(cw: misogyny, murder, political violence)
Planet of the Apes (1968): More Than an Ending
Though I’m of an age that should make the CGI apes in the current version of the franchise1 much more “natural” to me than the 60s prosthetics that look like they’d be equally at home on an episode of the original Star Trek, I actually genuinely prefer the old costumes. Don’t get me wrong: I’m extremely impressed by the photorealism and amount of emotional acting they’re able to do with the CGI characters now, and I certainly don’t consider the CGI a weakness of the new films. But it’s the “inferior” costumes from the 60s/70s Planet of the Apes films that will always look “right” to me. And the performances of the costumed actors are just incredible. Just look at Roddy McDowall, who played Cornelius in three films and Caesar in two. The masks he wore for both characters were extremely similar, but there was absolutely no confusing the two characters thanks to McDowall’s performance. It’s really a remarkable achievement, and one I think we’re far too quick to dismiss.
Now, obviously one of the biggest obstacles for modern audiences with this film is that the famous twist ending has really never been a twist ending for us. It’s an iconic image that’s been so heavily referenced and parodied in our popular culture that by the time any of us saw this film for the first time, we knew exactly what to expect.
So, with that in mind, how does Planet of the Apes hold up? … great, actually! The thing is, while the famous twist is the first thing a lot of people think of or bring up when they discuss these films, and the experience is undeniably different knowing in advance, this film was never really just “about” a clever twist at the end in the same way, say, The Sixth Sense was.2 There’s a lot more than that to lean on here, principally the empathy the film carefully builds up between the audience and Colonel Taylor.
This empathy between audience and protagonist is built with patient storytelling that puts us through a very visceral experience without really directly commenting on it. Yet when we contrast this with the 2001 version, which explicitly mentions more overtly political themes by name, the 1968 version is actually much more clear about what it’s “saying.” It’s a very human story, and it’s very clear about where it wants your sympathies. I wouldn’t call it subtle, exactly, but there’s a sort of tact to it that science fiction can sometimes lack.
Another element I loved about the original that’s much less present in later versions is their rather distinct sense of humor. There’s some rather heavy-handed but charming tongue-in-cheek references to the relative positions of humans and apes in this and its four sequels, and if they don’t at least make you break into a bit of a smile, we just can’t be friends. This aspect has been noticeably lacking in later versions of the story, probably intentionally, and it honestly feels a little like throwing the baby out with the bathwater, like the series is now lacking something that was a distinct part of its identity.
My biggest complaint about the film is this: what the hell is up with Nova? This one carries over into the second film as well, but seriously. She is one of the most literal examples I’ve ever seen of the “sexy lamp”3 problem. The story would not change one iota if she were replaced by an inanimate object. Which is a bit frustrating, because it actually wouldn’t be that hard to give a certain amount of agency and interactivity to a character who doesn’t talk by making her emote or just have some kind of impact on the audience beyond “Charlton Heston might be about to lose his… creepy cuddle buddy?”4 But the film isn’t interested in giving her a personality beyond that.
Nova’s characterization might be pretty deeply sexist, or at least just kind of weird and uncomfortable, but you know what makes up for it a little? One of the best female characters in all of science fiction. Zira is absolutely everything we beg for in female characters from modern day science fiction and rarely see. She’s a scientist, and as far as we can tell a pretty brilliant one. She’s assertive. She cares deeply about ethics and that gets rolled into her assertiveness in ways that just make her an incredible character by any standards. She’s just 200 different kinds of great. And while that doesn’t for a second make Nova any less problematic, can we all just take a moment and thank the Movie Gods that Zira exists? And then tell as many people as possible how awesome she is? And then force all the studio executives and aspiring scriptwriters out there to sit down and watch this silly old film write circles around them when it comes to at least one female character? Thanks.
So, yeah. This film has a lot in it that has nothing to do with the Twilight Zone-DNA twist ending. But for me, the ending isn’t even the best scene in the film. I find the real heart of the story in the extended two-scene courtroom drama that unfolds with Taylor, Zira, and Cornelius on one side, and Dr. Zaius on the other. And Taylor’s rights as a thinking being are just trampled all over in increasingly explicit ways by the dismissive apes.
Really, this scene is the most direct expression of pretty much everything the rest of the film has been about. It’s all there. We’ve seen Taylor treated like an animal, caged, experimented on, threatened explicitly with gelding and implicitly with crippling brain surgery. Without needing to explicitly say it, this film touches on themes like animal experimentation, the ethics of keeping animals in zoos, the ways in which oppressed groups of humans are treated, even what it means to be human. The film doesn’t necessarily make any sort of declarative conclusion on these topics, mind you, it just weaves them seamlessly into the experience of the film, and in so doing it makes you think about them and experience them in an intimate fashion, and that can be just as valuable sometimes. Meanwhile, Dr. Zaius’s position of being both Defender of the Faith and head of the Academy, and his claim that there is no inherent contradiction in holding the two positions, brings up some rather obvious issues that inform the conflict of this film’s final act.
All of these issues, and more, are explored quite satisfyingly in just two scenes. It’s really the moment when the film’s themes are brought right to the surface for the audience to see, but in such an organic fashion that we don’t recoil in the slightest. It’s just one of the many examples of fantastic storytelling in one of the best films I’ve ever seen.
