Hollywood loves a good franchise. The movie-going public does too. Horror, action, comedy, sci-fi, western, no genre is safe. And any film, no matter how seemingly stand-alone, conclusive, or inappropriate to sequel, could generate an expansive franchise. They are legion. We are surrounded. But a champion has risen from the rabble to defend us. Me. I have donned my sweats and taken up cinema’s gauntlet. Don’t try this at home. I am a professional.
The Franchise: Planet of the Apes — chronicling the epic and turbulent history of a civilization of evolutionary advanced apes – particularly the bloodline of two chimps, Zira and Cornelius – and their relationships with humankind. The franchise spawned from Pierre Boulle’s 1963 novel La Planète des singes, and spans five original-series films, a theatrical remake, two television series, and a new prequel-re-boot hitting theaters August 5.
Planet of the Apes
Beneath the Planet of the Apes
Escape From the Planet of the Apes
Conquest of the Planet of the Apes
Battle For the Planet of the Apes
Planet of the Apes (TV series)
Return to the Planet of the Apes
Planet of the Apes (2001)
The Installment: Rise of the Planet of the Apes.
I should note for those who have yet to see Rise — this entry shall be as spoilerific as Franchise Me always is. Be warned.
The Story: At long last our setting is modern day Earth. San Francisco to be exact. Will Rodman (James Franco) is a young scientist who is attempting to develop a cure for Alzheimer’s – to save his ailing father, Charles (John Lithgow) – by testing a genetically engineered virus on chimpanzees designed to repair brain cells. When Rodman’s star chimp, Bright Eyes, goes berserk, the entire project gets terminated and the chimps are all put down. But it turns out Bright Eyes had a baby. Franklin (Tyler Labine), the lab technician who had been putting the chimps down, refuses to kill the baby and talks Rodman into taking the baby home. Rodman and his father name the baby Caesar and soon discover that they have a lil’ genius on their hands. Caesar’s intelligence evolves much faster than a similarly aged human child, and within a few years the chimp is functioning at an adult level. But he’s also still a wild animal at heart, and when Charles has a “senior moment” that finds him in a fight with an asshole neighbor, Caesar ‘chimps out’ on the guy. Caesar is then effectively sent to chimp jail, a primate sanctuary cruelly run by John Landon (Brian Cox) and his prickish and even crueler son, Dodge (Tom Felton). Rodman vows to Caesar that he will free him soon enough, but after a grueling few weeks in the sanctuary Caesar snaps and begins plotting a revolt. Then, apes fuck some shit up.
This is a great film. For a variety of reasons. But above all else what makes Rise work so well is its tone and conviction. Apes ruling the world is an inherently silly concept, but what made the original Apes so phenomenal was that it took its concept so seriously that it was often at risk of being po-faced — the corny Hear No Evil, See No Evil, Speak No Evil courtroom gag was added to the film for precisely this reason; the studio feared that there desperately needed to be some levity. Rise takes the same approach. It tells its inherently goofy story with complete sincerity and the grim tone of a outbreak film. Burton’s remake didn’t have a serious tone, but it didn’t necessarily need one. The catalyst for all Apes (2001)‘s failings was its lack of conviction. In Rise, even when things start getting really out there, the film offers nary a wink or pander, and it never lets up on its concept. This allows even the most outwardly ridiculous moments – like that movie pic above of four apes standing upright and looking tough – to come off with dramatic impact, when it would have been much safer for the filmmakers to go for laughs. For example, in Joe Dante’s Small Soldiers there is a moment when the leader of a band of sentient sinister toys cradles a dying teammate in classic war movie fashion. The moment is played for laughs, because how can you take a toy dying seriously? The same could be said for a moment when an ultra-smart chimp cradles a dying gorilla. Yet Rise director Rupert Wyatt and his crew said, fuck that, we want this to feel like a scene from Saving Private Ryan. We want you to cry. I didn’t cry, but the moment is completely legit. Surprisingly legit.
