The conclusion of Jokerside’s Aperospective in the Year of the Monkey. In 2011 Rise of the Planet Apes seized the ideas of the lesser regarded latter films of the 1970s Apes cycle and took them to critical and box office success. Fox was on the brink of giant dystopian franchise once more and there was no need to rush a franchise that had previously stumbled at the same point…
Looking at Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and Battle for the Planet of the Apes
AS FAR AS MISLEADING NAMES GO, BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES MANAGES TO STICK OUT IN A FRANCHISE THAT SEEMS INTENT ON BEATING IT WITH THE FORTHCOMING WAR OF THE PLANET OF THE APES. War will be the third of the rebooted Apes saga continuing the compelling story laid out by Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes; the early years of the apes’ ascendency over man. Although that next film, due 2017, would break the mould should it portray a full war for supremacy of the Earth between the two sides. That said, there had certainly been battles before, in a franchise that usually set out to put science and intellect side by side with dystopian fantacism.
Walking away from the temporally complicated space fare of the original 1968 Planet of the Apes, the reboot saga has drawn heavily on that film’s later sequels, effectively making a strength out of their diminishing returns. Battle for the Planet of the Apes concluded the original cycle with the near completion of a circle that had already seen the destruction of both man and ape a few thousand years into the future. Harsh, considering Pierre Boulle’s original novel allowed apes to venture into space exploration. Those original films forged their own path, and as this retrospective has discovered, one of the most significant elements lost in translation from Boulle’s tome, was his fascinating exploration of the stagnation of ape society. In the film adaptations, when three simian survivors finally made it into orbit and beyond for the second sequel it was only to crash back to the Earth of their past. And in making that escape, those three chimps created a paradox that split the timeline, joining the alternative universes of the short-lived television series of the same name and animated series Return to the Planet of the Apes. And that’s just the official line. There’s no need to wander near the likes of the extraordinary Brazilian ‘remake’, Bungler on the Plateau of the Apes. In 2001, Tim Burton’s reboot of the 1968 film could be argued to have established another timeline, albeit removed from Earth like Boulle’s original novel, and unfortunately much of that books reason and science. And there’s no reason why that pattern hasn’t continued as the franchise has been reborn once again. Rise and Dawn are two strong films that have added yet another timeline of reality to the mix. One of the great virtues of the original film franchise, with its continual twists and turns, is that every iteration can exist in parallel. That is as long as, no matter the cause of man’s fall or the rate of or reason behind the rise of the apes, there remains one inevitable consistency: apes inherit the Earth. Every time.
Battle, for all the promise of its title, may feature a fight and a much trailed rematch between humanity and ape kind, but the stakes barely put the future seen by Charlton Heston’s cynical astronaut in the first film at risk. Indeed, the real battle, encouraged by the threat of what man was and could still prove to be, whether twisting in the desolated remains of their cities or as sheep out on the pastures, is between the apes themselves as they forge their new world. That’s the cue that Dawn took for the first sequel of the rebooted franchise, and a lead War will follow…
Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973) and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)
“The greatest danger of all is the danger never ends”
Battle for the Planets of the Apes completes the original cycle with suitably mythic intent, even if it fails to round the circle entirely. It’s the American continent of 2670 – over 1,300 years before Taylor’s crash landing – and there’s the slightest hint of the static nature of Ape society that Pierre Boulle explored in the original book. It’s a curious choice to place it at an indeterminate time in the future rather than the dawn of the first film, but come the punchline there’s the suggestion of further sequels that never materialised. Battle is bookended in the future by the very real gravitas of a law giving orang-utan enacting a kind of This is Your Ape Life, especially profound when he’s played by John Huston. Yes, that John Huston. The Lawgiver recounts the story so far, filling in the gaps so that we, apparently his audience, are aware that for all the ape rebellion related in Conquest, mankind was undone by the hell of nuclear conflict which flattened cities soon after Caesar’s revolt, and perhaps going some way to explain the dystopian stylings of the previous film’s future city. Aside from the ape insurgency, surely a localised affair in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes that humans were soon distracted from, there is now a compelling if vaguely defined reason for humanity’s near extinction. Man has abandoned the planet to the apes, as suggested since the archaeological discoveries of the first film. That nuclear self-annihilation is considerably more important than Caesar’s uprising in the scheme of things returns the franchise to the central tenet that man is compelled to be the architect of his own ruin.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes makes a jump from the events of Rise, although only a decade following the downfall of man that was clearly signposted in the bleak end credits of the previous instalment. A handy, chilling and sparse recap relates the turmoil that befell humanity in the wake of the engineered virus – and with bigger things on man’s mind, although it’s not as physically destructive as nuclear weaponry, the apes were able to fade away to the Redwood forests of California. Nuclear destruction versus genetic modification, that’s the difference between the late 20th century and early 21st.
