~ The DVD Journal: Planet of the Apes: The Evolution (complete series)

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Planet of the Apes: The Evolution (complete series)

Fox Home Video

A collection of all five Planet of the Apes films (1968-73)

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Review by Alexandra DuPont                    

i. Preamble, and Apologia.

It's just so tempting to dismiss the five-chapter Planet of the Apes series as mere sci-fi junk food, as camp, as pop-culture trash. The effects are dated. The masks are cheesy. Heston overacts. Roddy McDowall is a chimp and, moreover, a pansy. It spawned a TV series and a Saturday-morning cartoon in the early '70s that both tanked. They made fun of it on "The Simpsons" (you know — that musical version where the animated Heston manqué sings "You finally made a monkey out of me"?). It's something your parents used to park you in front of the TV to watch on Sunday afternoons, so it must be kiddie fare.

Well, I just sat down and watched the entire Planet of the Apes DVD box set — all five films, plus a terrific supplemental documentary hosted by McDowall — in the DVD Journal's screening room. My initial impressions are as follows, in descending order of importance:

1. My eyes hurt.

2. It is deeply, deeply amusing to me that parents let their kids park in front of the TV and watch these films on Sunday afternoons. It's amusing because — with the partial exception of Battle for the Planet of the Apes, the fifth and thank God final installment in the series — these films are subversive, apocalyptic, nihilistic, distrustful of all authority, violent as hell, and sad, but sad in that hope-leeching, mean-spirited way that, say, Titanic isn't. The Apes series gets away with being labeled kiddie fare, of course, because of those cheesy ape masks. If I may haul out that tired defense geek philosophers use to justify their love of "Star Trek": The best science fiction/fantasy — as practiced on TV by Roddenberry (on occasion) and Serling and in print by Bradbury and Gibson et al — acts as a sort of American kabuki, coding universal human truths into a deceptively broad opera of metaphors.

I always think geeks spout the above defense to justify their urge to ogle Nichelle Nichols in a short skirt and go-go boots, but in the case of the Apes films, the apologia works. In spite of the dated latex and supposed overacting, the five films tell an epic story that's packed with social and philosophical observations and stick-in-your-craw images and dialogue — a story that remains intriguing, for me, in part because of its (im)perfectly circular structure.

I know of no other filmed narrative cycle that you could, theoretically, start watching with any of the five movies, only to have the "ending" of the last film lead inexorably to the first film. I know of no fantasy series with the stones to stage its apocalypse early on, letting it hang like a shroud over every character and plot point for three more installments, with no guarantee of averting said apocalypse as the series "ends." (According to the box set's documentary, the filmmakers apparently came upon this structure by accident, but in my mind that only makes it more inventive.) It doesn't surprise me that James Cameron was once slated to remake the series — he'd already adapted this narrative conceit for his Terminator films.

Don't get me wrong: The series is, in many ways, most admirable when examined as a whole from a fairly fuzzy distance. A lot of the little moments don't hold up, and the experience of watching a series of films in which the budget shrinks for each sequel even as the series' narrative ambitions escalate is ambivalent at best. It's probably wise in today's effects-driven, thrill-a-minute sci-fi climate to approach these movies as one might a collected TV miniseries, with all the critical generosity one accords such entertainments. If you do that, there are considerable rewards to be had.

Anyway. Following are my general impressions from the marathon. It should be disclaimed that these impressions are colored by the consumption of multiple alcoholic beverages; and that these impressions contain crucial plot "spoilers," unapologetically offered because (a) the DVD box set reveals them in its cover art anyway, and (b) this series began over three decades ago, for pity's sake. If you haven't heard about that Statue of Liberty bit by now....

I. Planet of the Apes (1968)

The story: Time-traveling astronaut Charlton Heston crash-lands on an arid planet and is captured by talking apes. Because other humans on the planet can't talk, Heston's hammy loquaciousness leads to a parodic inversion of the Scopes Monkey Trial — with accompanying Church/State/Science conflicts and silly, marvelous, brazen metaphors.

Bizarro Ending (spoiler alert): Heston discovers he has in fact landed on a distant-future Earth, and that the ape society is an apparent product of nuclear war.

Effect(s) Creatively Glossed Over Due to Budget Constraints: A spaceship crash — beautifully replaced with first-person-perspective aerial nose-dive shots.

