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FEATURE

Cinema Time Capsule
The Classics, the Underrated, the Overrated, and the Just Plain Forgotten
By Daniel Kraus


Those Damn Dirty Apes:
A Complete Primate Primer To The "Planet Of The Apes" Films

This weekend, Tim Burton’s re-make of Planet of the Apes opens, 33 years after the blockbuster original became a widely recognized landmark of intelligent, thought-provoking science fiction.

Less remembered are the four sequels that followed the original Planet. Perhaps Burton’s re-make will spark interest in these forgotten films, which, when seen as a whole—and despite the unavoidably amusing fact that they star talking monkeys—deserve to be recognized as one of the most ambitious and entertaining series of fantasy films ever made.

PLANET OF THE APES (1968)
"Take your stinkin’ hands off me, you damn dirty ape!"—Taylor’s first words to his disapproving ape captors.

Taylor (Charlton Heston), a bitchin’ astronaut from the kick-ass year of 1972, crash-lands his rocket-ship on a strange planet sometime in the future. Unfortunately, it’s a planet ruled by scary-looking talking apes, who treat the planet’s humans as wild animals—using them for labor, putting them in zoos, stuffing them in museums, and dissecting them for science—none of which grooves too well with Taylor.

A couple sympathetic simians, Cornelius (Roddy McDowell) and Zira (Kim Hunter) help Taylor to escape, where he takes an attractive female savage on that infamous journey down the beach, where they discover the destroyed remains of Lady Liberty. Turns out Taylor has been on Earth all along but a future Earth annihilated by atomic war and turned upside-down, evolutionarily speaking. Taylor is understandably bummed.

Planet has a mistaken reputation as being a kitschy curiosity, mainly due to Heston’s teeth-gnashing, testosterone-riddled "IT’S A MADHOUSE!!!"-style performance. The intelligent script—co-penned by the master of bleak, prophetic science fiction, Rod Serling—is at once rollicking adventure, sly commentary (Zira to Taylor: "Remember, all men look alike to most apes"), and dark comedy (as one ape sighs, "Human see, human do"). You have to look quickly to see a shot of three ape judges deciding the fate of Taylor, the first covering his mouth, the second covering his eyes, and the third covering his mouth.

Although Taylor is our clearly our intrepid bad-ass, the filmmakers make it difficult to tell what side we should be rooting for. While Taylor is pretty much an insufferable jerk, it comes out that the apes are keeping humans (and human advancements) down for a reason—too much "advancement" and Earth will eventually go kablooey. Again.

BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES (1970)
"Glory Be to the Bomb, and The Holy Fallout."—Chanted by spooky underground mutants.

Taylor (Heston again) and Nova, his sexy savage, continue their trek down the coast when, suddenly, they run into mystical lightning bolts and walls of fire, whereupon Taylor falls through a holographic mountain. As if this weren’t peculiar enough, Nova runs into Brent (Heston look-alike James Franciscus), another hapless astronaut sent from happenin’ 1972 to find Taylor.

After some pretty dumb loincloth-laden adventures in Ape City, our Heston-esque hero and his under-dressed cave-babe head underground, where the entire city of New York exists as a creepy, half-excavated tomb run by telepathic humans who worship a left-over "Doomsday Bomb" that they’re planning to blow up the planet with when the apes attack.

Just when you thought things couldn’t possibly get any weirder, the humans rip off their faces to reveal gross radiation scars. Then the apes attack, kill the mutants, Nova, and Brent. Ever the cheery optimist, Taylor hits "the button" with his dying breath, blowing up Ape-Earth to smithereens.

While pretty much a mediocre movie, the last half hour is filled with so many shocks and risky twists (how many mainstream movies end with the destruction of all life as we know it?), that Beneath is, at the very least, a ballsy follow-up to the original.

ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES (1971)
"I loathe bananas."—Ape Zira to half-witted human scientists.

This is where you’re going to need to start taking notes. Okay: right before Earth exploded in Beneath, the two kindly chimps, Cornelius and Zira, managed to fix Taylor’s spacecraft and travel to fabulous1973 Earth. Upon landing, they become international celebrities, providing plenty of Crocodile Dundee-style chuckles as they navigate city life, watch TV, taste alcohol, attend sporting events, and speak at women’s club luncheons.

