Judge Bill Gibron might love every ape he sees, from chimpan-"A" to chimpanzee, but it's Fox that finally made a monkey out of him with this unimpressive re-release of the entire seminal simian sci-fi series.
Our reviews of Battle For The Planet Of The Apes: Extended Edition (published April 18th, 2006), Planet Of The Apes (published August 7th, 2000), Planet Of The Apes: 35th Anniversary Edition (published February 10th, 2004), Planet Of The Apes: 40 Year Evolution (Blu-ray) (published November 17th, 2008), and Planet Of The Apes (Blu-Ray) (published November 17th, 2008) are also available.
Get your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!
It is often said that science fiction works best when it can mimic current social conditions while giving us the merest glimpse into the possible future. By courting the modern mindset and then peppering it with just a little speculation, the analogous narrative serves to hopefully enlighten and entertain. When it was released in 1968, no one expected Planet of the Apes to become a franchise film. It was, after all, the year of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Yet by taking a Swiftian satire on French society crafted by noted novelist Pierre Boulle (best known for his war epic The Bridge on the River Kwai) and giving Twilight Zone scribe Rod Serling and blacklisted writer Michael Wilson a chance to turn it into a prescient political parable about class and color, 20th Century Fox found a creative karmic medium between premise and promise.
The resulting movie was a big fat box-office smash (thanks in no small part to the sensationally cinematic "twist" ending) and spoke to an audience weary of the war in Vietnam and racial struggle here at home. It resonated as a strong stance about intolerance and ignorance as it argued that man, as a creature with an uncontrollable instinctual nature, would eventually destroy itself. After four sequels, a TV series, and a short-lived cartoon version, the underlying foundation for the Apes mythology now shows signs of substantial age. It's not just that we have matured into a multicultural community with lessening levels of outright prejudice. As films and metaphors, the movies have actually shifted in their symbolism.
Facts of the Case
Following a cyclical pattern of plotting, the Planet of the Apes movies intend to support their story structure by allowing each entry in the franchise to build on and expand the original film's narrative core. The third installment, Escape from the Planet of the Apes, sets out an intricate scenario for how simians eventually take over the Earth, but it is modified and then nullified by the entries that followed. Here in brief then are the five films that comprise Apes cinematic legacy:
Planet of the Apes (1968):
Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1969):
Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971):
Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972):
Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973):
Contrary to popular belief, the Planet of the Apes films are not merely subtle—or sometimes outright—allegories on racism. They do not solely represent underhanded slams at the treatment of minorities, nor do they only address issues like civil rights, individual prejudice, or social stigmatization. Indeed, if looked at carefully, the first three offerings in the series (Planet, Beneath, and Escape) are actually fractured fairy tales, science fiction fables about loneliness, isolation, and alienation. Certainly one can connect those ideas to different concepts within the realm of intolerance, but the imposition of bigotry on these films comes more from the final two lesser efforts (Conquest and Battle), not the original installments. In truth, discussions about color and heritage were forced on the films, mandates made by a social order still coming to grips with the rising civil rights movement. With a wealth of problematic material at their core—it's almost impossible to not see the light skin/dark skin dynamic at play in the human/ape approach to the storyline—the Apes films had to address race, otherwise they'd be slammed for avoiding an obvious issue while merely pandering to a popcorn movie crowd. Prejudice may be part of the plotting, but it's not the main reason for the films' enduring legacy.
What makes the first film such a classic (and why the others pale in comparison) is that we are really on one man's stranger-in-a-strange-land voyage. Taylor has no idea where he is, what is happening, and why his captors are so aggressive toward his species. He alone must uncover clues to the new social order, as well as work on a way of escaping. For him, Earth is an afterthought, an unimportant blip on his current consciousness. For Taylor, survival is the most important issue, with all thoughts of a prejudicial pecking order almost non-existent. Naturally, socially aware scribes Rod Serling and Michael Wilson couldn't let the narrative float by without a passing nod to prejudice. They utilize the orangutan Elder council to function as their mirror, giving the creatures long metaphorical monologues about human/ape hierarchical ideals to hint at the horror of bias. Yet the main thrust of the movie is not Taylor's (given appropriate flag-waving iconography by Charlton Heston) striving for equality. Indeed, he's just out to save his own ass. All throughout the first three Apes films, concerns about race are constantly countermanded by action elements, atmospheric locales, and an overall desire to deliver something exciting, not educational. Even the twist endings offered by the first three films all function as future shock, not revisits of race.
