In the month that marks the 48th anniversary of the first Planet of the Apes film and the start of the Year of the Monkey… Jokerside’s Aperospective moves on to a new future. Following in the stinkin’ paw prints of its 70s forbear, the recent Apes reboot has proved that there’s big box office in telling the story of man’s fall and ape ascendency. And true to this conflicted and paradoxical franchise, inspiration for this the greatest phase of the Apes comes from the lesser 1970s films of the original saga….
Looking at Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Conquest of the Planet of the Apes
“Tonight we have seen the birth of the planet of the apes”
IT HAPPENS A LOT IN SCIENCE FICTION – SOMETIMES YOU’VE JUST GOT TO TAKE THE LONG WAY ROUND. 20th Century Fox, perhaps surprisingly, chose that route for their precious Apes franchise in the 21st century. It helped that the seeds were sown during the prickly blockbuster pre-skirmishes of the 2010s, before Disney Marvel and Warner Brothers fully locked horns in 2012, when Fox was still riding high on the wave of Avatar. In 2015, with the flawed Fantastic Four reboot securing both Fox’s highest ever trailer views and abysmal box office, you might think that things have complicated further.
But in choosing not to follow up on the perfectly fair box office of Tim Burton’s challenging 2001 ‘reimagining’, Fox was content to let the Apes take their own long way round. Perversely, this new franchise rose from the weaker entries of the original saga. It jettisoned the space flight and time travel of the original novel and iconic early films, and looked at the apes and humans we know now, with all the concerns and worries of our time. The apes were no long in a pipe-dream dystopia. Brilliantly, it told the story the right way round for the first time; an intelligent way to dodge the traps that Burton’s effort fell into. Prudently, it set a template that could roll on, at an unrushed rate, for decades. And astonishingly, just two films in, this reborn, refreshed Apes saga has already grossed $1.2 billion – that’s over double the rest of the Apes films combined (even adjusted for inflation, the new cycle is far ahead).
The third part of this retrospective looked at the turning point of the franchise. The masterstroke brought to bear by franchise writer Paul Dehn from the ashes of the Earth’s destruction after just two films. Not only was his solution a refreshing jump (back) into the contemporary, but quite possibly one of the truest, if inverted, adaptations of Pierre Boulle’s original novel. Escape from the Planet of the Apes set the course for two further films exploring, in rather sporadic fashion, the rise of the ape against the rather self-inflicted fall of man.
Having only previously glimpsed the start and the distant end of the ape story there was plenty to mine or originate. And while Escape set in motion a separate timeline, speeded up by the apes’ paradoxical return to the past, this new telling sits in a parallel timeline of its own. As such, the two recent Apes films make very loose remakes of the final two Apes films of the original cycle. To start at the beginning once again…
Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) and Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972)
A new dystopia
“Plan for the inevitable day of Man’s downfall…”
The penultimate film of the ‘70s cycle quickly moved things away from the contemporary setting of Escape to the Planet of the Apes. Come Conquest of the Planet of the Apes it’s 1991, a good two decades on from Taylor’s initial flight and even further from that cynical astronaut’s (and Charlton Heston’s) mind. A blunt opening of the march of the apes finds simians clad in identical boiler suits. We’re watching history unfold just as Zira had described in the previous film. But typically, as much as the cycle of futility rolls on, things aren’t quite right. Perhaps due to that earlier paradoxical arrival of advanced Apes or perhaps a sign of the fickle yet inescapable hand of destiny, the timeline has accelerated beyond the one Zira related. This was screenwriter Paul Dehn’s third Ape film, and the chance for him to forge forward with a mythology removed from the source book and the established ape civilisation of the first two films.
