I usually like to post TV or film retrospectives on major anniversaries, but sometimes I get impatient. The fiftieth anniversary of Planet of the Apes won’t be celebrated until early next year, but I’m too giddy to keep my damn dirty paws off this franchise until then. Besides, the post here doesn’t directly deal with the original Planet of the Apes; instead, I’m using it to discuss a remarkable film trilogy which drew to a close earlier this year.
But let’s start at the beginning. The original Planet of the Apes hit theaters in February 1968. Produced by Arthur P. Jacobs and cowritten by the great Rod Serling, the film introduced viewers to a barbaric planet populated by (what else?) apes, and the unfortunate astronauts who crash-landed on its surface.
The film was a hit with both critics and audiences, and over the next few years, it spawned four sequels and two TV series (one live-action, one a Saturday morning cartoon). None of these follow-up productions achieved the same level of acclaim or popularity as the original, and the franchise was phased out of Hollywood by the late 1970s.
For years afterward, the world of the apes remained largely uncharted. In 1998, AMC produced a TV documentary (Behind the Planet of the Apes) which explored the making of the franchise. Not long after, 20th Century Fox successfully commissioned a remake of the original film, and signed Tim Burton on as director. This new Planet of the Apes made its theatrical debut in 2001, and was a box-office hit. But plans for a sequel never materialized, and the franchise once again faded into the ether.
Then a decade later, Fox produced another remake, which itself spawned two sequels. The surprising result was the best blockbuster trilogy of this decade, and one of the best of all time.
(Some general spoilers for the series from this point on.)
Across three films and over the six hours, the Planet of the Apes series tells a dark and apocalyptic story of destruction and rebirth. Though it bears no direct connection to the original series, it functions as a conceptual prequel, telling the story of how a planet of primates first came to be. (As those who’ve watched the original – or the Simpsons episode “A Fish Called Selma” – know, the original film reveals in its final twist that the planet the astronauts have landed on was Earth all along.)
The trilogy features plenty of grand, sweeping action, but also challenges its viewers with unsettling questions about survival, barbarism, and coexistence. In short, a lot of things I didn’t expect back when I first heard that James Franco was going to star in a monkey movie.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)
The trilogy’s first film is its weakest, though that’s not a very bruising blow. Rise of the Planet of the Apes suffers from its status as a setup film (as well as the fact that, for much of its running time, the apes play second fiddle to their human masters).
James Franco is the audience hook, playing a scientist who cares for a young ape after its lab-experiment mother is killed. But over the course of the film, the ape (called “Caesar,” a name that will prove quite relevant with time) slowly grows into the film’s emotional center. As excellently played by Andy Serkis (with the help of some stunning CG motion-capture technology), Caesar is a genetically and intellectually-enhanced primate, and we grow to root for him as he attempts to help his fellow apes (cruelly imprisoned in a testing facility) while also stop them from becoming the savages they are viewed as.
It’s not until the third act that Rise develops any real kinetic action, but as we’ll come to see, action is not the central focus of this series. Director Rupert Wyatt, along with writers Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, use the trilogy’s first film to contrast the lofty position of humans with the lowly statuses of apes, and lets us wonder which species is more morally sound. It’s a question that will develop more deeply and effectively in the two sequels.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)
Perhaps the deepest film in the trilogy, Dawn works as both a compelling tale and a dark political allegory, filtered through a “survival of the fittest” message. With humanity’s population thinned by a worldwide virus, the apes seem likely to become the dominate species – but it’s not a role thy inherit by choice. The film contrasts the primates’ moral conflict through a leadership struggle between Caesar and Koba; the former believes in humanity’s right to survive, the latter (having been tortured in a lab for years) would happily see them all dead.
Two things of note stand out about Dawn. First is the quiet, atmospheric tone. Director Matt Reeves (a world away from Felicity) crafts a post-apocalyptic world that carefully sidesteps the all-too-common dystopian tropes. Here, humanity teeters on the edge of extinction, and their desperation is reflected in a world marked by ravage and ruin – yet still has unmistakable echoes of the world our characters inhabited in Rise.
The other noteworthy aspect is the portrayal of the human characters. Though they’re wisely given secondary focus to the apes (who get most of the meatier dramatic scenes), there’s enough material to display how fractured and desperate mankind has become at this harrowing stage, to the point that we wonder whether some of them are even worthy of survival. The parallels between people and apes are quite clear; by the end, we’re left wondering which group is truly more human.
War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)
The third film of the series is the most epic in scope, yet also makes the most effective use of silence and little moments. Designed as a grand finale, War hits all the necessary beats to provide a satisfying finish. There’s terrific action, strong character development, emotional follow-up from the previous film, and an overall sense of finality to the story.
Despite the title, there’s very little war depicted onscreen here. Instead, the final film in the trilogy focuses on the cost of war – particularly how it takes its toll on Caesar. Now leading the apes in a conflict he never wanted, losing friends and family to the savagery of his opponents, Caesar begins to lose himself in anger and hatred. No longer is he the cute little ape we met back at the start of Rise; the losses he’s encumbered have turned him into a hardened warrior.
The body count in War is quite high, yet few of the deaths are without poignance or meaning. And that says a lot about how many three-dimensional characters the film crafts. Some heroes betray, while some villains repent – in such a battle-scarred world, the lines between good and evil have been weathered beyond recognition.
For all of its genetic bleakness, War sets aside a little space for humor (in the form of a “bad ape” played by Steve Zahn), and includes some references geared to satisfy fans of the original series (such as the introduction of a young Nova). But at its best, War for the Planet of the Apes succeeds as a battlefront drama, pushing its story and characters to the emotional limit, and making its central simians feel more human than ever.
It’s a grand finish to a remarkable trilogy. The original Planet of the Apes may go down in history as the definitive version of the story, but I do hope that over time, people continue to discover the newer series – and realize that remakes can still be done right.
All the Planet of the Apes films are available on DVD and digital download. None of them seem to be streaming anywhere, which is a crime against nature.