When Taylor finally understands his cosmic place, the blow is so dynamic (it was huge to audiences in 1968) that it suggests a sort of sick inevitability. By putting evolution front and center in the story, and then swiping it back with Escape (after all, the simian population doesn't really evolve, but are instantly modified by the introduction of Zira and Cornelius's Adam-and-Eve-like DNA), we sense the films moving away from science and more into the realm of theology. Many people dismissed the Tim Burton remake from 2001 because of its oddball juxtaposition between technology and tribalism. Burton wasn't remaking Earth to fit a cyclical myth. Instead, he gave his animals their own planet and evolutionary advancement at the hand of man (the crashed space station), then allowed the threat to drip over into our reality at the end. By removing the trick, by keeping our planet out of the fray until the finale moments, Burton turns Apes into what it was always meant to be, an Orwellian view of society's scabrous soul. The whole notion of a planet where apes evolved from men was part of a politicized slam on the narrow-minded and the short sighted of the '60s. What Planet and its more or less linear sequel Beneath want to make clear is that Earth is in peril. One of the reasons the films were so effective in their time was, less than a decade removed from the Cuban Missile Crisis, the concept of the end of the world seemed far more probable.
That's why Beneath beats a far more pessimistic drum. It uses the nuclear threat as a means of making the monkeys appear semi-rational. Sure, they will cut out the brains of human victims, vivisecting them to reach an unknown scholarly goal, but they are seen as sane compared to the mangled mutants who worship a doomsday device as the means of protecting their hobbled humanity. Picking up on the theme of humanity's decided death wish (a constant in Planet), Beneath begs the question of survival as an "all or nothing" proposition. Brent, lacking Taylor's background in Ape logic and theory, views this updated Earth as a farce, a freaked-out combination of conflicting ideologies hellbent on mutually assured destruction. His wide-eyed, slack-jawed response to everything renders him inert and isolated from the events going on around him. Indeed, by the time he reaches the Forbidden City and sees the fleshy freak bomb worshippers, Taylor has to be reintroduced to play action hero. In both cases, Brent and his bigger brother fellow astronaut are supposed to be the audience's eyes and ideals. We are supposed to bristle at the brutishness of the apes and glower at those who would wield scientific destruction as a means of solving problems. Instead, we are left with dozens of unanswered questions, issues that make the first two films appear light in reasoning and rich in reactions. Having naturally pushed the limits of the primal, the series was stuck.
Escape avoids this entirely by resetting the story back to page one. Switching species for its new take on the "lost and alone in an unknown locale" precept, Zira and Cornelius manage to make it to present-day Earth (and, oh, how '70s it all is) in the kind of cliffhanger hokum that Annie Wilkes railed against in Misery. Aside from the far-too-easy answer about how our three simian space travelers rebuilt the cocky-doodie rocket in such record time (the mind of Milo becomes the patented response), the notion that our two helper/heroes from movies one and two would plant the demon ape seed of the world's destruction on their otherwise corny crusade for understanding begs dozens of evolutionary truths. Thankfully, everyone seems to understand this, except that German jerk Dr. Hasslien. Figuring that stopping the ape holocaust is part of his Teutonic destiny, he makes it his mission to secure the ape's destruction—and via the logic of such a decision—guarantees the fate he is determined to avoid. Escape's comic moments—when Zira goes shopping and gets drunk or Cornelius proves to be a better social scholar than his human counterparts—try to offset the story's darker themes. Yet we never see the apes as a threat. They appear passive regarding their part, arguing that other factors must play out before Earth's final meltdown occurs.
