Not since Evil Dr. Porkchop hit the ‘Death by Monkey’ button in Toy Story 3 has cinema seen the kind of simian assault that’s on offer in Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes. But the shadow of another man, producer Arthur P. Jacobs, still lingers over the seminal franchise. It was Jacobs who first acquired the rights to Bridge On The River Kwai writer Pierre Boulle’s La Planete des Singes, a 1963 sci-fi allegory in which journalist Ulysse Mérou voyages to the star system of Betelgeuse and lands on the planet Sonar, where he’s captured and imprisoned by super-smart apes. Cue a box-office smash that spawned four sequels of varying quality, not to mention two TV series, a remake, a Simpsons’ Homer-age and Rupert Wyatt’s new prequel. But which to revisit and which to avoid like a barrel of monkeys? Follow Empire back to the future…
Planet Of The Apes
Director: Franklin J. Schaffner
Premiering only a day after 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kubrick’s clinical vision of an automated future, Planet Of The Apes offered an alt-Earth where apes, not humans or machines, were the supreme intelligence. Back in 1968, this furry future gave moviegoers a serious case of the heebie-jeebies. They were already hopped up on Vietnam, ‘60s counter-culture and civil rights violence, so how to wrap their noggins around a world where humans ranked several rungs below the PG Tips chimp on the evolutionary ladder? And if they thought that was bad, wait until they found out what was in store for the Statue of Liberty.
Director Franklin Schaffner passed on the Apes sequels, going on instead to collect an Oscar for Patton, but he did great work forging Boulle’s cautionary tale into a world distinct enough from our own that that chilling climax comes as a genuine jolt. Much credit goes to prosthetics wiz John Chambers, who made the rubber-faced apes not just believable but, in the case of the sinister Dr Zaius (Maurice Evans), genuinely menacing. Thanks to Zaius and his simian sidekicks, Charlton Heston and his three fellow astronauts learn that nothing good comes of space travel in movies - even when you haven’t actually gone very far.
Reasons to watch: Great moments (“God damn you all to hell!”), a wonderfully growly performance from Charlton Heston, innovative make-up work and one of cinema’s ultimate reveals add up to a cast-iron sci-fi classic.
Reasons to avoid: None; it’s a must-see.
Beneath The Planet Of The Apes
Director: Ted Post
The first Apes-stallment did such brisk business at the box office ($23m, a big number in 1968) that 20th Century Fox immediately commissioned a sequel, hiring TV director Ted Post to fill in for Schaffner. Fans hoping to see Charlton Heston reprise his role as Homos Furious were disappointed. The actor ceded top billing to James Franciscus (no relation to James Franco), stopping by only long enough to fall down a giant hole and reappear only at the climax. Most of the star wattage, sadly, went with Heston.
Franciscus strives manfully as Brent, the starsailor sent to rescue Heston’s Taylor who eventually follows him into the Forbidden Zone with a mute Linda Harrison in tow. There, Brent attempts to puzzle out the mutant humans who dwell in the subterranean realm, nursing a thirst for destruction and an ‘Alpha-Omega’ bomb. For Brent this involves tentative communication, and bashing them over the conk when that doesn’t work out. The movie takes much the same approach, shedding the original film’s (and book’s) thoughtful meditation on science and religion in favour of rubber-faced shenanigans and a big old bomb that may or may not go ‘kaboom!’ at some point. We won’t spoil it but can’t recommend anyone racing to find out how it all turns out.
Reasons to watch: Some of the first film’s bone-crunching message is still present in the treatise on man’s destructive nature, while the design of the Forbidden City is a treat.
Reasons to avoid: The budget – already pretty tight on Planet Of The Apes – was slashed, and it shows. John Chambers did the best he could with a smaller prosthetics pot but the ape make-up veers from dynamic to Donkey Kong.
Escape From The Planet Of The Apes
Director: Don Taylor
1970s earthlings brought up to think that the apes were just poo-flinging tree-dwellers with a taste for bananas are stunned into silence when a space shuttle lands, its cockpit opening to reveal that it’s piloted by… you guessed it, apes. And not a poo or a banana in sight.
The three survivors of Beneath The Planet Of The Apes, Cornelius (Roddy McDowall), Zira (Kim Hunter) and Dr. Milo (Sal Mineo), have been jolted back to California in 1973 by a handy timewarp that carried the franchise into a relatable realm. Initially the apes’ instincts lead them to hide their command of English, aware it will threaten the humans and conscious of their capacity for violence. After all, they did just blow up a planet.
Initially imprisoned in LA’s zoo under the watchful eye of two scientists, the three become two when Dr. Milo gets sucker-punched by a gorilla worked into a frenzy by the sound of their arguments. As Cornelius and Zira flee the meddlesome humans, Zira gives birth to a young ape called Milo. Plotted with further sequels in mind, the ape sprog carries their enlightened DNA – and the franchise – into the future where he’ll reappear as the rabble-rousing Caesar.