Axiomatic Truth(s): Throwing nets on people automatically makes them collapse to the ground; Charlton Heston looks perfectly at home half-naked on horseback carrying a rifle.

Summary of Major Findings: Awarded a special Oscar for makeup effects, the technical aspects of Planet of the Apes hold up remarkably well — setting a standard that was, sadly, unmet in later installments, as the budget apparently kept decreasing for each sequel. Chuck Heston overacts completely in every scene, but like the "great" William Shatner, he is so utterly, 110-percent committed to every single moment that his performance, in my mind, achieves a sort of perfection — lodging itself in your mental craw as effectively as Jerry Goldsmith's avant-garde, timpani-addled score. Ultimately, what elevates Planet of the Apes in part beyond '60s schlock is its high-concept, "Twilight Zone"-ish story — co-written with real skill by Rod Serling and handled in wondrously economical, confident fashion by Schaffner, who went on to direct, of all things, Patton. For all its histrionics, Apes offers a precise allegory of mankind's worst impulses - our history of fear and superstition, and how civilizations have used such forces to discredit rational scientific inquiry - so that the imprisonment of Taylor and his absurd, Kafkaesque trial can fill the viewer with righteous indignity. Considering that the prosecutors are all wearing monkey-masks, that's quite an achievement.

II. Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970)

The story: A second astronaut (James Franciscus) comes looking for Heston — only to find that ol' Chuck's been captured by intelligent, telepathic human mutants who live underground and worship an unused atomic bomb that could destroy the planet.

Bizarro Ending (spoiler alert): After apes invade the mutant lair and start blasting everything in sight, a mortally wounded Heston, in a fit of nihilistic disgust, pushes a button and blows everybody — and everything — to smithereens. Fade to black. Sheesh!

Effect(s) Glossed Over Due to Budget Constraints: Sadly, the monkey masks — which are almost parodically bad in crowd scenes.

Axiomatic Truth(s): Gorillas are stupid warmongers; telepathic communication is accompanied by individually distinguishable, utterly annoying electronic tones; "futuristic" people wear "futuristic" clothes; astronauts visiting the future will be placed in loincloths as soon as possible.

Apocrypha: Why would the U.S. government send a "rescue" team after an astronaut whose very mission description involves hurtling hundreds of years through time? Did he forget his lunch?

Summary of Major Findings: In almost every sense, Beneath comes off as Diet Apes: The social commentary is ham-fisted (War senseless! Religious war even worse!); the story structure is so unfocused as to be almost picaresque; and James Franciscus, though possessed of better abs, comes off as "Lil' Heston" in his role as the follow-up astronaut (which is admittedly a little unfair to James F.'s more understated performance). Plus, the whole affair is just so relentlessly grim; the DVD Journal's editor had to restrain me from putting a 9mm to my temple as the credits rolled over a creepy silence. It's Nihilism Plus Ultra.

That said, there's once scene in Beneath that achieves an effect that is positively Lynchian, if I may mis-use the term a little. I am referring, of course, to the infamous "Mass for the Bomb" sequence, wherein the mutants pull off (what were not known until that moment to be) masks, revealing creepy striated mutant faces, even as they worship an atomic bomb in an underground cathedral. This is deeply silly stuff — but director Ted Post then tops it off by having the mutants singing a deliriously off-key "All Things Bright and Beautiful" — which for me pushes the scene so far over the top that it crawls into your brain and roots around as if it were a scene from Eraserhead.

Fun Fact: If you want to listen to the "Mass for the Bomb" loudly at work, alienating co-workers with Edward Norton-esque efficiency, you can actually buy the Beneath soundtrack on CD exclusively at www.filmscoremonthly.com.

III. Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971)

The story: Chimpanzee scientists from the first two films (Roddy McDowall and Kim Hunter) take Heston's spaceship and travel back in time to 1970s America. They become celebrities — until the government finds out (a) that the talking chimps are trained vets who dissected/will dissect mute-human "animals" in the future, and (b) that everybody gets blown to smithereens in a couple of millennia.

Bizarro Ending (spoiler alert): McDowall and Hunter's chimp scientists are assassinated so they can't raise a talking insurrectionist ape; but beforehand, they hide their already-birthed, future-talking-insurrectionist ape baby in a circus — run by, dear Lord, the charming Ricardo Montalban.