Yet perhaps the most important thing that happens in Escape is literally ignored by those who hear it and by the future films based on it. The entire Apes mythology is spelled out in a speech Cornelius makes, discussing a disgruntled simian named Aldo who, sometime in the distant future, gains a kind of rational consciousness and utters a single word that forever changes the providence of man and animal. At this very moment, Zira's unborn child is not important (no link between Milo and Aldo is ever established), nor is it prophesized that the couple's child will be the biological link to eventual ape overthrow. Indeed, the Aldo story gives us a reasonable way of championing Zira and Cornelius while not worrying about the supposedly sophisticated simian swimming around in the she-ape's womb. We envision a sequel somewhere down the line where Milo confronts a young Aldo and teaches him the lessons of loving his fellow…animal. Oddly enough, this would almost be the path that the Apes series would take, but it first tosses aside the forest in order to forage around in a few feckless trees.
For those looking for the thesis on tolerance, Conquest is said film. Closing down the epic ideas of past installments to focus solely on oppression and persecution, what we have here is the cinematic equivalent of lessons in revolution. Nothing is painted in subtle strokes. All humans—except for the sole minority member of the Government—are horrible and all apes are put upon and enslaved. Apparently, without dogs and cats to comfort and console them, people go potty and returned to the antebellum days of domesticity. Imagine putting some other minority in the place of actors in ape masks and just watch the PC flags fly up the pissed-off pole. Milo (now dubbed Caesar for reasons that are simultaneously understandable and unnecessary) infiltrates his bullied brethren and, through the simple act of arming them, builds a throng capable of a relatively easily coup. The black-hat Governor is so busy chewing the scenery with his outrageous statements about ape eugenics that we can't wait for his demise. Indeed, one of the oddest things I've noticed throughout the Apes series is how readily we humans hunger for our own destruction, both in the films and in ourselves. Since he is poorly drawn as a symbol of sensible change, Caesar is really an innocent, merely lashing out at those who've harmed and hurt his fellow chimps.
Only at the end, when Conquest has run out of ideas (not that it had many to start with), does it drop the sci-fi to focus on fisticuffs. It is a narrative device that will come to mar the series in its final two installments, making it impossible to remember when violence was viewed as sport (human hunting) or a means of last resort (Beneath's bomb, Escape's ending). If Milo's myth was the turning point in the series proper, then the ape revolution in Conquest is the final nail in its coffin. Clunky, poorly-conceived, and rendered universal by words, not deeds (the budget apparently wouldn't allow for shots of other apes taking up arms elsewhere in Earth's futurescape), this cold confrontation between man and ape is not how we envisioned the birth of the simian world. Instead, it feels formulaic and action movie-ish. It renders the sledgehammer stoicism of the first few films restrained and prepares us for a far more melodramatic outing once Battle begins. Unfortunately, a last-minute wimp-out tries to temper Conquest's craven conceits. A veiled nod to justice is measured out in a voiceover monologue, Caesar arguing that it will be apes who set the parameters of partnership with humans. They will be the ones to grant mercy. Man is dethroned, but not defrocked. He will still be part of the ape's overall plan.
Battle buffers this position by showing humans living in semi-sameness with their ape brethren. There are still issues of ownership and slavery (people now do all the menial work), but they are placed against the insane mutant population of the Forbidden City, who apparently just want to kill something. Aldo makes an appearance, no longer the legendary voice of ape reason. Instead, he is a typical pompous blowhard, a general unhappy with his level of power in the line of authority. While this final installment in the series pits rationality with the reactionary just like the other plotlines, the point here is made with less finesse and more forced histrionics. Caesar uses his advisors to make colony-wide maxims. Aldo just wants war. When he allows his emotions to dominate his decisions, Caesar stumbles. By trying to reduce this simian scholar to the level of a crude foot soldier, Battle shows its first signs of stupidity. Once it introduces the ragtag group of mutants who use old cars and a school bus as a means of military advancement, the film is finished. The final act is such a major mess, a combination of explosions and exposition, that we never really care for the outcome. Where Apes once fancied itself speculative fiction of the highest level, it is reduced in its final sequel to pyrotechnics and pontifications.