So yes, I’ll never really know what it was like to see this film in the theater and stare slack-jawed at one of the most famous twist endings in cinematic history, but I don’t need that experience to appreciate this film as a brilliant example of cinematic artistry. Nor do I need the apes to be gorgeous, photorealistic CGI masterpieces. And neither do you. If you haven’t seen this film, I really implore you to rectify that as soon as conveniently possible, and I really do envy you the experience of enjoying it for the first time. It really is one of a kind.
Beneath the Planet of the Apes: Aptly-Named
On the face of it, it might seem a bit ridiculous to complain about lack of resolution in a film that ends with the entire world being destroyed. Remarkably enough, that’s somehow precisely what we’re facing here. This film reintroduces a whole lot of interesting characters and concepts, and then basically spends the entire film ignoring them and then just blowing them up when Colonel Taylor decides he wants to go out in the ultimate blaze of glory. (Apparently this mirrored Charlton Heston wanting to be done with the series and only agreeing to do the sequel if they met his demand to kill his character. And honestly? Good riddance.)
I can’t begin to fathom the structure of this film, even ignoring for a moment how awful some of those individual elements are. We spend the first 40 minutes of a 90-minute film playing, “Hey! Remember this character/concept/conflict from the first film? Let’s awkwardly reintroduce it!”
The prize for least subtle (or most awkward, or both) example of this definitely comes from the rally scene where the gorillas are preparing for war, Dr. Zaius is going on about his role as Defender of the Faith and head of the Academy for no real reason, and Zira is just kind of yelling her anti-militarism views as though that will change anything.5 Remember the court room sequence in the first film? This is basically its antithesis. The narrative does not earn this conflict in the slightest, it doesn’t engage the audience on any sort of empathetic level, and it serves only to lazily introduce a conflict between Dr. Zaius and General Ursus that’s never really explored, and reintroduce Zira and Cornelius who are badly shortchanged by this film’s narrative.6
That’s okay, though, because Colonel Taylor is there! … in the form of a few minutes of footage from the end of The Planet of the Apes, and a truly baffling green-screen effect where he disappears into some rocks. He doesn’t reappear until the last ten minutes of the film, where he basically does nothing, gets shot, and then blows up the earth. Yeah, remember that “blaze of glory” I mentioned earlier? It’s true only on the most literal level..
Taylor’s role as protagonist is supplanted by another astronaut named Brent.7 That’s really all we get, actually. Brent. No last name, no rank, just… Brent. And that’s actually pretty appropriate considering how much we learn about his personality in this film. That he lacks Taylor’s gravitas8 is pretty forgivable, but you can’t just replace it with a blank slate. You might as well name him Default Protagonist.
Sexy Lamp Nova is back, and gets passed from Taylor to Brent in an orderly fashion. From this point, the pair basically go through an abbreviated version of Planet of the Apes. Brent experiences shock at discovering a talking ape society exists, Zira and Cornelius are half-heartedly shocked to discover another talking human,9 and Brent and Nova are captured but escape fairly quickly. And this brings us to around the 40-minute mark I mentioned earlier, which has Brent rather anticlimactically discovering that he’s on a future version of the earth. And as if the inferior storytelling and acting haven’t done enough to make it obvious how hollow this imitation is, Brent’s equivalent of Taylor’s buried Statue of Liberty is a subway station.10 No, really.
40 minutes into the film, we finally get an original idea in the form of the underground human survivors who have formed a church worshiping a buried atomic bomb. I mean, yeah, that’s really actually just a less subtle, less story-driven riff on the same concept as the ending of Planet of the Apes, but the imagery is creative and bringing religion into it that overtly would be a pretty risky play even today, let alone in 1970. I won’t say this sequence is great, but at least we get 40 minutes of an original idea. Though this is somewhat soured by Taylor’s underwhelming reappearance, and even moreso by the shockingly anticlimactic tone of the apes storming underground city and a dying Taylor triggering the bomb. I just can’t imagine them injecting less dramatic tension into that sequence of events even if they had intentionally tried to.
Really, it’s difficult to imagine a more uninspiring follow-up to the classic original. And on some pretty basic levels, it just doesn’t cohere as a film at all. The first 40 minutes are a rehash of the first film (complete with actual long segments of footage from the first film), and after that it settles into just being dull. It feels like they wanted to make a sequel, but had no idea what was actually good about the first film and didn’t want to bother coming up with an original story.
Escape from the Planet of the Apes: An Uncompromising Return to Form
It might’ve taken a lot of bizarre leaps of logic to make it happen, but making this movie about Zira and Cornelius was absolutely the right thing to do. They nearly stole the show from Taylor in the original Planet of the Apes, and given the chance here to hog the spotlight for themselves they were pretty easily the most likable protagonists this series has ever had.
The story was once again built around ethical questions, deliberately paralleling the first film but this time with the humans being in control of the apes’ fate. And, revealingly, the humans don’t do any better when the tables are turned.
Two scenes really stick out to me in this regard. The first is a rather chilling meeting in the Oval Office between the President and his Science Advisor, Dr. Otto Hasslein. Hasslein argues for the termination of Zira and Cornelius–and, especially, their unborn child–for the preservation of the human species. And I have to admit, I really don’t get that. The “let’s commit an unspeakable atrocity today to stop something bad from happening a millennia from now” angle just doesn’t seem very urgent to me. And since the humans wiped themselves out with a nuclear war, how exactly would stopping the rise of an ape civilization help?