Effects Glossed Over Due to Budget Constraints: The chimps' spacecraft is fished from the sea by the lowest-rent military rescue operation in history, which consists of a chopper, a couple of frogmen and several Jeeps.

Axiomatic Truth(s): All apes on Earth, speaking or mute, with the exception of infant chimps, now look like people in bad costumes, with no one seeming to notice or care; also, the President's high-profile Minister of Science (Eric Braeden, cool as ice) will personally pack a pistol and do the dirty work normally given to soldiers or covert assassins.

Apocrypha: In the first film, the chimps boggle when Heston's character makes a paper airplane; but for Escape's premise to work, we must believe that, in an appallingly short time frame, the future chimps found Heston's (sunken) spacecraft, repaired it, mastered its controls, and flew it into space and backwards in time.

Summary of Major Findings: It's a testament to Escape's considerable charms that we swallow the above lunatic premise hook, line and sinker. We also get two films in one: Director Don Taylor plays the first half as self-referential farce, with some dryly funny sequences involving the testing of the chimps by a befuddled scientist duo (Bradford Dillman, Natalie Trundy). While the humor's laid on a bit thick once the apes go "on the town" and try on '70s fashions (yes, there is the inevitable clothes-shopping sequence), the first half is a breath of fresh air after the relentless nihilism of Beneath.

And then, this being an Apes film, matters get alarmingly nasty, and fast. At this point in the viewing marathon, I realized that one of the signatures of the series is that, in Paul Dehn's screenplays (he wrote three of the four sequels and came up with the story for Battle), all moments go quite a bit further than necessary to make their dramatic point. Case in point: The chimps become fugitives when Cornelius (McDowall) strikes a young man in anger after his unborn child is called a "monkey" (apparently the equivalent of the "n-word" in Ape City). Modern screenwriters would stop there: But in Dehn's script, Cornelius kills the kid — and barely shows remorse, save a pathetic "I didn't mean to" 10 minutes later. It grays out the moral landscape a little, giving the apes a valid reason to run and the humans a valid reason to see them as a threat.

What's truly wonderful about Escape is that it allows Roddy McDowall to emerge as the heart and soul of the Apes series, followed closely by Kim Hunter as his chimp wife Zira. One of the great pleasures of an Apes marathon is watching McDowall find new ways to express emotion through the monkey makeup (save in Beneath, where his barely-there character is played by David Watson). Without his total commitment, expressive voice, and complete lack of embarrassment or irony under the makeup, the later sequels would be — and I don't think I'm exaggerating here — a complete waste of celluloid.

IV. Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972)

The story: It's 20 years later, in the "future" — i.e., 1991. The talking-chimp baby has grown up (into an ape played, again, by McDowall) under Montalban's care, and the two are separated in an unnamed city where apes have been co-opted as a slave/servant class.

Bizarro Ending (spoiler alert): McDowall is enslaved, Montalban is killed — and the film turns into a disturbing vengeance/uprising drama of frankly Shakespearean (and, pretty obviously, black-militant) proportions. By the end, apes have killed hundreds of jack-booted police by sheer force of numbers and control the city.

Effects Glossed Over Due to Budget Constraints: Plague that killed all the dogs and cats on Earth, leading to the adoption of apes as pets and, later, slaves; convincing ape masks; and, alas, quality Hollywood film lighting.

Axiomatic Truth(s): All apes walk like they just ate several large, colon-blowing meals; police can be easily defeated via tackling, short segments of rope round the neck; apes can be organized and taught basic welding, weapons usage with hardly any language training.

Apocrypha: The story of the ape uprising doesn't quite jibe with how Cornelius recounts it in Escape.

Summary of Major Findings: This is, in many ways, the Empire Strikes Back of the Apes saga — it's a hard-core geek favorite revered for its stripped-down production design, taut revenge story and lean nastiness (it is, after all, the only Apes film to get a then-dreaded PG rating). Two things became immediately apparent during my marathon viewing:

1. This is just about the worst-lit mainstream Hollywood film I have ever seen, with natural light used to ill effect in almost every daytime exterior shot. I swear, it comes off like Italian horror. The DVD restoration only makes this budget-induced murkiness more appalling; when compared to the gorgeous crispness of the first film, it's mortally offensive.