Spread across a far broader canvas, with links and logic built from the ground up, Rise and Dawn’s universe presents a wholly more satisfying explanation for the ascendency of the apes. And impressively, that’s managed without the implied threat of a dystopian future. Crafting a serious, epic story steeped in doom is no mean feat when you’ve jettisoned one of the saga’s most memorable and surreal aspects. As the Earth fades to darkness humanity has fallen within minutes of Dawn’s start, leaving space to build on the complicated familial ties of Rise. Not this time with a hectic jungle flight, but the harsh and meditated reality of Caesar’s new colony enacting their own hunt.The outside world
“His story in those far off days”
In the decades following Caesar’s uprising in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, Battle shows that the surviving apes, crucially in a stable balanced relationship with talking humans, have made a home under Caesar’s leadership, of course in the plains surrounding New York rather than the forests of California. In the lightest and least tension-drenched opening of the series there’s time for some in-jokes worthy of a five film franchise, like Paul Williams young and precociously moniker orang‑utang Virgil theorising that man could have travelled faster than light. Little does the cocky ape know. The simians on the plain have already adopted the dress style they would retain thousands of years later, suggesting that functionality and stagnation once again, although it’s also a handily conscious shorthand for uniformity beyond the boiler suits that humans had formerly dressed them in. At this time there is no strict ape-only education system, no doctrine from the Lawgiver. But if there’s one thing a human can’t say to an ape it’s ‘no’. Early on we see gorillas and human children alike tutored by a human, until it inevitably boils over. Never try to teach a gorilla.
The apes of Dawn have established themselves in the isolated forests, with lodgings and a fair hierarchy. They are happy to hunt on horseback, using spears, but the stickler in this society, the one thing that represents the world before, is the gun. That’s the compelling symbol of man’s destructive power and one that is drawn out throughout the film.
In contrast with the dying days of the original saga, Dawn starts boldly, lacking what you could call conventional dialogue for 15 minutes. While, like the 2001 reboot and never overused, there is a sound reason for apes to speak English, if there is one gap in Dawn’s approach it’s that there can be only a small number of the ape colony with genetic enhancement following Caesar’s outbreak in the previous film – unless the root cause, in its virus form, was able to permeate the entire atmosphere and not solely stick to eradicating pockets of humans.
“They are animals and we will push them back”
Battle bears the greatest continuity since Beneath the Planet of the Apes with major cast returns on the side of both apes and humans, including McDonald – well, McDonald’s similarly enlightened brother, er, McDonald – who has helped Caesar build the new world after his brother was integral in facilitating the ape insurgency. Waiting in the ruins of New York is Kolp, the film’s main human antagonist, who’s risen to take Breck’s position under the twisted metropolis. In contrast Dawn sets a refreshing template where continuity passes through the ape-side. They are the heart of the saga after all, and that lineage proves crucial as the apes meet humanity as different levels of opposition. Characters like Will Rodman do make their presence felt from the past of Rise, but only to reconfirm the sense of family that remains key to the reboot. The central crux of the devastating virus would have been greatly undermined by returning faces a decade on.
Closer to home
“Maimed, mutated, hostile and human”
The McGuffin of Battle’s plot is both respectful of the film lineage and as hokey as possible, as after many years McDonald and Caesar head into the nearby radioactive city in search of taped recordings of the ape leader’s parents Zira and Cornelius. This is where Dawn picks up its emphasis on family, but it sits awkwardly in Battle. After establishing the rules and traits of ape (and new-human) culture, including those importantly banned words, the film seems intent on explaining and exploring the Forbidden Zone that were so mysterious in the first two films. 20 years on that area is the Forbidden City and the space is irradiated but not yet decimated. Sure enough Caesar lays down the edict that Apes must not venture into the city, only to break it himself. Temptation in the desert is only one of Battle’s Christian allegories.