It is easy then to see how the theme of isolation plays into the overall entertainment value of the films. Planet, which utilizes the concept best, is the only timeless treasure of the five. Aside from Heston's chin-level acting, and the less-than-effective explanation for the obvious Earth-like clues, it is a thoroughly engaging example of the "what if" genre. Beneath is more problematic, since it really acts like an inconsequential link between the first and third installments. James Franciscus is more or less Taylor-lite (he is even mistaken for him) and the Forbidden City is underdeveloped and unimpressive. Brent never acts like a man lost in another realm. He's too confrontational to care. At the time, Escape may have seemed sensational, but today it's just campy, if occasionally clever. This is the only real chance that regal actors Kim Hunter and Roddy McDowell had to breathe life and eccentricity into their simian characters and they do so magnificently. It's a good thing they do, too, since Eric Braeden literally sucks the life out of the scenes he is in. Though he's got the perplexing logic of a politician down pat, his face never registers a single recognizable emotion throughout the entire film.
Conquest creates the biggest entertainment quagmire, though. On the one hand, it's the foul fate of the apes and man paying the price after three other films that fail to follow up on the evil nature of the human/simian story. Though his role is very minor, Ricardo Montalban proves that he can enliven even the most mediocre of characters with his class and grace, but as Don Murray delivers what has to be the single most overblown performance in the series (even worse than Claude Akins' Aldo!), the movie's claustrophobic setting (using a single modern city location to indicate the future) dooms any larger ambitions. As in Battle, the final confrontation is less than spectacular, mostly because journeyman junk maker J. Lee Thompson is behind the camera. His work in disposable dreck like the remake of King Solomon's Mines and Death Wish 4 proves his singular set piece incompetence. With his Apes films, he finds ways to make even potentially interesting ideas (Caesar's return to the Forbidden City) as flat and lifeless as the irradiated surroundings. Perhaps people still cotton to these creations because they represent the only series that moved within its own mythology to forge its own unique universe.
Or maybe it really is a matter of race. In retrospect, the five films that make up the cinematic statement of Apes offer self-serving sentiments about bigotry that stick out like a sore thumb. Conquest is practically a love letter to the ACLU, while Battle frequently veers between moralizing and the moronic. During Conquest, we are introduced to the Governor's African-American aide (whose "brother" appears in Battle) and it is his job to be the voice of non-violent reason. By providing his perspective on slavery (albeit several generations removed) and making his own color a constant emblem of earnestness, the filmmakers hint that we should match up the monkey dilemma to that of the black man and see a natural progression. Aside from the many logical fallacies in this argument (indeed, the Apes films are loaded with loopholes both minor and massive), arguing the sameness of intelligent apes and people of color seems outrageous at best, a substantial ethnic slur at worst. The Apes films can function as a way of looking at intolerance. They can also be cautionary tales about the nuclear threat. They can be viewed as sloppy sci-fi or quizzical commentaries on the state of the human race. Such motion picture malleability means that, no matter their flaws, fans will always see in them what they want or need. Without even knowing it, the films themselves will create the myth that the apes long for. The legend begins—and ends—inside each and every installment.
Naturally, with films this fondly remembered, the DVD format has seen several issues—and reissues—and re-reissues of the five titles. The latest revamped version of the Apes series is entitled The Legacy Collection. This is not to be confused with the far more outrageous Ultimate DVD Collection currently being sold (everything Apes contained in a large replica of Cornelius's head), the 2001 version of the films in the Limited Edition Evolution box set, or the various single/double disc versions of the individual movies out on the market. The major upgrade here is the availability of anamorphic transfers for the entire series. Previously, Fox's disfavor with the digital format (they were heavy supports of the now defunked DIVX) found them releasing the movies in faux letterboxed versions. Individuals looking for 16x9 versions were out of luck. But now, the 2.35:1 aspect ratio has been preserved for all the anamorphic-loving OAR cinephiles and the prints have been polished up (if only a little) for this new collection. Gone are the faded, aged pictures from previous editions. Instead, we are treated to colorful, detailed images that capture the films in freshly-minted style. There is also a THX certification, for those who care about such things.
On the sound side, things are a little less impressive. Planet gets a Dolby Digital Surround 5.1 track in both normal and DTS modes, yet neither is really that earth-shattering when it comes to multi-channel facets. To tell the truth, they are rather dull and non-directional. The remaining films all have 5.1 Surround or Mono 1.0 mixes only. Again, the lack of spatial speaker work really detracts from the overall aural elements of the movies. The Apes series employed some intriguing sonic cues throughout their stories, and it would have been nice to remaster the audio to take advantage of such ambiance. Otherwise, these are far from reference-quality soundscapes.