But like the second film in the cycle, Conquest puts a lot of stock in continuity drawn the preceding film. Ricardo Montalban’s returning Armando provides the necessary recap and introduces us to the now grown Caesar, explaining recent history to the clearly sheltered young ape. Armando has to brief him on how to act like an ape in a world where circuses are things of the past and the timeline has rapidly accelerated into dystopia. Armando may be carrying circus flyers, but it’s a hollow action as he knows circuses are long gone. That disconnect between his actions and words strike him out as a relic in this dark world. And after he was cast as a saviour at the conclusion of the previous film. Armando is the pivot in the film series’ changing allegiance. Not only an ape-sympathiser only cast in a favourable light by a shift to make apes the heroes of the piece, but also the character who protects this ape Moses on his way to destiny. While the religious overtones are clear, civil rights remain the primary source of parody, satire and drama in this exploration of the near future.
“They’ve made slaves of them”
A mysterious virus from space has wiped out all cats and dogs, but there’s little time to mourn under the monuments to lost pets. Humans brought apes in to homes as quick replacements – no wonder the dog barked at Zira in the third film – with their increased skills soon pushing them into menial tasks – although we are quickly shown the implications, like the simians unconditioned to fire in restaurants while the dystopian rattle of tannoy warnings and demonstration curfews rings out in the background. The way apes have taken a foothold in cities is Dehn’s light nod to the fascinating crux of ape’s inherent stagnation in Pierre Boulle’s original novel; their civilisation held back by their dependence on mimicry.
The incidence of coincidence has notably risen by this fourth entry, influencing many events in this slight and fast-paced film. Caesar, barely disguised and even less able to keep under cover early on, brings a different slant to that of his parents and the earlier Earth astronauts. The audience doesn’t so much discover a new civilisation through his eyes as wait for the inevitable. It’s actually quite a jump. The apocalypse of the second film had come as a complete surprise and having seen that in the distant future there was never the risk of it repeating in the third film. Suddenly however, we’re on the brink of humanity’s collapse, man almost entirely transformed into Taylor’s worst nightmare.
Amid the heavy political framing of civil rights, as immigration personnel take copies of chimp fingerprints and Caesar stumbles into the horror of slave labour conditioning there is notably far less substance than the first and third films. Despite his rapid learning curve, it is fascinating watching Caesar traverse these obstacles, mainly thanks to Roddy McDowell’s continuing bravura performance – he’s brilliant when ‘reluctantly’ venturing into the female ape’s room – but there’s a difficulty when one side, the human side, is so utterly irredeemable. Only the fair McDonald and the doomed Armando are likable of the humans. The viewer is compelled to relish the human horror of a righteous ape takeover.
Rise of ape, fall of man
“Lousy human bastards”
Things are different in the woven and erudite story of Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Starting at a point analogous to Conquest, but with no dependence on any earlier story or notable trappings of science fiction. Instead, Rise weaves a modern fable from the basis of family, and that’s a key reason for its success. Although the main themes of the saga aren’t forgotten, it impressively folds in the necessary themes of destiny, pessimism and self-destruction that are so central to the franchise as well.
Instead of nuclear annihilation, Rise gives us a virus that wipes out most of the human population, while enhancing the intellect of Apes. It sounds as ridiculous as the rise of ape pets in Conquest, but by linking that side effect into a noble and misguided attempt to cure Alzheimer’s’ it provides a satisfying replacement for the missing element of paradox. There’s no doubt that the decimation of the human population come the end credits, this film’s Statue of Liberty moment, is far more chilling than the pet statue seen in Conquest. Bless ‘em. And not to forget that the original cycle had to blend in nuclear apocalypse at the same time to perpetuate the timeline going into the fifth film. In both sets, there’s no implication that man was destroyed in his attempt to resist apes. In both timelines, he managed to decimate himself.
The science fiction and science obsessiveness is present and correct in Rise, preserved in the lab work of protagonist Will Rodman like a mosquito buried deep in amber. There is every chance that paradox could return in future, and it’s no mistake that one scene throws away the disappearance of the Icarus, a manned space mission to Mars. But in the meantime, amid the inevitable and obligatory riffs on the 1968 film’s scintillating script (“It’s a madhouse”, “No”, “Damn dirty ape”) there’s a solid and dramatic exploration of the rise of the apes. And the investment in character pays off. While the slyly named John Landon and in particular his son Dodge mistreat the apes caught in the captivity of their ‘shelter’, James Franco’s Rodman and his family provide the necessary and sympathetic balance.