“We go to the city”
Dawn needs no such McGuffin for its apes. There’s no spurious mission to reclaim the past from the foundation of human cities, but rather a more logical resurgence for humanity. As flawed as ever their quest for electric power leads them into the Ape-ridden Muir Woods to reactivate a hydroelectric dam. It’s a great and understandable conceit that immediately realises humanity’s own relentless pursuit of survival. The need to “rebuild and reclaim the world we love” is almost as strong as their determination to self-destruct. And these humans are acutely aware of how mankind was virtually wiped out – through science, in a lab, playing God. It’s a stark contrast to the self-serving disease of humanity that Battle reveals in the urban sprawl of the East Coast. But there are definite and resonating recalls to that film and saga as a whole. When Dawn later finds Malcolm making a lonely ascent in hope of gaining the apes’ trust, it’s hard not to recall the Western stylings of Taylor’s march in the original. If anything, a major difference between the old and new franchises is how man’s self-destruction balances with the inevitability of their downfall. Rise took the time to introduce individual hubris and error into mankind’s decimation, while in the original cycle man is a failed, generic concept synonymous with their own destruction from the minute Taylor puffs on his cigar.
“Can we make the future what we wish?”
Beyond the random motivation that prompts Caesar’s city break, the surviving, irradiated humans of Battle are a difficult hook. The precursors of those we see mutated in Beneath the Planet of the Apes, there is at least an empire for Kolp to govern, he the sadistic enforcer from the previous film whose early recognition of Caesar handbrakes the plot into vendetta. In the aftermath of nuclear holocaust, the ape revolt might have been forgotten, but even in the flames of self-annihilation revenge rises like a phoenix. Intriguingly, a more peaceful soul comes in the form of Kolp’s assistant Mendez, although his later assumption of power lays the roots of the House of Mendez found in Beneath. A crucial scene, found only in the film’s extended cut, sees Mendez and the surviving humans uncovering the same almighty weapon that would later bring an end to everything except paradox.
In the depths of New York, after Caesar has oddly heard the words of his father Cornelius rather than his mother Zira, it’s Virgil who steps in to paraphrase the earlier words of Dr Hasslein explaining the theory that there are a multitude of possible futures. It’s a fascinating reference, tying the film and timeline once again to the work of work of the scientist, now villain, who kick-started this whole journey. Soon after, Caesar escapes using a water hose, a further sly reference to the start of the franchise. But that brief trip is less about reference than foolhardiness; not only adding fuel to the gripes of disgruntled gorilla Aldo but reminding the embittered humans of the apes’ existence.
There is no such bitterness in Dawn, although there are many who mistrust the apes once they are discovered, just as there are apes who remember humans only too well. Dawn continues Rise’s excellent exploration of the human-ape relationship, and in a far subtler and more interesting way than the earlier cycle. Simply, the humans of the reboot are less pointless and powerless in the midst of ape ascendency. Even if their semblance of civilisation recall the barter towns of Mad Max’s Australia and the evenings of The Matrix’s Zion.
“Do they look like just apes to you”
For some of Dawn, humans and apes are able to work through an uneasy alliance to some form of trust. A major reason is the close bond Caesar held with the Rodmans during his formative years. Splintering out from their leader however, exacerbated by the upcoming generation of apes who have never encountered humans, mistrust remains at both extremes. Rather than the exploratory Caesar of Battle, Dawn’s ape leader remains on his home turf as he, crucially, lets humans into it. Instead, it’s the mentally and physically scarred bonobo Koba, released in the final acts of Rise, who arrives at the dilapidated ruins of San Francisco first. In the sheen of post-apocalypse San Francisco is given some quiet space to expand from Rise’s excellent use. It proves itself in the franchise’s clear attempt to move from the iconography of New York, that city seen afar as a ruined skyline in one of Battle’s best moments, that city that had dominated the first cycle of films. It’s far more effective than the late readjustment to Washington DC in Tim Burton’s reboot, but the West Coast is not quiet for long.
