I figured I would use the looming release of Rise of the Planet of the Apes to unveil a new series of articles about film series. Consider this the bastard child of my typical director-driven projects, a deep dive into the muddy waters of movies that spawned sequels and reboots and remakes.
The whole concept of creating a film franchise is one that’s usually greeted with raised eyebrows and stern words of disapproval. And I’ll admit, for the most part any idea that makes a good movie probably isn’t going to be good the third or fourth time it gets dragged out, kicking and screaming, into the sun.
But there have to be exceptions, right? So I’m going to try to look for them here, laying out all the films in a series and running down how they stack up to the original, or even stand apart as something special on their own. Digging for treasure in a trash heap? Maybe. But come back every day for another rundown of an apes film leading up to the release of Rise, and learn about one of the craziest long-running sci-fi movie franchises out there.
The Planet of the Apes (1968)
We open with undoubtedly the most well known entry into this series. Planet of the Apes is a sci-fi classic, with quotable lines and one of the most prolific twist endings in the pop culture lexicon. It’s one of those movies that is so pilfered from that it’s hard to remember that the original film is actually still interesting.
Astronaut Taylor (Charlton Heston) and a bunch of other folks who seem instantly expendable are in deep hibernation while travelling through space. They crash-land on an unknown planet in the year 3978. The planet seems like barren desert until they come across mute, tribal humans. And witness a band of sentient apes hunting said humans.
Taylor gets captured and brought to animal psychologist Zira, a chimpanzee who specializes in dealing with humans. The ape culture regards humans as feral, and apes as the supreme creatures on the planet by divine right, making Taylor’s presence a threat to their very belief system. Zira and her husband Cornelius take to Taylor, but they’re branded heretics and Taylor sentenced to death. Thus the two ape scientists lead Taylor and the woman he has been paired with, Nova, to the wilds where they discover the remnants of human civilization, known to a few of the elder apes but kept secret. Heston rides off to his historic meeting with a familiar landmark, and you know the rest.
What’s interesting about Planet is how schizophrenic it is about its ideas. It’s very progressive about science and religion and the ways cultures use tradition to maintain control, but at the same time is hilariously misogynistic. Nova was paired with Taylor in the ape-zoo seemingly for breeding purposes, but he ends up dragging her along like luggage in a ragged tribal swimsuit. She’s there to take up space and look good, mute through the plot device of humans losing the ability to speak. Not that she does anything of use anyway. Apparently being mute also makes you useless. Zira bears little better, being a woman of culture but still getting a kiss from the hero at the end because that’s what heroes do, even to other species. It would be gross if it wasn’t so awkward to watch Heston wrangle a kiss out of the immobile ape mask.
But a surprising amount works in the first movie. Heston is incredibly charismatic as the fatalistic Taylor, turning a rather thankless role into one with a grinning sense of irony. In his early interactions with his doomed crew, he seems a man looking for a new way of life, a man who had left Earth disgusted at what we had made of ourselves. He’s a dick, but he’s a dick you kind of can’t help rooting for. Heston’s propensity for chewing every piece of scenery he can get a hold of doesn’t hurt.
The apes are surprisingly well realized for something that could just be so many cheap masks and bad sci-fi moralization. A lot of that has to be laid at the feet of Zira and Cornelius, who come across as a real couple with real chemistry, and who we’ll smartly see again in later films.
But there’s that undeniable goofiness of Heston running around in a loincloth fighting stuntmen in gorilla suits. For all of its potential, it all seems a little camp looking back on it. The intelligence of the ideas behind it rubs up against the presentation in ways that make it a little hard to take seriously, sometimes. Certainly it was a secret to its theatrical success and its enduring memory, but I also think it might be responsible for why it has a sort of kitsch reputation that it struggles to break out of in its many sequels.