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Evolution of the Planet Of The Apes franchise


As Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes begins to brachiate in our direction, here's  a Darwinian look back at one of Hollywood's most popular SF franchises...

Furry's a jolly good fellow.

Movie sagas never die; they always come back every so often and in one form or another, and 2011 sees the cinematic revival of a very famous and enduring science fiction genre.

Pierre Boule's 'Monkey Planet' novelWith a cinema classic, four sequels, a remake, and two TV shows preceding its August release, Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) is an interesting addition to a movie series that originated from Pierre Boulle’s 1963 French novel La Planete des singes AKA Monkey Planet.

By effectively reversing Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, Monkey Planet is more of a satirical look at modern life and less of a science fiction story. Globetrotting journalist Ulysse Merou accompanies his friend Professor Antelle and physicist Arthur Levain on a space journey to the Betelgeuse quadrant of the Galaxy. Their ship lands on a planet similar to Earth, which the professor names Soror (Latin for sister).

Shortly after landing, the ship is destroyed by a tribe of primitive humans who also capture the astronauts. The tribe is later attacked by a hunting party of apes dressed in 20th Century clothes, driving trucks and carrying guns. Levain is killed during the hunt and Merou is caught and taken to an ape city, which resembles a city from Earth.

Taken to a research centre, Merou undergoes several painful lab experiments in conditioning before he manages to befriend chimpanzee scientist Dr Zira and her fiancé Dr Cornelius, both of whom teach him their language. Presenting himself to the ape president, he becomes something of a celebrity. Sadly he finds out his old friend Professor Antelle has regressed to a primitive state following his capture.

Merou learns more about the city, which is technologically slightly less advanced than Earth, and the apes’ social order (intelligent freethinking chimpanzees, the conservative, deeply religious orang-utans and the gorilla heavies). However the honeymoon is short-lived after Nova, a primitive female Merou took as his companion falls pregnant. The situation is further complicated when the discovery of an archaeological dig reveals that Man had once ruled Soror many years ago.

The ape society, especially the ultra conservative orang-utan Dr Zaius, now takes Nova’s pregnancy as a threat to their future existence. With the help of Zira and Cornelius, Merou and Nova make their escape in a space-ship bound for Earth.

Edward G. Robinson in screen test for 'Planet Of The Apes' makeupWith apes driving cars and watching TV, Monkey Planet could not be more different to the movie series. The satirical content of Boulle’s book may have worked well on paper, but in cinematic terms it could not be filmed without looking ridiculous. Unsurprisingly most of the studios were unconvinced that a film adaptation could work. With a script from the great Rod Serling, producer Arthur P Jacobs shot a test film featuring Charlton Heston and Edward G Robinson (in early ape make-up). It was enough for 20th Century Fox to bankroll the project with Heston as star and Franklyn J Schaffner as director. The end result is a much deserved movie classic.

Planet of the Apes (1968): Although Serling’s script underwent several re-writes, the film closely follows the book although several plot points and most of the satire are wisely jettisoned (the ape existence is more basic – no cars or TVs but plenty of guns). The humans are still primitive mutes and the characters of Zira, Cornelius, Zaius and Nova are retained without any major changes. The ape social order also remains in tact.

Planet Of The Apes - Charlton Heston as TaylorA team of NASA astronauts led by Colonel Taylor (Heston) crash on an unknown planet, and after trekking through the desert, encounter a tribe of primitive humans, which are attacked by a hunting party of jack-booted gorillas. Losing his astronaut colleagues, and being robbed of his speech after being shot in the throat, Taylor is taken to a laboratory where he meets Zira (Kim Hunter). After several attempts at communicating he manages to befriend the chimp scientist and her fiancé Cornelius (Roddy McDowell). When Dr Zaius (Maurice Evans, replacing Edward G Robinson) learns of Taylor’s identity, he sees the astronaut as a threat to the apes’ deeply religious culture and sets out to destroy him.

With excellent location photography from Leon Shamroy, a memorable Jerry Goldsmith score, and first rate performances from Heston, Hunter, and McDowell, Planet of the Apes is an excellent film; its classic status secured by that iconic moment when Taylor sees the remains of the Statue of Liberty and utters the immortal line “dam you all to Hell!” Special mention must also be given to John Chambers’ outstanding Oscar winning ape make-up. For all the CGI effects of recent films, nothing can beat the excellent work of a good make-up artist.