Of course, I don’t think the movie wants you to believe Hasslein is making the right choice. If it were, I don’t think the last scene of the film would be the two most likeable characters in the series being brutally murdered. Really, why is committing an unethical act (murder of an innocent) to prevent a perceived negative consequence (domination of humans by apes) a thousand years in the future a sound decision? I think the film is way too smart to be saying that, and I think there are plenty of clues that it’s saying the opposite.
One of those clues is the other standout scene I wanted to discuss, the excellent courtroom-style scene where Zira and Cornelius are questioned by a Presidential Commission. Yeah, another excellent courtroom scene. Did I mention this film deliberately parallels the first one in a lot of ways? Here, instead of highlighting the mistreatment of the protagonists, we get another chance to see them charming and winning over the humans in the audience and on the panel. It’s impossible not to see a brighter future in these scenes, a future where humans and apes live side by side and the brilliance of apes like Zira and Cornelius is celebrated as much as equivalently talented humans.
Of course, that isn’t what happens. Zira and Cornelius are forced to flee for their lives, which they will ultimately lose anyway in an absolutely brutal shootout with Hasslein.
But, much like the apes in the first film, humanity is not totally irredeemable. Redemption comes in the form of Drs. Lewis Dixon and Stephanie Branton. Unlike Hasslein, who clearly has an agenda from the first moment he steps on the screen (serving as a sort of human Zaius), Dixon and Branton are struck with genuine curiosity and excitement by the discovery of the sapient apes. Again, the parallels with the first film, with Dixon and Branton essentially functioning as the “human Zira and Cornelius.”8 These parallels grow even stronger when they help Zira and Cornelius find safety so Zira can deliver her baby, and introduce them to Armando. Armando, it should be mentioned, is played by the great Ricardo Montalbán. And his performance is just terrific in imbuing the character with the sort of deep empathy that would be required of him to fulfill his role in both this film and the next. This time, the producers were smart enough to work in the “out” they needed for later sequels by having Zira hide her infant with Armando.
Of course, we still get the inevitable confrontation between the apes and Hasslein. The resulting bloodbath is a risk I don’t think a lot of modern franchise genre films would’ve taken. And as much as I hate to lose two of the best characters in science fiction, I can’t imagine this film ending any differently and being nearly as effective. It’s one of the most profound examples of the uncompromising ethos of these films.
And just think, if the producers allowed themselves to be made supine in the face of the sort of logical consistency fans generally demand today, we probably would’ve gotten some sort of boring conventional prequel or perhaps a reboot with a protagonist as bland as Brent. (We had to wait three full decades for that, but boy did Tim Burton and Mark Wahlberg ever answer the call.)
Conquest of the Planet of the Apes: Apes and Political Allegory
Actually one of the most straightforward films of the series. It doesn’t take a lot to figure out what it’s “about” in a real-world application sense. What we get here is the violent overthrow of the oppressors by the oppressed. And I think it’s pretty difficult to watch this film without finding yourself actively rooting for that outcome here.
Perhaps learning from the example of Escape from the Planet of the Apes, Conquest once again has an ape as the protagonist in the form of Caesar, the son of Zira and Cornelius. And despite the fact that Cornelius and Caesar have the same actor and basically the same mask, Roddy McDowall does such a fantastic job in bringing Caesar to life as a different character than Cornelius, there’s really no possibility of confusing the two. And the character is fantastically-written as well. His character arc takes him from a naive innocent under the protection of the human Armando to an oppressed worker (and later prisoner) under the human regime to a revolutionary leader of apes.
And there are plenty of other players along the way who end up intimately involved in the revolutionary ideology this film sweeps you up in. Naturally there’s Governor Breck, the tyrant whose only goal seems to be keeping the apes under human boots at all costs. And there’s the aforementioned Armando, who really just wants to stay out of sight and keep Caesar safe, but when that proves impossible he displays an extraordinary amount of bravery, joining the select group of “good” humans that give us glimmers of hope that humans and apes can coexist.
Then there’s MacDonald. If there’s one piece of the ideological level of this film a lot of people probably miss, it’s what MacDonald’s role is in the whole revolutionary politics aspect. On the surface, MacDonald is just another ape sympathizer who thinks all intelligent beings should be treated ethically. Certainly he fulfills that function as well, but that might seem a bit redundant when we have Armando here, so what’s the deal?
Ah, but of course. Certainly it must just be to show that even humans that work for the oppressive regime can have some good in them, too? Thank goodness, no, which is actually a pretty huge relief because why would we want to sympathize with the human oppressors at all, even in the form of one character? Though, that actually raises a lot of interesting questions the film doesn’t really explore. How did MacDonald come to work as the governor’s chief aide when he so thoroughly disagrees with the ethos of the government as a whole? What did he have to do to get into that position? Why did he do it? Does he regret it? I actually am a little interested in those questions, but the reason the film doesn’t answer any of them is because that isn’t MacDonald’s function, either.
I’m sorry if it seems like I’m belaboring this to intentionally obfuscate the issue, and I promise you I’m not. It’s just that MacDonald is a deceptively important piece of the deeper meaning of this film, and it’s really important that we fully explore what exactly it is he’s doing–and not doing–on the level of story and allegory. So, just to infuriate you a bit further, now that we’ve talked a bit about what MacDonald isn’t, we’re going to leave him be for now.