What becomes clear, though, is that an annoying paradox of the Terminator 2 variety has begun. Cornelius and Zira’s child will become the first of an intelligent race of apes that will eventually take over the Earth (resulting in the world seen in the first Apes film). Understandably nervous about the end of mankind, evil government types decide the apes must die. After hiding out in a traveling circus, the ape family is cornered and killed. In a shocker ending, we see that Zira had switched her baby with a circus ape’s baby, and it lives on, creepily mumbling the word "Momma" over and over.

Escape is a creative, mature movie that stands completely on its own. Rubbery make-up or no, it’s impossible not to fall in love with the two witty, gentle "ape-o-nauts," and watching them become material consumers is both pleasurable and eerie. The characters are complex; even the government types stop their evil-doing long enough to philosophize over the ramifications of their actions: "If you could go back in time," ruminated one, "would you kill Hitler as a little boy, or while still in his mother’s womb?"

Perhaps Escape’s most shrewd move is how perfectly it sets up the next two sequels. Zira and Cornelius explain that in the 1990’s, a plague will kill all cats and dogs. Humans, desiring pets, will take in apes. Those ape pets will become ape servants, then ape slaves, until one ape will rise to lead a revolution.

Which leads us to...

CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (1972)
"Go Human, Not Ape"—Picket sign protesting apes landing sweet waiter jobs.

In one of the most expository sentences ever put to film, circus owner Armando (Ricardo Montalbon) brings Cornelius and Zira’s teen-ape son, Caesar, up to speed:

"There can be only one talking chimpanzee on Earth, the child of the two talking apes, Cornelius and Zira, who came to us years ago out of the future, and were brutally murdered for fear that, one very distant day, apes might dominate the human race."

Unfortunately, Armando’s long-winded explanation is for naught—evil government types are prevalent even in future-Earth (1991), and they suspect that Armando may be hiding the chatty chimp. That leaves Caesar alone in a modern-day world where apes work as janitors, painters, waiters, gophers, and shoe-shiners, after being trained in "conditioning camps." (This is after cats and dogs have gone bye-bye.)

After Armando is killed, Caesar begins an ape revolt. First, in rather comical ways (pouring water on diners’ laps, shoe-shining socks, etc.), then in slightly less comical ways (rifles, butcher knives, fingers-in-eyeballs, etc.).

The riot sequences were based on images from the 1965 Watts riot. The filmmakers, knowing that a leader of a minority uprising would never be accepted by audiences as a hero, simply cloaked the Watts riot with a bunch of ape outfits. By this film, even the phrase "Planet of the Apes" had taken on a metaphorical meaning; after all, 1991 America ISN’T run by apes, so the HUMANS must be the "apes," the savages.

This is what great science fiction is all about.

It all leads to a question that by now is an Apes trademark: who are we supposed to root for? Our sympathies lie with the downtrodden apes, but their victory equals the overtaking of humanity, which—as we saw in the original film—was pretty unsavory.

BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES (1973)
"Ape has killed ape! Ape has killed ape! Ape has killed ape!"—Chanted by apes after an ape kills an ape.

It’s 12 years after the bombs have flattened most of the world, and a slightly older Caesar rules over a small colony of apes and humans. Although their relationship is uneasily harmonious at best, it is the apes who are firmly in charge. As proof of their moral superiority, they need only remind the post-apocalyptic humans that apes NEVER harm other apes.

Suffice it to say, this rule gets broken, man/monkey mayhem ensues, and the underlying moral becomes, "There are NO bad races, just bad individuals."

Caesar attempts to derail the impending "gorilla’s war" that his parents Cornelius and Zira foretold (the war that ended up blowing up Earth in the second film, Conquest). But if you think about it, preventing that war would prevent Cornelius and Zira from ESCAPING the war and traveling to 1973 America, and thus CREATING the entire race of intelligent apes! By preventing the war, the apes would negate their own existence.

Ultimately, this is far too confusing to dwell upon, so the mutant humans living in the New York City underground (remember them from Beneath?) "invade" the ape village, limping around with a couple of rusty guns and an old school bus. (Don’t ask.) As climactic battles go, it’s a pretty sorry note for the series to end on.

Bunk battle sequence notwithstanding, Battle does successfully bring us up full circle. The theoretical next chapter would be the original Planet of the Apes, which is actually a pretty ingenious way of ending a movie series.

Reminiscent of George Romero’s "Dead" trilogy in both scope and ambition (if not make-up), the Apes films are flawed and rubbery in more ways than one. But they are also true treasures from an era when cinema wasn’t afraid to take narrative and metaphorical chances and wasn’t afraid to alienate a few audience members in the name of ape-centric art.