Beneath The Planet Of The ApesBeneath the Planet of the Apes (1970): Can a sequel ever top a classic? Well as follow-ups go, this one isn’t too bad despite some very mixed reviews. Bringing back Heston (in an extended cameo), Hunter, Evans and Linda Harrison (who played Nova in the original) certainly gives the movie much need clout although Roddy McDowell was unavailable due to directing commitments in England (he was replaced by British actor David Watson). When Taylor mysteriously disappears, Nova meets Brent (James Franciscus) the survivor of another crashed spaceship. They return to the ape city where they meet Zira and Cornelius but are captured by the authorities.

Meanwhile ape-city has experienced a crop failure and General Ursus (James Gregory) rallies a gorilla-army to invade the Forbidden Zone (the desert region from the first film), aided by the reluctant Dr Zaius. With Zira’s help, Brent and Nova escape into the desert where they encounter telepathic human – mutant survivors of the nuclear war that decimated Earth many centuries ago. They live in the underground remains of New York City and worship an atomic bomb ready for detonation as the ape army advances.

Even if it was never going to be up to the original, Beneath was even more successful. Production and make-up keeps to the same high standard, and the performances are excellent, with the exception of Heston, who looks rather disinterested (he only agreed to do the film if Taylor was killed off). The box office takings ensured further sequels in the pipeline.

Escape From The Planet Of The Apes (1971)Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971): The third, and last, really good film of the series, and one that comes closest to the latter half of the novel. As the Earth blows itself up in Beneath, Zira and Cornelius (McDowell returning to the role) escape in Taylor’s ship, apparently miraculously fished out the sea, and are catapulted back to 1973. Once the human scientists discover they can talk, they quickly become celebrities. But the honeymoon doesn’t last. When Zira falls pregnant, her unborn child is now considered a threat to the existence of Mankind. After all, they came from a future where humans are little more than wild animals.

Zira and Cornelius escape custody with the help of the scientists who first befriended them. Briefly hiding out in a circus run by Senior Armando (Ricardo Montalban), the chimps are eventually slain, but their child remains with Armando, Zira apparently swapping her baby with another belonging to a circus ape.

The role-reversal could have been unintentionally funny, but apart from some inspired moments of humour, this is a very bitter film. If anything, man’s inhumanity towards his primate cousins is actually worse. Once again the performances are exceptional although it marked the end of Kim Hunter’s association with the series.

Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes (1973)Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972): This may be the darkest and most violent of the series, but the production quality was now starting to diminish. It is the nineties and America is now a futuristic, zero-tolerance state. When a plague wipes out all cats and dogs, apes assume the role of household pets, but as the years go by, become more useful as slave labour. Zira and Cornelius’ son Caesar (McDowell once more) has grown up in Armando’s circus, his existence kept quiet from the authorities.

When he accidentally shouts at a human abusing an ape, Caesar is forced to hide among the wild apes brought in for conditioning. His ability to communicate with his primitive simians enables him to lead the ape revolt after his mentor Armando is killed by his interrogators.

Despite a few good moments, the series is starting to flag in terms of style and invention. The cynical atmosphere is not helped by several scenes of gratuitous violence. Because of the lack of humour, Conquest is an empty and rather difficult film to enjoy.

But for what it's worth, Conquest provides the main inspiration for Rise of the Planet of the Apes; the main character is also called Caesar.

Battle For The Planet Of The Apes (1973)Battle For the Planet of the Apes (1973): The final and least interesting of the series is a clear indication that the good run had come to an end. Shortly after Caesar’s revolt, a nuclear war has destroyed America.  Now ruling his primitive ape community where the humans play a subservient role, Caesar’s dreams of the ape prophecy coming true are hindered by an advancing army of mutant humans from the ruined city and dissent in the ranks from gorilla general Aldo (Claude Aikens).

There’s not much to be said about this threadbare production. It’s basically a lacklustre affair that simply ran out of ideas. Script and performances are laboured, and the main story not strong enough to sustain any momentum. At least everything comes full circle with the guest appearance of John Huston as the often-talked about ape god, The Lawgiver.