Because we can’t really talk about what MacDonald means to the story before we talk about the other players in a bit more depth. Governor Breck’s role is obvious. The inevitable conflict between Caesar and Breck is obvious to the audience, though not Breck himself, when the human follows his personal tradition of allowing his ape servant to pick his own name out of a book. Caesar, after pretending to rifle through the book haphazardly, points decisively to his name. And there’s an air of palpable tension for the audience. Caesar stabs his finger down with authority, and stands tall, meeting Breck’s gaze. No matter how amused Breck may be that an ape has chosen a name that means “king,” we sense the inevitable confrontation.
But, as I’ve already alluded to, that confrontation is more than a personal one. Along the way, we see Caesar’s simmering anger build as he witnesses injustice after injustice against apes, but the final straw is when he finds out a human–Armando–has been killed. From then on, he’s on a road that can lead to nothing short of outright rebellion. And we start seeing the apes organize under his leadership, preparing for their insurrection.
Caesar and Breck’s conflict follows all of the obvious, necessary beats. Breck discovers that he’s the talking ape he’s so feared, has him tortured and attempts to have him executed. Caesar escapes and his apes start their insurrection. They violently overrun the site of their oppression–“Ape Control,” where they were conditioned into obedience and taught basic tasks. Then they storm the city, taking out large groups of guards and gathering weapons. And if you didn’t pick up on the revolutionary overtones before, it’s pretty impossible to miss them now. Inevitably, it all ends with Governor Breck dragged into the streets while Caesar triumphantly declares the independence of the apes, and prepares to execute the hated despot.
Now we’re ready to talk about MacDonald’s place in the ideological allegory.
MacDonald is a sympathizer from the inside, obviously. He helps Caesar escape not once, but twice. He expresses that all thinking beings ought to be equal. He wishes things could be different. But most crucially, he begs Caesar not to execute Breck.
Did you already get it? The first clue was that he wishes things could be different. I don’t think the film’s use of this word to frame his desires is an accident, and my decision to draw attention to it certainly isn’t. He’ll criticize the excesses of the human oppressors, sure. He’ll even get damn bitter about it, risking his standing with his boss, who doesn’t try to hide his disdain for MacDonald’s views. But he’s clearly almost as uncomfortable with the violent overthrow of tyranny as he is of tyranny itself. And with the rebelling apes on the verge of their hard-won victory, he argues for moderation, for mercy. Be reasonable.
He’s a progressive, non-revolutionary liberal.
I know the character himself has a lot of conflicting motivations and reasons for doing and saying the things he does, and those are just as interesting and important in their own ways. But in terms of the political allegory this film is clearly going for, he’s the voice of reason, the one who thinks it’s his job to bring everybody–oppressor and oppressed–back from the brink. It isn’t difficult to sympathize with his position. To someone occupying it, it feels safer than violent overthrow. But ultimately, for all the bitter arguments he might have with the Governor, and for all the times he aided and abetted Caesar, he was not going to accomplish the goal of liberation for the apes. Only the apes themselves under Caesar’s leadership could do that.
In case the tone of my rather academic analysis hasn’t made this plain, I think this film is fantastic. The acting all around is excellent, with special praise reserved for the aforementioned MacDowall and Montalbán, and also Hari Rhodes as MacDonald. Really, my biggest complaint is that this film could’ve used a female character with more than one line.9 But the ideas it plays with are huge, and it treats them with respect and is so skillfully done that it’ll have you welcoming our new ape overlords.
Battle for the Planet of the Apes: Worst Ending of the Series
It’s never easy ending a series, though each Apes film seems to have been written under the assumption that it might very well end up being the last film in the series. At first glance, Battle for the Planet of the Apes might seem less like the ending of a series and more like a transition film setting up a sequel that never came. But it actually works well as an ending… until the last shot of the film, which is one of the most baffling choices I’ve ever seen.
In Escape from the Planet of the Apes, Dr. Hasslein introduces a metaphor that will reappear throughout the series of time as a highway with an infinite number of lanes all going from the past to the future, indicating he believes it is possible to change the future. Of course, his application of this is the heinous murder of Zira and Cornelius and failed attempt at genocide of the apes.10 But this film asks a different question. The film as a whole uses the framing device of the ape Lawgiver telling the story of the film to a mixed group of human and ape children. And a question hangs heavily over the entire proceedings until it’s explicitly asked by one of the children listening to his story.
Has the future been changed? Did we “change lanes”? Or is this exactly what happened before? Will Colonel Taylor arrive in a few thousand years to find intelligent apes, animalistic humans, and ultimately end up destroying both and the world on which they live?
Certainly there seems to be cause for optimism. We open the main story finding humans and apes coexisting peacefully. But even in these early scenes, there are visible cracks. The gorilla General Aldo chafes under Caesar’s leadership and displays naked hostility to a human teacher. And the teacher is censured for the simple act of saying “no” to Aldo, something which not even the peaceful Caesar can abide given its connection to the apes’ enslavement in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes.
And in these early scenes, already the seeds for the film’s larger conflicts are planted. Almost immediately. Aldo begins secretly working to overthrow Caesar and end the apes’ peaceful relationship with the humans. Meanwhile, a group of mutated humans living in the radioactive ruins of human civilization discover the existence of the apes11 when Caesar ventures underground to watch recordings of his mother and father’s testimony in Escape from the Planet of the Apes. Just like that, we have three sides on a collision course. The humans are on their way to wipe out the apes, Aldo is taking steps to overthrow Caesar, and Caesar himself just wants to maintain peaceful coexistence for the humans and the apes.