Rise begins seriously, with a hectic jungle chase ending with Caesar’s mother’s captivity, effectively making an inverted Tarzan of the young ape rather than Paul Dehn’s Time’s Orphan. The increased intelligence of the apes, with their bright eyes, is well thought out. It would become a little stickier in the sequel, but that’s where the benefit of rooting the science around family shines through. And the science nods to the source text without falling wholly back on the prisoner of progress approach that defines much of the 1968 film and novel. At one point the effect of the transmitted ALZ-113 drug on the apes is measured using a Lucas Tower, an intelligence test invented in 1883 that hadn’t made it into either the earlier film cycle nor Pierre Boulle’s science and intelligence led novella.
The Caesar of Conquest is family-less, propelled to a kinship with his fellow apes through necessity. That family gap would go on to form the backbone of its similarly bleak sequel. In Rise, the inevitability is drawn out through personal tragedy and the old promethean myth. There’s the big business of pharmacy to riff on, an opposition to the lone scientist’s obsession, driven by his father’s condition and ultimately revealed as a Tower of Babel that brings about man’s destruction. The film maintains a wondrous balance of hope and potential against danger and the unstoppable which is fascinating to view through the prism of the original film sequence’s concept of destiny. And there’s even time for a little romance, something only really developed by Zira and Cornelius in the original film.
Rise drags the action to San Francisco, the West Coast city that offers something beyond the urban confines of Conquest while neatly avoiding the trap of New York. It’s an ideal setting, with iconic architecture a short way from glorious redwood forests. Aside from their blunt metaphor director Rupert Wyatt uses those monumental trees as segues for Caesar’s aging, and at one point his scintillating meeting with a dog aged eight. The line is clear from there, Caesar is no pet and man’s best friend will soon become irrelevant. The plot wisely leaves the plot propellant of the drug itself, the Frankenstein blood of the piece to sit behind our emotional attachment to Caesar.
“The king is dead. Long live the king”
Ah technology. For all the Oscar winning design of the original ape make-up (well, awarded form a nomination list of one), for all the brilliance of Roddy McDowell’s performance, technology was a massive aid to the more coherent Rise of the Planet of the Apes. The CGI and motion capture is captivating. It instantly removes the film from that difficult juxtaposition of real baby chimps and dressed up humans that afflicted the 1970s. Although that had its chilling charm. Following the awkward final moments of Escape from the Planet of the Apes, the decision to once again mix real baby chimps with adult prosthetics in Conquest continued to detract from the story. If the preceding films had the luxury of a few thousand years to hide the reason for the different postures and abilities of their apes (even though evolution is out the window in that timespan), in the near future the humanoid apes stick out. Once again, it’s really the gorillas that come off worst. And they are ridiculously poor in combat against humans.
“The only means open to us. Revolution”
The time period forces both films to confront violence, death and revolt. Despite the shifting allegiance of the original cycle, this is the real dark heart of franchise. The earlier horror of futility in the 70s cycle doesn’t depend on it, but there’s remains a grim interest in seeing how the apes achieved their rise. Again, it’s a shame that Conquest paints humans into a shallow role, making their later mute slavery more like a punishment than a tragedy. That said, the two sympathetic humans do have a key role to play. It’s Armando’s death following the application of The Authenticator – a bit more 1984 than Animal Farm – that steels Caesar into an unstoppable force devoted to rebellion. It’s a steep learning curve, but one that rapidly propels to civil disobedience thanks to his convenient new ‘job’. In Rise, the seeds are sewn though family, but this time it’s a violent altercation, crucially misunderstood by the young chimp, between the belligerent neighbour and Charles Rodman, the Alzheimer’s sufferer brilliantly played by John Lithgow, who has formed a strong link with the young ape. With one break-neck and unsettling scene, a pay-off from the emotion of the character-driven build-up, starts the dual spiral of the failure of the ALZ-113 drug and Caesar’s family life. He quickly finds himself at the pleasure of the San Bruno Primate Shelter.
