Note: This is the fourth part of an ongoing series of marathon film reviews for franchises, filmmakers, or themes (I'm hosting a lot of marathon events this summer). Part 1 (my review of every Fast and Furious film) can be found here. Part 2 (my review of a selection of Miyazaki films) can be found here. And part 3 (my review of the Alien franchise) can be found here.
And by the way, there are NO SPOILERS throughout the entirety of this review. My target audience is folks who don't know if this franchise is worthwhile, or who have forgotten. So I decided to focus on the films' ideas and themes rather than on their plot.
Planet of the Apes (1968)
It's 8:00am on July 8th, 2017. Hayden and Callan have arrived (I've described them in more detail in my Fast and Furious review, but suffice it to say that this summer they've been loyal and enthusiastic movie marathon participants with me; they're fantastic).
Charlton Heston is an oddly charismatic lead, given how sneering and arrogant his character is in this film. Almost all of his lines of dialogue in the first act are dripping with machismo and contempt. He's an astronaut who has crash-landed on a mysterious planet with two companions.
Throughout the second act he discovers that this planet is dominated by talking apes--who regularly and callously use primitive humans for entertainment, scientific research, and free labor. "It's a madhouse," he shouts. He doesn't know the half of it.
I won't spoil the details of the third act (in case by some miracle you have gone this long without seeing it parodied on The Simpsons or elsewhere), but it's shocking. Let's just say that through a cascade of kangaroo courts, tense arguments, and bizarre discoveries, Heston's character discovers a lot about the failings of mankind, the corruptibility of military/political/religious power, and the sometimes complicated nature of truth and falsehood.
It's a sucker punch of a film, with a really provocative mix of humor, philosophy, and anger. Classic sci-fi at its strongest, boldest, and most thoughtful. (Oh, and Charlton Heston kisses a chimpanzee woman, so if none of this is convincing you to check it out, you should at least turn it on to see that.)
Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970)
You guys. This film is insane.
It's 10:00am. Biologically, we're all feeling pretty alert, but you wouldn't know it from looking at us. We appear to be totally drained. Hayden falls asleep for a moment; when he wakes up, I fall asleep for a moment; and when I wake up, Callan falls asleep for a moment. We are taking shifts, it seems.
Every time one of us dozes off and comes to after a few minutes there is a similar cry: "what? Is this SAME SCENE STILL HAPPENING?" You see, every scene in Beneath the Planet of the Apes lasts for an eternity with no change, no progress, no movement. This film has zero sense of pacing.
I am not impatient. I am usually a big fan of films with a slower, more deliberate pace. I enjoy the original Planet of the Apes, which definitely takes its time introducing the world and ramping up the stakes. And I generally love slow-burn sci-fi films like Solaris, slow-burn dramas like There Will Be Blood or Days of Heaven, and slow-burn thrillers like Michael Clayton or The Vanishing.
But there's a difference between "deliberate" and "boring."
Deliberately paced films understand small moments, quiet reflections, and silent decisions. Deliberate films understand that Tommy Lee Jones' monologue at the end of No Country for Old Men is more powerful than any explosive gunfight or overly dramatic reveal could have been. Deliberate films focus on character without sacrificing plot, because they understand that while character cannot change without plot, that doesn't mean that plot points (events and dilemmas forcing characters to decide who they are) need to be HUGE. In other words: deliberate films know how to make subtle moments feel like they matter.
Boring films, on the other hand, don't know how to make anything matter. They throw too many ideas at the wall without any sense of ideological or mythological cohesion, and nothing sticks. Beneath the Planet of the Apes is one of those films.
Between its underground cultists worshipping a nuclear bomb, its bizarre Charlton Heston look-alike, its laborious and repetitive fighting, and its totally bonkers depiction of telepathy (five-minute scenes with nothing but intense staring, high-pitched sound effects, and extreme close-ups), this film is all over the place. It doesn't know what it wants to be about. It doesn't know what it wants you to feel. And it doesn't know that its action sequences make little thematic, narrative, or even physical sense. It's the Alien 3 of the Apes franchise.
Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971)
It's 12:00pm and right off the bat we've got some talking chimpanzees who have traveled through space and time to land in 1970s New York. They try on human clothes and they taste alcohol ("grape juice plus!"). The public adores them. The government fears them. Throughout the second act, the film shifts almost imperceptibly away from its zany fish-out-of-water tone and becomes a profoundly disturbing film about fugitives, fearmongerers, and the future. And the final scene, while not perhaps as iconic as the ending to the original Planet of the Apes, is a doozy.