Where this DVD set really flounders is in the lack of extras. Anyone who owns the 35th Anniversary two-disc version of the original Planet will cry foul for the lack of bonus features here. Granted, the Legacy edition of the original film has two commentaries (one from composer Jerry Goldsmith, another from actors Roddy McDowell, Kim Hunter, and Natalie Trundy, and makeup man John Chambers) and a text track of interesting facts from author Eric Greene. Missing are the many "Behind the Scenes" featurettes focusing on the effects, the 1968 premiere of the film, a selection of McDowell's own home movies, and a collection of audio-less outtakes and tests. Certainly, most of this material was culled into the excellent two-hour documentary Behind the Planet of the Apes (an AMC production that is part of the box set as a sixth disc—and well worth it), but the lack of other meaningful extras is a slight to all Apes fans.
As for the specific bonus material provided, it is very hit or miss. The commentaries are superficial and loaded with long, silent gaps, while the text track provides a wealth of making-of information. Aside from these elements, we are left with a void of valuable information. It's the same with the rest of the DVDs—except for Battle, which is offered here in an "extended cut" that reincorporates nearly 10 minutes of unnecessary footage. The movie is no better for it, unless you consider extended battle scenes and elemental exposition important to the overall Ape narrative. None have anything more contextual than bland galleries and the same set of trailers. If you are looking for more film food value for your cinematic buck, the Ultimate Collection may be the way to go. It contains everything from the Anniversary Edition, plus all the TV/cartoon variations, as well as the Burton redux.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The lack of real, substantive added content should really be no surprise to fans of the Apes films. Fox consistently undermined the series by lowering the budget every time a sequel was started, so that by the time Conquest was causing considerable parental angst, the concept that these movies were mindless kiddie sci-fi (to paraphrase director J. Lee Thompson) was the overriding marketing concern. Obviously, the company still holds those trade truths to be self-evident. The Apes films could command volumes of comparative context. Scholars could debate and refine the films fractured themes, while cinematic experts could appraise and pick apart the knotty narratives. In essence, Fox fumbled the packaging possibilities here. Love them or hate them, the Matrix movies and the Star Wars prequels prove that series sci-fi on DVD can be done right, as long as you invest your time—and money—to flesh out your films with substantive supplements. What is offered here—the keen two-hour documentary aside—is basically bare-bones bunkum.
It's a shame that more people weren't enamored of Tim Burton's 2001 version of Planet of the Apes. Hollywood has changed a lot in the days since Chuck Heston guaranteed that Fox would fund a piece of surreal speculative sci-fi like Apes and not worry exclusively about the bottom line. What the sequels required—and what Fox would be willing to give had the revamp been a big fat box-office hit—was more money to work with and more time for the productions to pre-plan their spectacle. While the first film can still stand on its own, the others tend to suffer from a lack of financial or formative inspiration. With the advances in make-up and the ability for CGI to confuse the eye, the differing elements that each of the Apes films brought to the man/monkey myth would have combined to create something truly special. As it stands, we are left with these often misunderstood movies, family features that offered occasionally conflicting viewpoints about the place of humans in the natural order of things. The final image in the original Apes, a lingering shot that has long since lost most of its political punch, still sends a shiver down the spines of those who believe in the inherent magic of motion pictures. It's not a shudder of fear. It's the last remaining memory of the promise presented by these movies and how far the Apes series sank afterward.
The Court gives a mixed ruling. The Legacy Boxset boasts decent anamorphic transfers of the Apes titles and any fan of the series would be remiss in not picking up this package. While the Ultimate Collection boasts more bells and whistles, this set settles for basically bare-bones presentations of the theatrical releases. As for the films themselves, Planet, Beneath, and Escape are all acquitted, while Conquest is sentenced to two years' probation for being more future schlock than future shock. Battle, on the other hand, is hereby sentenced to a slow, painful death in the minds of moviegoers. This cheap charade of a sequel doesn't deserve to wear the Apes tag, no matter what version it's offered in.
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