“They won’t learn to be kind until we force them to”
Conquest’s Governor Breck is a poor, one dimensional villain by anyone’s standards. Early on, he has to relate the meaning of Caesar’s name as “a king”. Later he’s reduced to platitudes like, “My God, there’s more” during the ape assault. Coincidence places Caesar right at the heart of Breck’s Ape Management and it’s a final act of torture from the humans that fully sets the young ape on an irreversible path. Once there, he kills to make his escape, quite contrary to the sad circumstances of his parents’ final hours in the previous instalment. This time however, we’re left in no doubt that the stakes are much higher. Despite McDonald’s rather kind reproval of Caesar’s assertion that all humans are to blame, audiences found themselves in the awkwardly strange position of rooting for a dark and irredeemable antihero during the following onslaught. And of course, similar to Armando, it’s the bleeding heart of McDonald that inadvertently dooms humanity by sparing the ape’s life. Caesar radicalisation is quick and brutal. If Breck has any kind of redemption, it’s that he’s proved right in his thought that all the ape population needed was a leader, and then when he becomes the subject of Caesar’s great awakening. Conquest is a film of suspense, a bomb waiting to go off. That’s a purity that Rise doesn’t quite have. Instead, Caesar’s growth is tracked through a number of events, pitching the argument of nature versus nature right to the front.
“Apes alone weak. Apes together strong”
The formulation of Caesar’s revolution in Rise is a heist. The build-up take multiple small steps from the moment he’s abandoned by the humans he trusted and the shock of ape reality. The legal explanation for his captivity is handled leanly, with two short sequences mentioning the court order. For the young ape the worst is to come when he finds himself at the bottom of the pile in the company of other apes. A madhouse, as they say.
This is where Rise bleeds in parallel experiences, from the enemies who would become friends in shelter to the parallel plight of future ally Koba over at Rodman’s laboratory. Like any good escape film, playtime becomes the places where Caesar can strategise in front of the primitive apes and ignorant humans – without fear of being sent to the cooler like Steve McQueen. The Landons who runt he shelter are the film’s token one dimensional villains, but lodged in injustice and far removed from the absolute power that Conquest represented. In Rise, it’s the arrogance of the son, Dodge Landon, that gives Caesar the small advantage he needs – a tool. But then, how was he to guess that Caesar’s a super-intelligent ape…
While his plan unfurls, Rise let’s Caesar’s rise play out against the continuing degeneration of Charles Rodman. All the more interesting when Caesar’s masterstroke comes at the observation of Maurice the wise orang-utang that “apes are stupid”. That sparks his weaponisation of the ALZ-113 drug to elevate the intelligence of his fellow apes. That’s part of the mechanism Rise uses to explore creeping horror. During his multiple escapes, Caesar at one point chillingly returns home to quietly watch Will Rodman asleep in his familial happiness. It’s fascinating to watch apes awake to new intelligence and all the more logical an explanation for their slight evolution than the events of Conquest.
Caesar has to take risks and make sacrifices, but the in contrast to his merciless homicide in Conquest, Rise’s Caesar first kills a human by an accidental electrocution. It’s a break with his upbringing, as Rodman would allude to later, and gives the ape pause. That’s a pivotal scene equivalent to the big speech that closes Conquest. In Rise, Caesar is allowed to realises that his plan cannot become a reality without death, while in Conquest he reasonably yearns for revenge. His personal struggle is fascinatingly framed by the bigger picture. Far beyond Caesar’s control ape empowerment and intelligence is the flipside of the humanity’s near extinction.
First blood of the apes
There’s a mild squiff in Conquest’s narrative when Caesar suggests, either highly logically or illogically, that it may take many attempts for the apes to seize power. That’s more the result, if not the intent of the modern reboot. In Conquest, Caesar’s army make incredible progress as they tear through urban environments against, oddly, flaming machine guns. There’s an incredible and odd theatricality to the waves of apes marching the streets of the near future. Perhaps the studio-bound confines increases its theatricality. It looks unnatural, probably the oddest and most stylised sequences of a franchise that had already destroyed the Earth and given us mutated, telepathic humans. The modern franchise would pick up those street runs of inexperienced apes overwhelming defending humans in 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of Apes. In Rise, the confrontation is purposefully on a great architectural metaphor. A bridge. And not just any bridge, The Golden Gate Bridge once again providing a nod to that need for an Ape landmark.