Planet Of The Apes (US TV, 1975)Planet of the Apes (1974): With the movie series played out, the saga continued very briefly on television. Two astronauts (James Naughton and Ron Harper, both of whom look remarkably like detectives from a popular TV cop show) are captured by apes when their ship crash-lands on Earth in the future. Although it brings back Dr Zaius (American stage actor Booth Colman), this new ape world is like a parallel universe to the films; the humans are intelligent but play a subservient role to their simian rulers. After befriending Starkey and Hutch, I mean Burke and Virdon, Dr Zaius’ assistant Galen (Roddy McDowell once more) finds out that the ape history he grew up with is not true after all. He frees the astronauts only to be captured and sentenced to death for heresy. The astronauts rescue him and all three go on a road trip where they encounter various humans and apes in each episode.

Despite a couple of scripts provided by Rod Serling and some decent acting from the principles (especially Mark Lenard’s barnstorming turn as gorilla leader General Urko), the series was cancelled after 14 episodes due to low ratings (though it fared rather better in the UK). It’s really not that surprising, because it runs out of steam very quickly. The main characters simply have nowhere to go after the first few episodes. The series was later re-edited for several TV movies, some of which feature McDowell as an older Galen recapping past events.

Return To The Planet Of The Apes (TV, 1975)Return to the Planet of the Apes (1975): This animated series (that lasted 13 episodes) was very much a hodgepodge of everything that came before. The humans are back to being primitive, but the ape world is now technologically advanced with cars and televisions (reference to Boulle’s original). Zira, Cornelius, Dr Zaius and Nova (a little more talkative than her movie persona) are back, along with General Urko from the TV series and Brent the astronaut from Beneath. There are a couple of good jokes (the playwright William Apespeare!), but the basic animation is stilted, and the main story of three astronauts crash landing in the future is too passé to hold much interest. At least Marvel Comics kept the saga going with adaptations of the films and various new ape adventures that had a lot more originality than anything that was recently produced on celluloid.

Tim Burton's 'Planet Of The Apes' remake from 2002Planet of the Apes (2001): When it came to new movie versions of old classics, the 21st Century film-making saw the end of remakes and the beginning of re-imaginings. In what was to be Tim Burton’s least interesting movie, the original novel and film have been completely abandoned in favour of a fresh story where yet another astronaut (Mark Wahlberg) crash lands on a planet ruled by apes (what a surprise!). The humans are a cross between the primitives from the first film and the subservient ones from the TV series. The apes do not use guns but in a welcome change the chimpanzees are now the aggressors and the gorillas more placid.

Promising more than it actually delivers, the film never gels, despite a first-rate production, outstanding ape make-up and solid performances from Wahlberg and Tim Roth as violent chimp General Thade. The ape cast spent so much time getting in touch with their inner monkey; they forget to put anything into their acting. But that said, Charlton Heston has an uncredited guest spot as a dying ape (quoting his iconic last line) and the effective twist ending not only goes back to Boulle’s novel, it turns the forthcoming film is a sort of unofficial prequel.

Rise of the Planet of Apes is said to be the beginning of a film new series charting the rise to power of the apes through the eyes of Caesar (Andy Serkis – no stranger to playing an ape!). In addition to taking the main inspiration from Conquest, it also uses elements from the other films.

But will it work? Audiences’ tastes have changes with the times and Tim Burton’s film is a good example of getting it all wrong. From the looks of the trailers, the new movie promises quite a lot, but whether it’s going to be an excellent piece of film-making or just another well made, well oiled CGI pot-boiler from the Hollywood production line remains to be seen.

If the film is successful, it will be interesting to see how a potential series develops. Who knows? We may get a proper adaptation of Monkey Planet.

The saga continues!

See also:

Rise of the Planet of the Apes Blu-ray review

Rise of the Planet of the Apes review

The last great frontier of CGI: The eye

There can only be one: Why the first Highlander is the best


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#1 Planet Of The Apes John W. Morehead 2011-07-27 02:22
Thank you for sketching an overview of the history of this great science fiction series, which opened the door in many ways for similar franchises that would later follow it.

I would offer one disagreement with your opinion of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. Although this film is indeed dark, and the production values diminished, it touches on the issues of race and racism in some of the strongest terms, perhaps surpassing that of the first film. In this way it is not empty, but filled with plenty of material for reflection in our world where race still divides.
#2 Thank You Mark Iveson 2011-07-27 14:04
Thanks for the comments John. I certainly appreciate your thoughts on this, and yes racial intolerance was certainly a major issue in most of the Apes films.

But on saying that, CONQUEST was not a film I enjoyed but there you go! Opinions always vary!

Best wishes

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