Koba has great reason to mistrust the humans who experimented on him before and during the previous film. A close ally of Caesars at the climax of Rise, where the emerging leader left the bonobo to determine his own judgement – to which he chose revenge – 10 years on he and Caesar share between them the extreme burden of emotion that sat solely on the shoulders of Caesar throughout Conquest and Battle. The irreconcilable argument of vengeance against man versus the need to avoid a hugely costly war that could destroy everything. In the 1970s that fell on the closing moments of Battle, and it’s that central argument that has great influence on Dawn. Completing his short journey, Koba takes up the mutinous baton from Aldo, the disgruntled gorilla who’s provides Caesar’s main opposition in Battle.
That’s a major shift, a deep-rooted difference of opinion, mainly experiential, within the same species of ape. In 2001 Tim Burton had singled chimpanzees out as the scariest apes, creating inter-species conflict that was too easily distracted by flipping their culture into a comedy skewering of humanity as they were freed from Boulle’s original, strict constraints.
“They’re talking apes with big ass spears”
The original film sequence took up Boulle’s lead, providing a strict tripartite division (at the time of filming, bonobos were considered to be the same species as the common chimpanzee), but that never fared very well when married to that society’s great founder being a chimpanzee.
While Burton’s rebooted potpourri robbed the original vision of its alien richness, Dawn takes a more realistic slant as it turns inter-ape antipathy into a core strength. “Apes together strong” can only be compelling, through resistance or proof, after a strong build up. By the time Aldo appeared in Battle we were well used to the militant and disagreeable gorillas, although prior to Battle they had seldom taken any interest in chimpanzees; more often preoccupied by tussling aggressively with Orang-utangs’ intellectualism. To prove their one-dimensional danger, Escape showed us a chimpanzee throttled by a contemporary and ‘unenlightened’ gorilla. Just because. Gorilla’s after all, are immensely easy to stereotype – and that’s true enough in the new rebooted universe. Wise Maurice the orang-utang returns as a teacher and wise counsel in Dawn, while the few gorillas in Caesar’s camp are reduced to door muscle. But the fact that it’s the bonobo, typically a more peaceful and subservient species than their cousin common chimpanzees, that is forced to extremes says much about the intentions of the revitalised series. The conflict of familial loyalty, Kobe’s background of mistreatment and Caesar’s rather cushy youth, fuels the two apes’ fall out rather than an elitist struggle for power. Dawn lets antagonisms grow with far more subtlety than Battle, and never reduces the humans to a toothless threat or a simple shortcut to trigger ape discord.
“I thought we had a chance.”
Aside from Caesar’s unlikely survival and Koba’s fall to evil, beyond the remotely plausible power of everlasting camcorder batteries, it’s a tricky feat to keep the main human protagonist Malcolm involved and critical. But Dawn manages it. Come the end and the desperate, destructive solution of Gary Oldman’s traumatised Dreyfus – a human as damaged by the effects of the virus outbreak as Koba is by human cruelty – we come as close to the wanton destruction of the original cycle as the new films have dared. In this case, we are knowingly and literally beneath the planet of the apes as the humans tussle far below the opposing leaders of the ape faction’s fight for supremacy at the top of the tower. “Are you out of your fucking mind?” Dreyfus says when his key lieutenant Malcolm betrays him – an inverse of Koba’s treachery – and of course, even in a film where we’re invited to invest so heavily on the side of the apes, he’s absolutely right: It’s only sensible for the humans to destroy the tower. It’s a bleak reality, and really helps to unnerve in an already unnerving, close to the bone blockbuster.
“I went looking for the past, but found our future”
Much as the humans represent a threat, it is the apes who provide the real conflict in both of these tellings. Having heard Cornelius’ voice in the damaged city of Dawn, it’s another ape bearing that name, who provides the pivot for the remainder of Battle. It’s a remarkable moment of tragedy when tensions boil over and Aldo fatally wounds Caesar’s eavesdropping son Cornelius. The young ape falls with the plaintiff cry of “father” as for the first time, ape has attempted to kill ape. Ultimately the close of the film provides Caesar a satisfying mirror of revenge. However, the justice in the method of Aldo’s death, a fall from a branch that couldn’t support his weight comes when the emergence of the truth has already isolated him.