Reasons to watch: McDowall, returning to offer the franchise some continuity, offers a dignified Cornelius and Hunter gobbles the screen as the blunt-talking Zira when the ape-out-of-water pair try cope with life in ‘70s LA (the politics! The flares! The Village People!). The baby chimp is OMG-cute too.
Reasons to avoid: The franchise is no stranger to giant plot leaps but even so, the idea of space-travelling apes is a stretch. Everyone knows that only gibbons can fly spaceships.
Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes
Director: J. Lee Thompson
Unsurprisingly considering that it was pre-plotted, this is smoothest segue in the franchise. It catapults us only 20 years into the fascist future of 1991 - barely a blink of the eye in terms of this series – where cats and dogs have been wiped out and apes have been suborned as slave labour. Roddy McDowall returns as Milo/Caesar, now a grown ape who accompanies circus impresario Armando (Ricardo Montalbán) around fascist America, witnessing all kinds of abuse of his ape brethren along the way.
It’s firmly set in the circus but anyone hoping that part four would be the Dumbo of the franchise, in which a motherless ape learns to fly, was to be disappointed. The ‘Conquest’ bit is the give-away: this is the fulcrum film where the world of the Apes began to turn back on itself. That didn’t make it any better, mind you. Director J. Lee Thompson, helmer of The Guns Of Navarone and Ice Cold In Alex, knew his way around a (human) war film, which is what Conquest becomes when Caesar leads the apes in the uprising that’s the beginning of the end for humankind. The end of the war spelled the end of the franchise too, out of steam and choked on its own hairballs.
Reasons to watch: McDowall again brings simian charisma to bear, carrying the franchise with as much skill as Charlton Heston injected into the original. The ‘90s future-world may look dated now, but its Orwellian grimness remains arresting.
Reasons to avoid: By the fourth instalment the law of diminishing returns was jumping up and down, scratching itself and down making ‘ooga-booga’ noises. The budget was down to under $2m and it shows.
Battle For The Planet Of The Apes
Director: J. Lee Thompson
The franchise came wheezing to a halt with this hackneyed sci-fi. By the point, 20th Century Fox had pygmified the budget, leaving Thompson to try to bring necessary scale to the nuke-shattered world of the early 21st century with 50p and a couple of empty crisp packets. If you were still along for the ride – and US box office of $8m suggests that most weren’t – there was more carnage but very little of the satire that had given Planet Of The Apes its bite.
Caesar, presumably shaking off the arthritis, entreats the ruling apes to treat their human underlings kindly. The Great Lawgiver (John Huston) and menacing gorilla general Aldo (Claude Atkins) don’t see it that way and give him the thumbs-down. There’s a gorilla-driven coup, more humans and apes die, and, if you were still paying attention by this point, you’d have probably joined Caesar in shedding a tear as the once-mighty franchise wound down in a thick sludge of moralising. The trademark gloomy ending is still there, but the force of producer Arthur P. Jacobs’s original idea had long-since fizzled out.
Reasons to watch: Not many. There’s curiosity value in John Huston’s appearances as the wizened ape Lawgiver, even if he’s pretty wizened himself by this stage in his acting career.
Reasons to avoid: Everything else.
Planet Of The Apes (2001)
Director: Tim Burton
If Tim Burton hadn’t been aware of the perils of remaking a classic before he revisited Pierre Boulle’s novel, directors like Gus Van Sant (Psycho) or Stephen Kay (Get Carter) could probably have shared some cautionary tales of their own with him. At least Burton didn’t attempt anything as gimmicky as a shot-by-shot remake of the original Schaffner film. Still, aside from bringing ILM’s monkey-magicking technology to bear and some cameos – Charlton Heston! Linda Harrison! Rick Baker! – to thrill the eagle-eyed sci-fi buff, his remake didn’t make much of an impression.
Its plot deviated slightly from the previous version. Spaceman Leo Davidson (Mark Wahlberg) crash-lands on a planet inhabited by intelligent apes and galvanises an army of rebellious simians to rise against the malevolent General Thade (Tim Roth), with a little help from Helena Bonham Carter’s compassionate chimp Ari. The apes rose, but audiences stayed resolutely slumped in their seats as Burton’s grand Gothic vision for once failed him. Critics, meanwhile, dwelt longer on Wahlberg’s refusal to wear a loincloth than his performance. Utimately, both were pants.
Reasons to watch: ILM’s CG work reinvents Boulle’s world with dazzling results, while prosthetics master Rick Baker proves a more than worthy successor to John Chambers. Tim Roth also makes a solid baddie as General Thade.
Reasons to avoid: Wahlberg’s performance suggests that he might have been better off joining Ocean’s Eleven after all. It’s also hard to escape the feeling that Burton wasn’t the right man for this particular remake job.