It is sad to see the art of make-up FX get left behind in the franchise, but there was just no way to pull off the film using practical FX. It had to be CG and it had to be CG all the way. They couldn’t mix guys in ape suits with CG apes, or use guys in ape suits with enhanced CG faces. This couldn’t be Greystoke. These needed to really move like apes. And to that end, they also couldn’t have used a real baby chimp in the beginning of the movie and then suddenly switched to a CG adult Caesar, nor could they have mixed CG apes with real apes. Cause as good as the CG is, I never bought what I was seeing as real animals (aside from Maurice the orangutan, who at times looks shockingly photo-real). But I bought the characterizations, from Andy Serkis, the other mo-cap performers, and the WETA animators. CG was the only way to do Rise, cause the apes are everything. The humans are the least interesting part of the film (as it should be). The apes carry this picture. Caesar is a great character, and though he doesn’t ever look like a real chimp, he is utterly believable as a real being. It is his eyes. The shots of Caesar in emotional pain, or contemplative staring, or rage-filled glaring. These are when the FX really wow.
The movie has many great scenes, but the moment when Rise really hit its stride and showed me how deep and crazy it was going to go, was the introduction of Caesar’s sardonic, wise-cracking #2 Maurice. We know that Caesar uses sign language to speak with Rodman, but Rodman always speaks in English back to Caesar. It is just such a great moment when Maurice suddenly starts signing to Caesar and we get simple, broken English subtitles. Aside from just being a groovy idea for a scene, this is when the entire film changes. This is the moment when we officially go from a Project X (or maybe Project Nim is a more timely reference) story, which had very much been from the perspective of Rodman, to a prison break story, which is very much Caesar’s own. The fact that Caesar even has a wise-cracking sidekick is more than I expected from the film. From here the film actually becomes a little cliched in its character dynamics, but it doesn’t even matter for a second, because we’re dealing with fucking apes! None of whom can actually talk, except for Maurice (sort of). But we’ve got Maurice to crack jokes and support Caesar. Then Caesar wins over his muscle, Buck the gorilla (another fantastic scene). Then he vanquishes and wins the loyalty of his previous adversary, the primate sanctuary’s alpha male chimp (yet another fantastic scene).
And then the movie completely delivers on all our baser desires (ie, watching a bunch of apes go fucking berserk on human civilization). Rupert Wyatt shows he has an interesting eye for crafting action too. There is a great filmmakerly moment when a father and son team are delivering newspapers from a pick-up truck, driving peacefully down a heavily tree-lined street, when a snowfall of leaves starts pouring from the trees above, the downpour moving towards them as we realize the trees must be filled with dozens upon dozens of apes.
The movie has a surprisingly high number of references to the original Apes, and I liked how most of them are casually buried throughout the film for you to notice or not notice. Almost all the names in the film are a reference: Maurice the orang is named after everyone’s favorite orang, Dr. Zaius, played by Maurice Evans. Buck is named after Buck Kartalian, who played Zira’s nephew Julius in Apes. David Oyelowo’s character Steven Jacobs, head of Rodman’s research company, is named after Apes producer Arthur C. Jacobs (funny that they named the film’s primary villain after the guiding force of the original series). Tom Felton’s asshole character Dodge Landon is taken from Taylor’s two fellow crewmates, Dodge and Landon. A female ape in the sanctuary is named Cornelia, and of course Caesar’s mother is named Bright Eyes. And references don’t stop there. In one scene Caesar is playing with a 3D puzzle of the Statue of Liberty. Rise even features the late Charlton Heston, whose bearded face we see when a character is watching The Agony and the Ecstasy on TV (I can’t tell you how happy I was they weren’t watching Apes; that would’ve been too much). Tom Felton, with his double reference name, actually gets the lion share of the references. He blasts Caesar with a fire hose, just as Lucius the jailer blasted Taylor, and he also gets the two big dialogue homages (see below).
If you had told me beforehand that Caesar would speak in the film, I don’t think I would’ve been on board, but within the context of Rise it comes off as a great burst of unexpected and built up emotion. The packed house I saw the film in literally gasped aloud when Caesar first opens his mouth. And the filmmakers were wise to keep his chatting to a minimum. As much as I dug Caesar’s first speaking scene, I don’t think I could have gotten into him barking orders in English to his ape comrades. That is for the sequel.
What Doesn’t Work:
Nothing in the movie ever drags it down, but the film isn’t flawless.