Although Caesar is ultimately victorious, his faith is shaken. He sees one of his fellow apes break their most sacred law, “Ape does not kill ape,” and take up arms against him. And when the humans refuse to rejoin his community unless they’re given equal status with the apes, Caesar realizes he’s become no better than his former human masters, and agrees. But all things considered, the situation is resolved surprisingly well, with humans and apes ready to get to work on building a better future together.
Still we can’t escape the central question of the entire project. Caesar asks MacDonald, “Can we make the future what we wish?” And we pull back out to the framing narrative, where the Lawgiver says though the humans and apes still wait for the future–and, implicitly, a possible repeat of the calamitous events that opened the series–they wait, at least, with some hope. This would be a reasonable point for the series to end on, leaving the question of the ultimate fate of the apes and humans open to the viewer’s imagination.
Of course, that isn’t how the film ends.
Instead, in an unbelievably clumsy scene, a child asks the Lawgiver, “Who knows about the future?” As the camera pans over to the statue of Caesar, the Lawgiver answers, “Perhaps only the dead.” And the camera zooms to make sure we don’t miss a single tear rolling down the statue’s cheek.
No, it’s not the only tacky thing the series has ever done. Yes, my reaction is definitely magnified because it was the very last shot of the series. But even the hastily-edited speech at the end of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes would’ve been a more fitting ending. Something commensurate with the quality of the series as a whole. Or even the quality of this individual film. It certainly wasn’t the best of the series, but it had good relationships, well-developed conflicts, and interesting ideas. It deserved better than this.
Planet of the Apes TV Series: A Few Diamonds, Quite a Bit of Rough
I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of you didn’t even know there was a Planet of the Apes television series. It was canceled after only 14 episodes due to poor ratings, and despite a few genuinely great episodes, it isn’t especially difficult to see why the show had difficulty finding an audience.
I really hate to put this so indelicately, but except for a few episodes here and there, this show was really unbelievably dull. It lacked any real sense of unifying purpose or propulsion. Character arcs were nonexistent, nor did the show really work as a more episodic drama due to the ponderous pace of the individual episodes. Ostensibly, the show follows Alan Virdon and Peter Burke’s search for the means to escape the ape-dominated future and return to their time. But after the audience is rather clumsily and explicitly told that this is to be the central arc of the show toward the end of the premiere episode, it doesn’t really ever come up again. Virdon, Burke, and Galen just sort of wander from village to village solving problems for the various humans they encounter.12
You’d get an interesting problem here and there, but aside from a few exceptional episodes, most of the time it seemed like the show was simply too long. There was almost no reason for most of these episodes to clock in at 50 minutes. Most of them could’ve easily cut 10 to 20 minutes with little noticeable effect beyond a likely improvement in pacing.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, by far the show’s biggest redeeming quality was Roddy McDowall as Galen. You just can’t really go wrong with him in this franchise. And while Galen might not have had as defined of a character arc as Cornelius or Caesar, he was without a doubt the main thing that made the show worth watching. Another treat for veteran science fiction fans is that this series actually featured Mark Lenard (famous for playing Spock’s father Sarek in Star Trek) as General Urko, a prominent gorilla13 military leader who serves as the main antagonist. And the show winks rather heavily at the fans by giving Urko lines such as, “Not logical? If they were logical they would not be humans!”
But if there’s one thing that makes me genuinely regret the swift cancellation of this mostly lackluster show, it’s a cluster of episodes toward the latter half of its only season. From episodes 7 to 10 it really started to feel like the show had finally found its stride. I think it’s worthwhile to discuss each of these episodes individually before moving on from this chapter in the franchise’s history.
In episode 7, “The Surgeon,” Virdon is shot by a gorilla patrol and it’s up to Galen and Burke to find him medical attention. It turns out that Galen used to be good friends with a surgeon, so they avail themselves of her assistance. In the process, Burke finally does something other than jump-kick his way into a fight when he must convince a group of humans to overcome their irrational fear of blood transfusions in order to help save his friend’s life. This episode also gives us one of the best guest characters on the entire show: Kira, the aforementioned surgeon friend of Galen. Unlike her supervisor (and implied lover) Leander, Kira remains dedicated to scientific principles over superstitious ape fears of human knowledge.14 In the end, even Leander himself ends up hiding Galen and his human companions from gorilla soldiers.
Episode 8, “The Deception,” is in all likelihood the best episode of the show. The titular problem finds a blind female ape falling in love with Burke, believing him to be an ape. But that’s not the only deception, as her uncle has been lying to her about how her father died–the source of her hatred of humans. Instead of being murdered by humans, it turns out he was actually notably sympathetic toward them, and actually accidentally killed by apes. This episode successfully weaves together several conflicts, making it arguably the most watchable 50 minutes of the entire show.
Episode 9, “The Horse Race” is a bit less remarkable than the previous two, but episode 10, “The Interrogation,” is another entry that’s a cut above the rest of the series. The A plot of Burke being captured and interrogated by the apes is certainly compelling enough, but what really does it for me here is the inclusion of Galen’s parents. His mother is just fantastic from the get-go, prepared to help Galen even at great personal risk while simultaneously never coming across as a pushover. His father, on the other hand, starts out with a rather strained relationship with his son. In particular, he initially cannot abide Galen’s aiding and abetting of human fugitives. But by the end of the episode, he relents, declaring, “You’re my son. I don’t pretend to understand the friendship between you and those humans, but I do understand friendship. And I do understand principles. […] It’s heartwarming to know that our son is not only loving and intelligent, but also principled. I’m very proud of you.” Yes, an interaction between two men in unconvincing chimpanzee suits might very well have you reaching for a tissue.