“Every Caesar must have its Brutus”
That ape killed ape is the undoing of Aldo’s coup, and while Battle’s sweet fable justice may provide the franchise’s most Shakespearean moment it also ends the light and underexplored run of motivation for the films’ least verbose species. Appealingly fond of referring to themselves in the third person, it’s the gorillas who take first blood from both humans and apes as Battle follows its predecessor beat for beat. They even trigger the franchise’s first full war on the hour mark, just as the previous film had sprung Caesar’s uprising.
In Dawn, the roles are typically developed. The first act of ape killing ape comes on a tree, but is an attempt on Caesar himself, using the weapon that signifies man: a gun. In a later reference to Battle the rout of the human stronghold in San Francisco has Koba’s thirst for power leads him to savagely murder Ash, son of his old-ally Rocket, by dropping him over a balcony when he fails to follow his orders.
“I chose to trust him because he is ape”
Dawn overtly carries Caesar into the Resurrection story, moving from the Messiah analogy that fuelled Rise and the original saga’s latter storyline. It keeps the focus of the story on Caesar, but again widens the canvas by making him the victim and laying the way for his return. When he confronts Koba, the tree that signifies much of ape stability has transformed into a man-made tower, bringing a spectacular final set-piece (that Battle could never have dreamed of). On the flip-side, Dawn takes pains to fill out Koba’s motivation in comparison to Caesar. In many ways the bonobo’s poorly planned charge along a San Francisco street toward defending humans recalls Caesar’s uprising in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes far more than Rise’s bridge crossing was able to. It’s a return to the climax of Battle come Dawn’s high-level fight for supremacy, but both antagonist and protagonist have been enhanced by that point. That scrap also provides an alternative outlet for Caesar’s revenge. While Battle pushed Aldo into a corner to be the gorilla of his own downfall, having already lost the support of his kind, Dawn presents a real fight for leadership – where feasibly either could win – and where Caesar is confronted with the decision he gave Koba in 10 years before. Caesar chooses likewise, allowing Koba to fall to his doom, proclaiming that he’s not an ape.
“Now! Fight like Apes!”
The concept of what it means to be ‘ape’ has transcended ethnicity, as befitting a narrative that take pains to paint a greater range of greys on its canvas, alongside exploration of prejudice that would have felt right at home in the original saga. With his son, Blue Eyes, spared Cornelius’ death to rise to inherit the mantle that his father left, there’s a rewarding sub-story and continuity in the wings. This is a story that needs generations to unravel, something else that elevates Apes above standard blockbuster franchise fare. Blue Eye’s first words in the film are a reminder of that lineage as he says to his father, “let me help you”.
“From humans Koba learned hate”
While the end result and Caesar’s solution may differ, the motivations behind both film’s ape traitors is similar. Both Aldo and Koba hold too much mistrust of humans for any future to develop that doesn’t resemble the one Ulysse Mérou arrived in the pages of Pierre Boulle’s book or Taylor in the original film adaptation. Aldo, as a gorilla, with the weight of the franchise to back him up, is a shorthand for ape ambition and resentment. Koba’s treacherous turn to become Caesar’s Judas not only strengthens the concept’s allegory, but presents a mostly affecting figure in his own right. There are shreds of the human moralists, historians and leaders who have observed that power corrupts as that damaged child of human atrocity crosses his personal and species Rubicon. His experiences, in their own way viewable as an exploration of abuse, mean he simply cannot rationalise a cooperative future for ape and human. In resisting, Koba also demonstrates the power and intelligence of these apes, bleeding back into the political machinations that were central to the original book and film. Koba’s manipulation and exploitation is quick and effective in leading to an all-out skirmish with humanity.
On the other side, fitting the themes of Dawn and Battle, Caesar is a very serious ape, very much aware that he carries the future of the world on his shoulders. The return of man, a species he knows very well, was always a possibility; the chance of a challenge such as Koba’s was almost a certainty. To face it and defeat it he has to retreat to the animal; and once it had happened, the gears of war were already in motion. For all its compelling and intelligent narrative, Dawn like Battle before it, presents itself as a simple tale bridging the rise of the ape to inevitable conflict. Dawn is at pains to show that everybody has lost something in its universe, and there is greater sacrifice to be made. That’s part of the reason why the Apes saga remains one of Hollywood’s great dystopian franchises. Few films are ripped through with such a deep vein of pessimism.