Escape from the Planet of the Apes is sort of wacky, but in the best possible way. And when it has something to say, it says it with a bold and persistent sense of purpose. One of my favorite movie sequels for sure. It's wonderful.
Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972)
It's 2:00pm. Set in a strange dystopian 1991 in which apes are enslaved, insulted, and brutalized by their human masters, Conquest is a story of revolution. It's a story of violence, power, corruption, and uprising. It's the angriest Apes film so far--and I think it's sort of great. Hayden and Callan agree with me. We're all into it.
My little band appears to be in the minority here. Only 44% of critics gave Conquest of the Planet of the Apes a positive review, according to Rotten Tomatoes. Maybe, in 1972, folks just couldn't buy into the angry, bleak tone of this film; it's possible that Conquest's deeper ideas, when delivered by actors wearing cheap rubber ape masks, were hard to take seriously (after all, plenty of extremely serious films came out the same year and made big waves--for example, The Godfather; Aguirre, the Wrath of God; Solaris; Deliverance; and Last Tango in Paris).
But for some reason, Conquest really works for us. Perhaps because we had just seen Beneath, and the comparative coherence and passion of this film next to its predecessor is startlingly obvious when you're watching the whole franchise back-to-back.
Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973)
It's 4:00pm, and Battle for the Planet of the Apes is a mess. None of its action feels dangerous or exciting. None of its political themes feel meaningful or provocative. None of the decisions of any of its characters feel intentional or rational. Apes and humans are mad at each other for no other reason than that they are supposed to be. Symbols from previous films are re-introduced and discarded on a whim, never with thematic or ideological intention, never with something to say.
The film's last shot, set far in the future, shows a stone statue of Ceasar, the ape who had led the revolution during the events of Conquest and Battle. Apparently he has been memorialized, as if his story is supposed to have taught us something. And in the very last moment before the credits roll, Ceasar's statue sheds a single tear.
Hayden, Callan and I erupt in laughter. But I don't think the ridiculousness of this moment is intentional. (Joyce Corrington, one of the screenwriters whose work was almost completely overwritten by another writer, has called this ending "stupid." I don't disagree. "It turned our stomachs when we saw it," he says.)
Hayden, Callan and I speculate for a while about what went wrong with this film and why it apparently marked the death of the franchise for another three decades thereafter. What we don't realize at the time is that there was a live-action TV series in 1974, and then an animated series in 1975, for some damn reason.
(And by "some damn reason," I of course mean "money.")
Planet of the Apes (2001)
We skipped this one! So sue me. There are some fun stories about the conflicts and difficulties surrounding its production in David Hughes' Tales from Development Hell, if you're into it!
Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)
It's 6:00pm. We've had some pizza and we're super excited for the franchise to get, you know, good again. We take a short break to talk about the 1970s in film, culture, and social politics. (None of us know anything. We're a bunch of babies.) But I will say this about the five '70s Apes movies: they certainly know how to start a conversation.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes--a reboot/prequel to the 1968 original, and an attempt to speculate how apes might get super-smart and potentially even dangerous in the first place--is a tragic story about separation, miscommunications, and interpersonal disillusionment; it's a fable about coming of age in a world that you slowly realize does not belong to you (and perhaps, without revolution or at least serious reform, never can); it's a powerfully realized origin story, a Batman Begins for the Apes franchise that re-envisions all the right things while keeping intact the nuance, character, and anger of the films on whose shoulders it stands.
It has something to say about science, about friendship, and about lies. And it has tons to say about the violence inherent in systems of abuse, oppression, and exploitation--and about how retaliatory violence can often flare up in response to such systems, even if all-out war isn't the intention.
What I'm saying is: Rise is a really smart film, with a consistent and coherent idea of what it wants to talk about; and, perhaps more importantly, every frame is bursting with full-hearted empathy for its characters, whether they're protagonists or antagonists.
It's a perfect reboot.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)
It's 8:00pm. The opening scene of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes does a lot of narrative work, getting us up to speed on what's happened since Rise. (Yes, I know those titles don't make any sense.) Apparently some of the apes now have a small civilization of their own, and the humans meanwhile have been struggling to survive in the aftermath of a global virus outbreak.
This film is paradoxically both bigger and smaller than its predecessor; there are huge action set pieces and very high stakes but at the same time it's a film about small, intimate moments of fear, nervousness, deception, and, ultimately, devastating violence.
At its core, Dawn is a deeply emotional film about how tragically simple and stupid decisions can start a war. It's a film about one human family's struggle to maintain their hope, their love, and their humanity. It's a film about one ape's struggle to forge a new identity and to lead a small nation a decade after having been disabused of his old worldview and ripped from his old life.
