Reboot to the future: The Rise and Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

In the month that marks the 48th anniversary of the first Planet of the Apes film and the start of the Year of the MonkeyJokerside’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…

Escape from the Planet of the Apes

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. Read more…

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