Sure, these moments of brilliance were not the show’s general standard, but when it got it right it got it really right. Maybe if the series had been given long enough to shake off its growing pains, it would’ve blossomed into something great. Or maybe it would’ve remained mired in mediocrity. It did certainly regress quite a bit15 after that one great stretch, but it was quite a stretch.
On the whole, the Planet of the Apes the television series was fairly inconsequential and certainly doesn’t carry the same weight as the films it’s based on. Still, it does certainly have its moments, and one can’t be reasonably expected to tire of watching Roddy McDowall in ape makeup.
Return to the Planet of the Apes: Garden-Variety Bland 70s Cartoon
I really hate to put it like this, but the most striking thing about Return to the Planet of the Apes is how little of an impression the show left on me. The writing isn’t bad, and the art is pretty great, but the animation seems fairly lazy and the voice actors honestly sound disinterested. It reminds me of a lot of the problems with Star Trek: The Animated Series, though certainly much less overtly bad. But more specific to this series, there’s a sort of “empty” feeling to it that makes it actually a chore to watch.
What’s really frustrating about this is the show actually made a few great conceptual choices that would’ve been nice to see fleshed out with better execution. Like the original Planet of the Apes, we have three surviving astronauts. But instead of one being killed and the other lobotomized, they actually stick together other than Judy being kidnapped by the Underdwellers for the first 7 episodes. This also brings some visible diversity to the human protagonists with one being black and the other female, a welcome change.16 Unfortunately, the show did forget to give any of the three a personality or character arc, so let’s not be too hasty to give it credit.
Another change I rather liked on paper, but would’ve liked to have seen explored better, was giving the apes more technology. Instead of horses they drive what look like military Jeeps. They also live in a fairly modern city and use television to disseminate news. At one point, they even plan to make use of a surviving human aircraft.17
It was nice that the show brought back several characters from the films and live-action series, but like other aspects of the series, they just didn’t really do enough with this. Zaius is just sort of generically “in charge” without being nearly as interesting as he was in the first film. Cornelius was bland (like just about every other aspect of this show) while Zira was especially disappointing, lacking any semblance of the distinct personality she had in the films. And, in another one of those interesting ideas that’s not explored at all, Cornelius and Zira experience conflict between their patriotism for the ape government and their desire to help the humans. And by “experience conflict” I mean Cornelius states it out loud a few times. Really. That’s it.
I will say that by far the biggest real advantage this series has over its live-action counterpart is that it actually has an overarching story and choices characters make in one episode genuinely impact them in other episodes. Furthermore, rather than just wandering aimlessly through the ape world, there’s always a strong sense of what the human characters’ circumstances are. They escape from the ape city, find safety in the caves occupied by the primitive humans, and later must flee the caves to find somewhere else safe from the apes.
One of the most obvious examples of the show’s interconnected story was the multifaceted conflict between all the various parties. You have the obvious factions–apes, humans, and underdwellers–with our protagonists having nuanced relationships with each. But while it didn’t really happen with the other two factions, we also had quite a bit of internal conflict within the ape society, notably between the militaristic General Urko and the scientific community represented by Cornelius and Zira. This conflict remains consistent throughout the series, with Urko going so far as to try to seize the reins of government from Zaius, only to be humiliated and forced out of military command, a step a lot of shows actually wouldn’t have taken.
But, again, don’t give the show too much credit here. While the conflict is consistent, it’s also extremely unnuanced. The way the conflict is introduced early in the series is an argument in Zaius’s office that it’s going to sound like I’m making up, but I promise you I’m not. The scene actually opens with Urko pounding his fist on Zaius’s desk and shouting, “Weapons!” while Zira angrily points at him and counters, “Science!” After these obviously extremely detailed arguments, Zaius patiently explains that the Senate has limited funding available, and will make a decision soon. I’m really, honestly not making this up.
I can really only recommend this series if you’re extremely hungry for more Planet of the Apes-related material.
Planet of the Apes (2001): A Burtonstrosity
I believe in engaging films on their own terms. If you want to make fanfiction out of a franchise that I like, splendid, just make it good fanfiction and I’ll be onboard. And I provide this context to give the necessary weight to what you’ve heard from so many others, and what you are now hearing from me:
Tim Burton’s 2001 Planet of the Apes is an awful, awful, awful, awful movie.
For starters, while this film is certainly making no attempt to be a faithful adaptation, it would be a tremendous mistake to conclude that it is taking the alternate route of blazing ahead with its own unique story or focus. Because Burton made the unconscionable choice to make this the absolute most boring sort of film: a traditional conflict narrative with the “good guys” on the run and the “bad guys” wanting to pound their faces in, and it’s just so weirdly linear and not interesting. And really, while I am not an especially big fan of Burton’s work in general… it’s a pretty odd choice coming from him? Can we examine that for a second? Not only is this not really a Planet of the Apes movie, it’s not really a Tim Burton movie.18 And that’s just thoroughly confusing.
Oh, hey, though. This is a Planet of the Apes movie, and the series as a whole has always been known as a vehicle for some really great political subtext and being centered around really difficult ethical discussions. Maybe we should work some of that in.