Dawn is interested in how we measure loyalty and disloyalty. It's curious about how we flesh out our core values, our mantras, our rituals, and our symbols. It's frustrated about the way we treat one another. It's angry about the reckless short-sightedness, stupid hubris and belligerent anthropocentrism with which we interact with the planet. And it's infuriated by the tribalism, exceptionalism, and defensiveness that pervades our social, theological, and geopolitical dividing lines.
It's relevant, weighty, exciting, and jaw-droppingly beautiful. Excluding the original, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is my favorite in the series.
War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)
It's July 14th, one week later; we've had some time to digest and contextualize this film's predecessors. We're in the theater with popcorn, ICEEs, and chocolate-covered raisinets. Jon (who's been heretofore described in the Fast and Furious marathon review) and Micah (a newcomer to the clan, who just returned from an LDS mission and who is great and witty and kind) have joined us. We are deeply invested in what will happen next to our favorite family of apes. We hope that we will not be disappointed by Mat Reeves' next installment--War for the Planet of the Apes (perhaps against all odds, because this is, after all, a 2017 sequel to a 2014 sequel to a 2011 reboot/prequel to a 1968 adaptation of a 1963 novel, and after so much regurgitation maybe it shouldn't work).
We are not disappointed.
War has a sense of huge, confident, and strangely serene beauty. It's a thoughtful, ambitious, tense, and compassionate film, deeply concerned with the vexing moral dilemmas, the moments of quiet bravery, and the stories of deep anguish with which real-life war is filled. It has deep empathy for all of its characters--whether they're the "good" or "bad" guys--and it is drenched in deep regret about the horrors we are capable of when our hearts are at war. I'm reminded of The Bridge On The River Kwai, The Great Escape, and The Ten Commandments. The film feels epic, almost Biblical, in its ambitions.
Now, overall, War is probably a weaker film than Dawn--some of its character arcs don't show as much interesting movement (or logic) as those in Dawn--but it's compelling and powerful anyway.
And it feels like War has more of a sense of humor than Rise or Dawn ever had, but its moments of levity feel earned and appropriate (for the most part--I mean, sometimes Steve Zahn was pushing it). This blend of bombastic, sometimes even jovial fun with the somber, often bleak thematic threads of the franchise is a difficult balance, and it's something many of the '70s sequels never quite figured out how to do. (Their version of "humor" was usually along the lines of "Whoa! Talking apes! That's kind of funny!" And those jokes always sort of felt inappropriate, given the red-hot political fervor with which the Apes franchise wants to tell its stories. War for the Planet of the Apes, by contrast, found humor in humanizing, empathetic moments--in other words, the film wore a wry smile tinged with melancholy.)
The most impressive aspect, I think, of the Apes franchise generally (and, perhaps, of War for the Planet of the Apes specifically) is its thematic consistency. Like all good war films, this series is firmly anti-war. In these films, war is an avalanche; war is an almost Miyazakian natural consequence of our stubbornness and hate. War is what happens when the gods push back as a response to our hubris, as a punishment for our contempt, and as a cure for our blindness.
"Sure, war is Hell," the films seem to be saying, "but Hell is something we construct, brick by brick, maybe not even thinking about what we're doing until we realize that we have been damned for years."
I know that description sounds a little bleak. And I don't want to give the impression that these films aren't any fun, or that they aren't full of heart, inspiration, and excitement. They absolutely are. But they're also quite serious and they have some big topics on their mind--a point that feels important.
This point feels important because whenever I talk to folks who haven't seen the Apes series (or who don't care to), their response is usually something like "they seem silly." Or "I don't like apes." Or "I can't get over the weird rubber masks." These folks are doing themselves a disservice. The Apes films are so much more than sci-fi antics, weird metaphors, and nearly Kafkaesque absurdity (though the franchise has all three of those elements, for sure). They're about us; they're about the way we treat ourselves; they're about the way we treat each other; they're about the way we treat the planet.
[A footnote: in these reviews, I haven't mentioned the technical achievement that Rise, Dawn, and War have brought to the table with regard to their motion-capture work with Andy Serkis. It's visually incredible stuff. It's a topic that doesn't quite fit the flow of what I'm talking about above (plus, most other critics have lauded the franchise for its digital effects anyway, and if you're at all interested in that sort of thing you probably already know), but I felt like it deserved at least a brief mention. The craftsmanship and innovation in these films is extraordinary. The apes--particularly Andy Serkis as Ceasar--look quite real and emotive.]