Dystopia and the human factor
“I guess you might say they just joined the human race”
It’s easy to draw out some links between Battle and the dystopian Australian films that spawned Mad Max and a host of New World apocalyptic action films half a decade later. The humans beneath New York City have fuel and cars, and much like those Max would encounter, and are similarly motivated by their inherent sickness and unwittingly, lack of hope. Although mankind had lost the heart of that original saga two films earlier, in Battle they are truly playing second fiddle to the apes. Easily riled, simply fooled – with none of the eeriness of the mute nor telepathic men who would emerge later in that timeline, they seem to exist only to reinforce the founding principles of Caesar’s society. Even Caesar’s friends end the film encaged, again powerless in the face of Caesar’s decision.
In context, it’s strange to find Battle ending with a renewed devotion to maintaining a peaceful existence between human and ape, knowing the compelling horror of human fate that kicked off the franchise. There is little clue as to how next millennia would reduce humans to mute cattle. Of course, in a franchise that had sought to break, create and bend the temporal constantly, the events of Battle and the films before it could have rewritten history to ensure that Taylor would never arrive to discover humanity’s final mute fate (and destroy-create its own paradox in the process). However Battle’s epilogue, where the young surround Huston’s Lawgiver as he states that perhaps “only the dead” know the future, reinforces the idea of fate and inevitability.
For yes, the Lawgiver isn’t addressing us at home, but a mixed group of child apes and humans. And far from Caesar’s triumphant proclamation at the end of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, that’s backed up when Battle ends with a passive shot of a controversial tear rolling from the eye of a statue of Caesar, the ape founder 600 years dead. That decision was laid at the feet of Ape-aficionado Paul Dehn, after overcoming the illness that removed him from the project to provide rewrites, it concludes the cycle with a whimper and a slight sense of unfulfillment. It’s also a decision that Corringtons, the husband and wife writer team who penned most of the plot, described as “Stupid”.
“Apes do not want war but will fight if we must”
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes ends with no such whimper. The huge fight scenes in San Francisco easily outdo the bridge battle of the previous film, and having to engineer the divergence of ape kind and humans once again, Caesar tussles with the inevitability of conflict as human military appears on the horizon. There’s the inevitable again, the fact that circumstances and events will always and have always prevented the unity that Caesar and Malcolm try to create. This time, the story concludes with a shot not of Caesar’s tears, but resignation in the ape’s green-flecked eyes. Dawn ends not with the vanquishing of human and ape conflict, but the promise of it.
“War has already begun. Ape started war”
Cue: War for the Planet of the Apes.
Resolution of the apes
“This bloody chain reaction has to stop”
Battle found the Apes saga had finally run out of steam, unsurprisingly worn out from putting some of cinema’s most visionary concepts to screen over half decade. It was two years before Jaws, four before a new kind of science fiction arrived with Star Wars and six before Alien redefined horror science fiction. For all that was timeless about the franchise, it seemed very much a child of the 1960s. In the same amount of time that the original saga took, Dawn has left the prospect of a tantalising third instalment that promises to deepen the intricate and captivating plot still further (along with strong box office).
While it’s easy to relish the multiple concepts and timelines that have emerged from this franchise over nearly 50 years, there must be one lesson. It would be a great shame to find this storyline cut off abruptly. Doubt has been cast over whether the current franchise eyes a return to the future, despite that Easter egg of a missing space mission that was laid in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Certainly, much as Paul Dehn found in the early 1970s, there are many stories still to be mined from the ascendancy of the apes. A year after Warner Brother’s kick-started its DC Comics franchise with a difficult, character building assassination in Man of Steel, Dawn had Caesar choose the same with far less controversy. In an ever-changing environment, the Apes have proven themselves timeless once again and quite possibly more equipped to traverse the blockbuster terrain of relevant and introspective blockbusters than any other franchise.
When it comes to dystopia, apes lead the pack. It’s inevitable. The bloody chain reaction will go on forever.