… hold on, I just had a better idea. How about we just have a character vaguely rant about “human rights groups” and then have a bafflingly awkward dinner scene where a bunch of talking apes complain about the drawbacks of welfare states.
Look. I don’t think remakes necessarily need to be faithful to the source material to be successful, but someone involved in the production of this film at some point–whether it was Burton, one of the script writers, or someone else–actually had something approximating that thought process. They followed the originals enough to understand that biting political commentary was something they did, and that was how they chose to answer the call. I really hope I don’t have to point out that they may have missed the mark by a smidge or two.
Quick tangent before we move into the ending. The most interesting question I can really think of about this film, and one that I would kind of genuinely like to learn the answer to one day, is at what point Fox realized they were giving Burton studio money to make a fetish film. Was it when they read something like “while one ape forces the leashed human female to her knees, another forces the red hot branding iron against her skin” in the script, or were they in the dark until they saw dailies?
Okay, in all seriousness, while a lot of people were justifiably disappointed with this film, a lot of attention seems to be devoted to what a lot of people consider a perplexing ending. Honestly…? I don’t get it. The ending was pretty straightforward, and it actually seemed like it was setting up what might’ve been a much more genuinely interesting sequel. Maybe all Burton wanted to accomplish in this first film was to get Mark Wahlberg into a more modern day ape-dominated society, and he had all kinds of ideas for what he was going to do in this much freer setting. Or maybe another filmmaker could’ve come along and done something with this nearly blank slate. I don’t know.
More to the point, I think people genuinely believe that the ending is what makes them angry about this movie because it’s easier to focus on Aperaham Lincoln19 than to really dig into all the myriad reasons they just wasted two hours of their life. And, you know, wow. There sure are a lot of those. But while the ending and the lack of faithfulness to the original material might be the most inviting targets, I promise you they are not the real problems with this film, and if the film as a whole had been better we wouldn’t even be talking about them.
Play-Mate of the Apes
So, in fairness, I really shouldn’t have expected anything from this. I’ve never connected to commercially-released porn, and always found it to be just some loosely connected surprisingly vanilla (and mediocre in general) sex scenes. That’s what this was, but I really can’t fault it for that, right? It’s just, I’ve literally been more turned on by actual Planet of the Apes movies. Not the recent ones, but certainly the original, and even bits of the Tim Burton remake even though the movie as a whole was pretty forgettable. Anyway, my opinions on commercially-released porn are pretty irrelevant as the whole enterprise just really doesn’t seem to be me, so I should just shrug and move on.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes: A Boundary-Pushing Blockbuster
My immediate impression as the credits of this film started rolling was that it was a really good genre film, but it wasn’t a Planet of the Apes film.
I understand that sounds like a fairly unnuanced reaction, but it’s been three years and nothing has made me feel appreciably different about the film. I admire its audacity, I admire all the shockingly great performances not the least of which is Andy Serkis’s. But in terms of where this film fits in to the franchise, for me the answer is I just really don’t think it does.
That’s not really a bad thing. I understand it sounds like one, and I understand why it sounds that way, but it’s not. It’s just something I want to acknowledge right off the bat. Is the plot loosely based on Conquest of the Planet of the Apes? Sure. Is Caesar basically the same character he was in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes and Battle for the Planet of the Apes? To an extent. Is it possible I’m being hypersensitive about what makes a “Planet of the Apes” film because of my admiration for the original films?
… yeah, probably.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes: The Apepire Strikes Back?
This is still the same basic method of storytelling from the first film being applied to a more complex story with more sides working against each other. Within the ape society you have Caesar and his loyal followers, who aren’t exactly friendly toward the humans but want to live in isolation and let them run their own destructive course. As the film progresses, they will be forced to become more “pro-human” by the actions of Koba and his usurpation of Caesar’s authority. But then you have a lot of apes, even Caesar’s own son, who find themselves cowed by Koba’s power or some who are just prone to follow whomever the strongest leader is. And that would be complicated enough on its own, but among the humans you have Malcolm who wants to coexist with the apes while quite a lot of them are more inclined to follow Dreyfus’s more militaristic direction, and wow, this is really starting to sound a lot more like a Planet of the Apes movie than Rise was, isn’t it?
If the complexity and multifaceted nature of the conflict isn’t doing that, how about the early scene where Caesar and the apes ride into the ruins of San Francisco on horseback in an impressive show of force?20 Was that not the most “Planet of the Apes”y thing in either of these movies?
I don’t like the whole barely-talking-apes thing because it makes characters like Cornelius and Zira basically impossible, and seriously please bring back characters like Cornelius and Zira. But for one majestic moment of visual storytelling, there was no doubt in my mind I was watching a Planet of the Apes movie.
We do get an extremely Planet of the Apesian “shades of grey”22 moment from someone who was previously the unassailable hero of this new take on the franchise. You can argue that Caesar was just defending himself for most of the fight, that Koba had shown that he was absolutely going to kill Caesar if he got the chance even if Caesar spared him. You can argue that “movie logic” practically demanded this fight end with a cathartic one-liner of some sort. But man, “You are no ape” is such a loaded statement.