Crossing the Rubicon
“It does something to people that it doesn’t do to apes”
While, there’s something incredibly creepy about the ape onslaught in Conquest, it’s typically authentic in Rise. Caesar plays a long game and the film soon establishes him as capable of stealthily accessing anywhere, before he bolsters ape numbers with a trip to the zoo and the Gen-Sys labs where he was born. Yes, fortunately that’s Gen-Sys and not Genisys.
On the bridge, Rise doesn’t lose its grip on characterisation. There’s redemption for grumpy gorilla Buck, wisely held back in the earlier scenes due to the significant danger he poses, and astutely signposted as a major weapon by Caesar early on, as he sacrifices itself to defend the uprising’s leaders. Caesar makes his second choice here, the completion of the thought process ruminating ever since his manslaughter. He leaves the fate of Jacobs, the film’s other token nod villain, this time on the corporate side, to the tormented Koba. Jacob’s is most likely the spiritual successor to Breck. And his last words? “Stupid monkey”. Caesar has already begun to pass on free will to his followers. Of course there’s a flipside, and in saving Rodman, his scientist father, from Koba the path was laid to the conflict that would form much of the spine of the following film. Will’s watches Caesar win the bridge and lead the apes into the freedom of the Redwoods before a final goodbye. Rise credibly crafts difficult choices for Caesar’s to overcome as he earns the support of his simian cousins in less plotting the downfall of humanity, and more the survival and escape from punishment for his own kind.
Conquest boils much of the same message down to a fascinating and powerful stand-off after the light plot has quickly radicalised Caesar. Having seized the heart of the city, he holds Breck as a main prize, but resists McDonald’s pleads to spare the human’s life – the emphasis placed on the appeal and understanding from a man whose describes the life of slavery his ancestors endured. Caesar would have followed through with the execution were it not for the late, lone cry of his mate. The second ape to speak, the she-ape mimicking Nova in Beneath the Planet of the Apes and both summarising the apes’ real struggle and illustrating their immediate evolution. It’s the most important word in the franchise. “No”. A brilliant punchline so strong that it can’t help but suggest that Conquest could have been far mightier than the sum of its parts.
Amid Rise’s neatly balanced plot strands, Caesar’s first significant stand-off with man comes in the hell of confinement at the end of the second act. A great demonstration of the confidence of the film, it manages to reference the franchise while making for a powerful dramatic moment in its own right. “Take your stinking paw off me you damn dirty ape” says the unlikeable Dodge Landon. “No” comes Caesar’s reply. “No” soon becomes the mantra, just as it had laced through the first five film cycle and lightly splattered the revolt referenced in the 2001 reboot.
Come the end, and a necessary emotional break with his only link to humanity, Caesar climbs a Redwood to survey San Francisco while technology ensures that most of humanity is destroyed and most of the cast wouldn’t reappear. It’s the apes who will carry continuity in this brave new world, just as they had at the tail of the franchise in the 1970s.
A new beginning
“Caesar is home”
Rise of the Planet of the Apes is exemplary film-making, wrapping up compelling and laudably drama in a lean and well-paced film. It’s almost unkind to draw the comparison to the loose inspiration of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, but there lies the brilliance of this highly successful reboot. While Tim Burton’s 2001 effort had boldly taken on the iconic 1968 film at its own game and fallen at almost every hurdle, the current cycle used the law of diminishing returns as a strength from the outset. Rise took the strong but underdeveloped plot of Conquest and shaping an affecting and substantial story that resonates with contemporary western culture. If only other studios could imitate that.
And so a resurgence of dystopic science fiction was born, and the chances of its sequel Dawn proving false were remote…