s, but, even the incredible look of the film is not enough to save it from a horrible script and B-movie level performances by Wahlberg, Helena Bonham Carter, Tim Roth, Kris Kristofferson, Paul Giamatti, and Michael Clarke Duncan.
Probably the worst sin committed by Burton and his crew is that they miss the entire point of the original films. The social commentary is lost. The epic scope and pure science-fiction spectacle aren’t remotely present. Burton proved two things with his remake: 1. He is at his best when he is directing campy gothic fairy tales. 2. Planet of the Apes does not need a remake.
Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes is a terrible film and is not worth your time.
7. Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)
Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes is both a reboot of the original idea put forth in the book by Pierre Boulle and the film by Franklin J. Schaffner and Rod Serling as well as an origin story. The original POTA saga never quite answers the question: How did apes become intelligent and acquire the use of speech? Wyatt’s film, with a script by married couple Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, imagines that ape intelligence came from a medical substance designed to help the brain heal itself.
Wyatt, a little know British filmmaker, makes a moving, personal film about Caesar the ape, this time played through motion capture by the great Andy Serkis. James Franco is cast as the scientist who owns Caesar, teaches him, and cares for him. Franco’s performance isn’t earth shattering. He, frankly, plays himself…again. The stars of the film are Serkis and John Lithgow as Franco’s dad, Charles, an older man facing the new realities of Alzheimer’s dementia. As one who works in the dementia population, I can say that Lithgow’s performance is spot on. A medication designed to heal Lithgow’s dementia fails to do so permanently but it gifts Caesar with intelligence. In order to protect Lithgow, Caesar attacks an angry neighbor in a fit of rage and is taken to an animal sanctuary by law.
Brian Cox, always the expert villain, and his son Tom Felton (Harry Potter’s douchey Draco Malfoy) run the “sanctuary” in which they malnourish and cruelly torture their apes. Much like its predecessors Escape from the Planet of the Apes and Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, Wyatt uses Rise to tell the story of Caesar leading his fellow apes in revolt against their cruel human captors. Unlike the original POTA saga, however, this film is smaller and more present. It isn’t a great film but it scares us and moves us in ways we should be. Wyatt, his writers, and Andy Serkis have not forgotten the social commentary and that, ultimately, is what is at the heart of Planet of the Apes. Wyatt does not commit Tim Burton’s sin of trying to make Rise a remake. Instead, he has made something new from an old idea and it works.
8. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)
Matt Reeves, director of thrillers Let Me In and The Yards, takes the helm from Rupert Wyatt and gives us Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. It is part two of a three-part Planet of the Apes origin trilogy. The brilliant Andy Serkis returns as the intelligent Caesar, leader of the apes. Dawn borrows some of its plot from its predecessors Conquest and Battle, but the screenplay by Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver is, in many ways, wholly original. Not only is Dawn a better film than Rise but it proves that this new trilogy is far more interesting and captivating visual storytelling than the films of the original saga.
The year is 2026. Humanity is on the brink of extinction. Caesar and his apes communicate through sign language, primarily, and a few grunts and groans. They ride horses and wear white war paint on their faces and chests. The opening scene features Caesar leading his community of fierce warrior apes on the hunt. It is gorgeously shot by Michael Seresin, as is the entire film. The motion capture work and physical performances of those playing the apes is astounding. One of the best characters is Karin Konoval’s reimagining of the teacher orangutan named Maurice. Maurice is gentle, kind, and wise. He is Caesar’s counsel in times of stress.
A team of human beings led by Jason Clarke, Keri Russell, and Kodi-Smit McPhee is traveling through the woods of San Francisco when they happen upon Caesar and his community. An anxious member of their team shoots and kills an ape. Caesar, devastated by the death, screams the word “Go” from the depth of his being. It is a rattling, breath-taking moment and one of the best in the POTA franchise thus far. The apes, although highly evolved, have not evolved beyond intensely felt grief.
POTA is not known for its great actors playing humans, honestly. This film, however, casts the great Gary Oldman in the role of the frightened human villain. The film explores the conflict between apes and humans, which evolves much like the apes are still evolving. Dawn is the best of the POTA films I have seen, thus far, and I look forward to seeing how Reeves and his writers conclude their story with the third and final installment, War for the Planet of the Apes, in movie theaters on July 14.
Joey Armstrong is a hospital chaplain from Western New York. He is also a playwright and amateur cartoonist. Follow him on Twitter @chaplainmystic and Medium, where he writes more reviews for film and television.