And let’s just unpack this for a moment. What is Caesar really saying here, and are the films going to follow through with it? Because even the ruthlessly pessimistic Conquest of the Planet of the Aps and Battle for the Planet of the Apes end with the original Caesar realizing that humans and apes aren’t as different as he thought, that they have many of the same weaknesses and strengths. That the apes aren’t perfect. And that seems like the logical lesson to get out of this film as well, but instead we get a throwback, 90s-esque one-liner that just flies in the face of that. Was it poorly thought through? Was it intentional?
More importantly, are future films going to explore the troubling implications of declaring an ape engaging in unwanted behaviors to be “not an ape”? I’m not saying we need to end up with some sort of Ape McCarthyism or anything, but there are some pretty obviously troubling implications to compartmentalizing like that instead of accepting that you and groups you’re affiliated with are not infallible. Maybe we’ll just get a delayed Battle for the Planet of the Apes-like epiphany from Caesar after a few more precipitating events? Whatever the case may be, I hope this doesn’t just disappear as a throwaway one-liner whose philosophical implications weren’t fully thought-through.
One last point that I couldn’t really fit in anywhere else: I really love the way guns are portrayed in this movie. Not just the way they’re used in the plot, but the way their actual, physical properties enhance that. I know it’s strange to talk about anti-gun messages in a movie whose money shot (from a marketing perspective, anyway) is photo-realistic primates waving around assault rifles, but they’re totally there. And the first few times guns go off in this movie, it makes you jump a little. And it’s not just a cheap jump scare, the movie is using this to say something. Guns end up taking on this menacing, threatening character, which… yes. And it makes Caesar’s reaction to guns read all the more natural. I know this is sort of undermined by the cavalier way guns are used later in the film, but as a temporary effect, I really liked it and it was very effective.
1. Or at least the more realistic costumes in Burton’s remake, which… we’ll get to.
2. And even The Sixth Sense isn’t remotely unwatchable if you know the ending in advance. And I don’t think anyone is going to argue if I say Planet of the Apes is a greatly superior film in quite a few ways.
3. “Media Test,” 1 July 2014. Geek Feminism Wiki. 13 July 2014. http://geekfeminism.wikia.com/wiki/Media_test
4. I sincerely hope that’s the best way to describe them, because if he has a sexual relationship with her it’s beastiality. I don’t care that she’s technically a human, humans are shown to possess the level of cognition of animals in this future, meaning a relationship between Taylor and one of the sapient apes would actually be far less objectionable. (Though, from what we saw, the apes would likely frown on such a union. And yeah, that was a parenthetical inside of a footnote, so let’s move on now.)
5. Don’t worry, that last one ends up leading to a really “great” joke about spousal abuse later. So, you have that to look forward to!
4. Really, when you get right down to it, there are definitely worse predictive metrics to use for how good a classic Planet of the Apes film will be than how much Roddy McDowall is on screen. We might have something there, actually.
6. And yeah, having a second spacecraft (which was sent on a rescue mission to find Taylor’s) crash essentially right next to Taylor’s is pretty ridiculous, but we don’t really need to pick at logic errors when there are plenty of structure, story, and character problems to choose from.
7. To be fair, so does this movie’s version of Taylor.
8. As an added bonus, neither of them performs scientific experiments on Zira or Cornelius.
9. Or at least more buildup to that one line. The historical significance of Lisa being the first ape to yell, “No!” would’ve had much more of an impact if there had been anything leading up to it. I know the real reason for this is that the ending was actually hastily edited, but production issues don’t interest me as much as how films can best tell their stories.
10. There’s a title they never got around to using. Next on HBO, Genocide of the Planet of the Apes!
11. The Existence of the Planet of the Apes will air shortly after Genocide of the Planet of the Apes; sorry, I’ll stop.
12. In this version of the ape-dominated future, humans can talk and honestly seem more oppressed than outright inferior, though most seem to have internalized their oppression and believe the apes to be genuinely superior.
13. I don’t ask for a lot out of life, but please give me more chances to use phrases like “a prominent gorilla.”
14. This episode features one of the best exchanges of the show, regarding a book on human anatomy that Galen and Burke have stolen from Dr. Zaius’s study to assist in saving Virdon’s life. Kira: “I am a doctor. I have no right to reject the truth.” Leander: “The truth? That book is not the truth. That book is treason. That book is madness.” Kira: “That book exists. And to deny what exists is madness.”
15. Though, to be fair, episode 12, “The Cure,” was also pretty good, if not quite on the same level as the three I singled out.
16. Yes, one of the surviving astronauts in the original film was black, but he was killed so quickly it hardly matters.
17. Although I’ve not read the books, my understanding is that they portray a much more advanced ape society but it was decided to make them more primitive in the films and live-action series to help with production costs. I honestly think this ended out working out pretty well in terms of making the films visually distinct and enhancing the visceral experience Charlton Heston went through in the first film, but it’s still interesting to think about.
18. Don’t get me wrong, there was all kinds of Burtony imagery going on at various points–to a degree I really hadn’t thought possible given the material being adapted, but I really shouldn’t have underestimated Burton’s ability to cram his shtick into anything.
19. Sorry, I couldn’t resist.
20. Or, as I like to think of it, the most intimidating way someone’s backpack has ever been returned.
21. This might seem like an irrelevant detail to you, but please just remember how incredible of a character Zira was. And, honestly, how shockingly good a lot of the female guest characters on the clunky, short-lived TV series were. It’s something that added a lot of life and depth to the original franchise. Diversity in storytelling is good not just because it encourages celebration of real-life diversity, but because it usually leads to better, more complex storytelling.
22. No, not that kind.