Downfall of the Planet of the Apes

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes may have a steep hill to climb in its quest to capture what has made this franchise endure.

My childhood, as luck would have it, just happened to coincide with the release of the original five Planet of the Apes films. Not surprisingly then, I became a little obsessed. I went to all five as often as I could manage, then watched them again when they were aired on network TV. I sat through every episode of the miserable TV series that followed and the even worse Saturday morning cartoon.

I gathered every bit of Planet of the Apes feck I could get my hands on from the action figures (plus accessories) to the mugs, t-shirts, trading cards, lunchboxes, puzzles, model kits, trashcans, even the weird board game where the object was to capture and imprison runaway humans. I read all the novelizations repeatedly (still had all of them too, until that flood a couple years back) and subscribed to Marvel’s monthly comic/magazine (those I still have in a desk drawer here).

By age eight I’d turned Planet Of The Apes into a kind of quasi religion, and at nine it was the basis for a schoolyard gang (until that asshole of a principal Mr. Peterson made us disband). After all the years and all the viewings, I can still pop in any of the original films and get the same jolt I got first seeing them in the theater. If anything, they mean even more to me now, given I more fully understand what the screenwriters and directors were up to, and can place the films within their proper historical context. 

To put it another way, I still spend a little too much time than is probably healthy thinking about the Planet of the Apes. Maybe it’s understandable then why I was so hesitant to see any of the remakes. Who needs wrongheaded crap sullying up the waters when they were perfect as it was? It took me eight years after its release before I was finally conned into sitting through that Tim Burton debacle. Jesus Christ, before reaching the halfway point I’d already consigned it to the collection of Films That Do Not exist, along with Godfather III and CHUD II: Bud the CHUD. Once it was over (Charlton Heston or no Charlton Heston) I vowed I’d never make any such mistake again. 

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In spite of all the good things I’d heard about Rupert Wyatt’s 2011 Rise of the Planet of the Apes from people who were equally as fixated and stubborn as myself, I steadfastly refused to watch it, only relenting (and reluctantly) after one of these same people thrust a copy into my hands, insisting I not be such a pighead and just take a damn look. So I opened a beer, took a deep breath, and watched it.

Okay, although I would ultimately come down in favor of the film, it was a tough call. I certainly appreciated the idea of re-imagining 1972’s Conquest of the Planet of the Apes as a way of kickstarting a potential new series. Conquest of the Planet of the Apes was always a personal favorite (especially the brutal, overtly and unapologetically revolutionary director’s cut), and the way the story is approached here it could feasibly get rid of one of the larger logical potholes Conquest tossed into the series mythology and timeline.

I also appreciated Wyatt’s clear affection and respect for the originals, and his decision to scatter dozens of nods and in-jokes throughout the film, from character names to the inclusion of a news report announcing the launch of Col. Taylor’s mission aboard the Icarus (though in the original film Icarus was a deep-space mission, not a mission to Mars as the news report claims). On the whole, as a sci-fi adventure film, it’s fine.


Yes, I knew there would be a “however,” and for me it’s a biggie.  Wyatt’s film raises a question I’ve asked many times before. Why is it that contemporary filmmakers who take on the task of remaking a classic (Roland Emmerich, Peter Jackson) and who inevitably speak of their deep reverence for the original, almost without fail completely ignore what made the original a classic in the first place? They may get lots of little details right, but they always, and I mean always, miss the big goddamn picture.

Why is it we keep returning to the original Planet of the Apes films after more than forty years? Because although disguised as wild sci-fi adventures and easily enjoyed as such, the films from the outset were intelligent allegories and, in many instances, satires taking aim at the heart of American culture as a whole. They dealt with religion, class differences, race relations, militarism, all the issues that dominated public debate in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Just like the original Gojira was a poetic metaphor for the dangers of the new nuclear age disguised as a giant monster picture, the Apes films took on a whole range of contemporary issues and got people thinking about them without realizing they were thinking about them. 

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All the issues disguised under that ape makeup are still with us today, still completely relevant, and so the films remain open to interpretation and re-interpretation by generation after generation. Wyatt’s film, meanwhile, may toss out a bit of heavy handed social commentary regarding animal testing and the dangers of playing god, but it never ventures into deeper allegorical waters. What commentary there is isn’t exactly open to much deep thought or interpretation.

It’s still a solid and smart sci-fi adventure yarn and that’s just fine, but it’s nothing more than that, and not the sort of thing viewers will be watching and thinking about thirty or forty years down the road. Not that I didn’t like it, but it lacks anything resembling the depth and scope of the originals, and so I would never consider it a Planet of the Apes film.

So now we have the inevitable sequel coming in July, and already, though I must admit now after seeing Rise of the Planet of the Apes I will be cynically curious to find out where it goes, it already has two strikes against it. First, following the massive success of the first one, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was set to be another Rupert Wyatt film and was already well along in pre-production (it had already been storyboarded) when a new top banana took over at Fox. This meant (as these things happen for some reason) Wyatt was suddenly out and they had to start all over again with Matt Reeves directing. 

Apart from that little burp, a much bigger problem seems to be that since Rise was a reboot of ConquestDawn has no place to go but to reboot the last and least of the original Apes films, 1973’s Battle for the Planet of the Apes. Uff-dah, as my grandma used to say.

Personally I always thought the original series should’ve called it a day with Conquest, but from a studio standpoint the deceptively-titled Battle for the Planet of the Apes was a necessary coda, if for no other reason than to attempt to salvage the youngsters and family audiences scared away by all of Conquest’s violence, torture and general nastiness. So what we got instead was a kinder, gentler Apes film, a much more liberal film, and a much more boring one as well. 

The filmmakers attempted to fill in that Conquest of the Planet of the Apes pothole by tossing in a nuclear war somewhere in the ten years between the end of Conquest and the beginning of Battle for the Planet of the Apes (it’s kind of a cheat, if you ask me), and a Lawgiver (voiced by John Huston who was doing all sorts of insane shit in those days) spouting a bunch of namby pamby crap about apes and humans living together all nice-like which runs roughshod over all the things he’d been quoted as saying in the earlier films. I mean, whatever happened to his “Beware the beast Man” rant? 

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Anyway, after some mild shenanigans and a bit of a scuffle with the mutated human survivors of the war, well, sure enough in the end everyone makes nice, and everyone stifles a yawn.

From what we know of Dawn’s plotline at this point, it seems to follow much the same pattern. Instead of being wiped out by a nuclear war, this time most humans have been wiped out by the simian plague introduced near the end of Rise. Those who’ve survived band together and wage war against Caesar’s Revolutionary army in an effort to regain control of the planet. Some peace accords are reached. Then, however, in order to set up a sequel of some kind, the truce collapses and they start scuffling again. 

As tedious and frustrating as Battle for the Planet of the Apes was (even with Paul Williams as an orangutan), it remained an allegorical film, if a bit more hamfisted than in the past, taking on among other things America’s Japanese internment camps during WWII. Somehow I suspect Dawn of the Planet of the Apes will be little more than another action-adventure film with plenty of CGI afoot. And that, no matter how much money it makes, would be its downfall.

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