There isn’t anything overtly wrong with any of the human characters, but none of them really shine either — except as villains; Tom Felton is actually the most effective actor in the film, in this sense (the scene where he drunkenly shows off in the sanctuary to impress a couple girls is particularly unlikable). They’re just kind of there to keep the film afloat until Caesar is ready to take over. While I didn’t exactly miss Rodman in the second half of the film, structurally it is a little weird to downgrade one protagonist while vaulting up another. Again, I didn’t want more of him, but at some point whenever we’d cut back to Franco’s face it would strike me how much impact he’d lost in the story. And I never cared about Freida Pinto’s character Caroline for a second. I liked John Lithgow’s presence, but he leaves the film permanently around the time Rodman becomes irrelevant. Tyler Labine is very likable, but only has a couple scenes once we’re out of Act I. I can imagine myself getting impatient on a second viewing of the film, waiting for the humans to go away and for that game-changing first Maurice scene to occur.
Why are the apes impervious to broken glass? I get that seeing our furry warriors open windows and doors is significantly less thrilling than watching them crash into and out of buildings in a shower of glass, but it’s not like they’re made of stone — fur only protects against so much. There are also some issues with the weight of the larger apes. Buck the gorilla can really haul ass, even up over cars, and jump fairly impressive heights and distances for something that weighs about 450 lbs and has little stumpy legs. And there is a general feeling of weightlessness to almost all the apes when they are climbing and jumping. For the most part this isn’t a problem at all, as the intensity of the finale’s action would’ve been hampered if the apes all had to be performing 100% realistically. But there are moments here and there where some of the Caesar’s swift acrobatics pulled me out of the believability of the film.
Best Classic Line Given to Tom Felton: “It’s a madhouse! A madhouse!” It works because attention isn’t really drawn to the line; Felton screams it in the background while all the primates are going bonkers after something dickish he did.
Worst Classic Line Given to Tom Felton: “Get your stinking paws off me you damn dirty ape!” The line just doesn’t fit the movie. It is weirdly worded and certainly doesn’t sound like something Dodge would say. It worked wonders coming out of Heston’s mouth, and though Michael Clarke Duncan delivered it like shit in the Burton film, tonally it fit just fine. Here it pulls you out of the film a bit by drawing attention to the fact that its a movie.
Coolest Caesar Moment: Cleverly stealing the pocket knife from one of his jailers.
Least Cool Caesar Moment: Cockblocking Rodman and Caroline’s romantic picnic. Dude, just hop around in trees a little longer. Let them have their thing.
Most Badass Ape Moment: Maurice and Buck’s Schwarzenegger-like plan to take out two cop cars. Buck yanks a parking meter from the ground, and Maurice pops off a manhole lid. The two then calmly walk into the center of the street as the cops approach. Buck heaves the parking meter as though he were throwing a soccer ball in from out-of-bounds (ie, overhand) and Maurice turns the manhole lid into the world’s deadliest Frisbee. Both succeed in taking out their respective targets.
Best Ape Line: In reference to their fellow jailmates.
Maurice: Apes stupid.
Should There Be a Sequel: Um, yes pretty please.
Franchise Assessment: As far as installment diversity and richness of mythology, Apes is one of the best franchises cinema has had. It is geeky to a fault, so obviously it can’t reach audiences the way something like the Bond films can, but the permutability of the Apes franchise is fairly unprecedented. I can’t think of another major film series that changed more from film to film than the original five Apes films did, and without completely abandoning what came before. Only Beneath suffers from lazy-sequel-itis, and that’s only in its first half, after which it goes more bugnuts than any of the other films. There is a lot to love about the Apes films, but I think more than anything else the big appeal for fans is the world building on display. The live-action TV show isn’t very good, but it is absolutely watchable because if nothing else if hits the main note it needed to — showing us more of the ape world.
In fact, I think the franchise hasn’t been milked enough (usually a sign that it was milked too much too fast right out of the gate). There really should’ve been a longer running TV show, live-action or otherwise. There should be lame spin-off novelizations to the same extent we see for Star Trek and Star Wars. I also wish the Cameron/Schwarzenegger remake had gotten off the ground. Although given Cameron’s track record, that surely would’ve been a popular hit, which would mean that we never would’ve gotten Rise. So, mixed blessing I suppose.
The franchise ranked from best to worst:
Planet of the Apes
Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Conquest of the Planet of the Apes
Escape the Planet of the Apes
Beneath the Planet of the Apes | Battle for the Planet of the Apes
Planet of the Apes (2001)
Planet of the Apes (TV series)
Return to the Planet of the Apes
I’d like to give special thanks to CHUD veteran Devin Faraci, for lending me his Apes DVDs, which allowed me to cover the live-action TV series.