2. That said, what may be the most powerful moment of the Apes series can be found here: A final, rousing speech by McDowall, backed by flames and punctuated with tight close-ups, about future ape uprisings that comes off like Henry V's "babies pitted upon pikes" monologue by way of the Black Panthers. (Fearing weariness and drink might have colored my perceptions of this scene's power, the above impression has been double-confirmed by site contributor Greg Dorr and the Journal's own editor in repeated viewings; if he weren't in latex, McDowall would have been nominated for an Oscar for this scene alone, I swear.)

V. Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973)

The story: It's 10 years (or so) later; there's been, rather rudely, a thermonuclear war between films. McDowall's character now runs a sort of Rennaisance Faire-ish community with apes (who can now, inexplicably, talk and dress just as they did in the first film) and humans barely co-existing. Mutants from the nearby nuked city come a-calling — with artillery.

Bizarro Ending (spoiler alert): Apes kick slow-moving mutant hiney, and there's a note of hope for a man/ape future — or is there?

Effects Glossed Over Due to Budget Constraints: Conveniently offscreen nuclear war; battle scenes come off like Renaissance Faire patrons battling hybrid local militia/angry bus drivers.

Axiomatic Truth(s): Gorillas always ride beautiful black stallions; apes can learn to read and speak and adopt human cultural mores, prejudices with savant-like quickness.

Apocrypha: The Lawgiver (played by John Huston!), well-known for his rips on mankind in the first film, presides over a happy human/ape society in the film's bookending sequences.

Summary of Major Findings: As a lass, this was my favorite Apes film. Now I know why; it was the first installment crafted exclusively for childlike mindsets.

Paul Dehn stepped away from the scenarist's desk for Battle after coming up with a story, leaving scribe duties to John and Joyce "Omega Man" Corrington. Perhaps at someone's behest, the Corringtons dumbed down the dialogue, de-nuanced the villains, and just generally gave director J. Lee Thompson (who also directed Conquest) some pretty cartoony, TV-series-ish material to work with.

The less written about this, the Return of the Jedi of the Apes series, the better. That said, there are a handful of good points. There is a pleasing triptych of characters, for example, in McDowall's ape leader, Austin Stoker's human badazz and wee singer Paul Williams' navel-gazing orangutan; one wishes the trio were used better in their scenes together. Also, some scenes of familial grief and revenge over a gorilla conspiracy (led by a snazzy Claude Akins as the gorrilla general) give McDowall some of his most potent moments in the series.

But still. Battle defied audience expectations (well, mine, anyway), by daring to interject a hopeful ending — the horror! — thankfully rendered somewhat ambivalent by a very silly crying statue.

Fun Facts: (1) When McDowall cries "Fight like apes!" put your DVD on frame-by-frame; you can clearly see the actor's human mouth forming the words. (2) A scene has apparently been cut from the movie for the DVD edition — a short but crucial moment in which two mutants discuss preserving the bomb that will later be worshipped by their creepy ancestors. I remembered this scene from my youth, and my suspicions about its deletion are all but confirmed by an imdb.com user comment on that site's Battle for the Planet of the Apes page. Curious.

Postscript: Some Brief Technical Notes

This is a perfectly dandy box set — I mean, it's just dandy that it's finally coming out, given that the restored set's been out for a couple of years now on videocassette — but temper your expectations vis a vis supplemental materials. An identical set of trailers and previews for all five films (and the documentary) can be found on each disc — plus an unnecessary teaser for a video game that's obviously in the early stages of coding — but beyond some intriguing conceptual artwork on the first film's disc, the occasional production stills, and a Web link, there really aren't a lot of goodies to be had here.

That said, a sixth disc in the box set features the outstanding, two-hour 1998 "Behind the Planet of the Apes" documentary, hosted by McDowall shortly before he succumbed to cancer. It's packed with just the sorts of interviews and test footage and other supplemental info that would normally be menu-accessible had such a documentary not been made, so quit whining already.

The source prints are all lovingly restored — though, as mentioned earlier, said restoration makes the lighting flaws on Conquest as offensive as flatulence in church. I also encountered a couple of layer-switch freeze ups, but that's quibbling. And finally, a word to the wise: The animated menus are clever, but turn down the volume if you leave them onscreen for any length of time; if you don't, the discordant score excerpts, which play on an endless loop, will start sounding like the music in Hell's waiting room. You have been warned.

— Alexandra DuPont

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