By Matt Singer
After four movies in five years, the “Planet of the Apes” series was on its last legs. But it hung around for one more unwelcome entry (kind of like this column), and then returned not-so-triumphantly (kind of like this column) for one of the most widely disliked remakes of all time. It is this dark territory that I venture into this week. If I don’t return in a thousand years, send James Franciscus in after me.
Please note: Most “Planet of the Apes” films have a “shocking” twist that everyone at this point already knows. However, if you have somehow extricated yourself from forty years of pop culture references, by all means be wary of SPOILERS ahead.
“Battle for the Planet of the Apes” (1973)
Directed by J. Lee Thompson
Synopsis: In an indeterminate time after the events of 1972’s “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes” and the ensuing nuclear war (possibly 12 or 27 years, depending on which character’s talking), the remnants of ape and human societies maintain an uneasy peace. In the wake of the last film’s primate revolution, the slave/master roles have been reversed: The apes, led by Caesar (Roddy McDowell, returning to his second “Apes” role for a second time) are in charge, and men are their servants. After a human named MacDonald (Austin Stoker) tells Caesar of recordings of his parents buried somewhere in the ruins of the Forbidden Zone, they travel there, only to discover the first wisps of the mutated, bomb-worshiping cult that figured prominently in “Beneath the Planet of the Apes.” Their incursion into the mutants’ territory sparks another battle between the armies of man and beast that threatens to end 12 (or maybe 27) years of interspecies peace.
Until! …well, nothing really. The titular “Battle” happens, Caesar and MacDonald agree to live together as equals, and John Huston appears as an orangutan named “The Lawgiver” to reinforce the film’s message of unity. The closest thing to a twist is the final image; a shot of a statue of Caesar that sheds a single tear as the credits role. But the only thing really shocking about that is the pretension that’s on display. The statue, you see — it’s crying! Because… well, to be perfectly frank, we’re not entirely sure why it’s crying. But it is! And that means beneath the bad makeup, bad acting and the bad special effects, this cash-grabbing fourth installment is important, dammit! Feeeeel the gravity!
Metaphors of the Apes: At this point, the series had basically run out of ideas, and that extends to its subtext as well, which this go around is just a rehash of the same old, same old. Fine sentiments, but they’ve been fine sentiments for four movies now. I know you’re trying your hardest, “Planet of the Apes” movies, but if humanity hasn’t realized that warmongering and racism are bad by this point, I’m not sure you’re going to sway them now.
People Forget: That John Landis co-stars in “Battle for the Planet of the Apes.” You heard right — “Animal House” director John Landis appears prominently in the credits of “Battle.” Not that he appears prominently in the film, mind you — he plays “Jake’s Friend” and having just watched the film for a second time, I still have no idea who that is.
Work Within Your Means: As each “Apes” received a smaller budget, each struggled with its sense of scale. They’re called “Planet of the Apes,” and with each installment, the percentage of said planet we get to see shrinks significantly. By this, the fifth and final installment, we’re limited to an “Ape City” — basically a third-rate Ewok Village — and a underground mutant community lit so dimly that it could have realistically been filmed on the set of “All in the Family” during the show’s summer hiatus and no one would have noticed. As for the so-called armies of man and beast, they may be the first armies in history that could be comfortably outnumbered by the members of a professional basketball team. Caesar conquered the world, fellas. He’s not going to be intimidated by eight guys in a beat-up old school bus. Seriously. They drive on Ape City in a big yellow bus.
The Don Murray Award For Scenery Chewing Goes to: Claude Akins as the evil ape General Aldo. In his acceptance speech, Akins would no doubt thank his screenwriters, John William Corrington and Joyce Hooper Corrington, without whom this recognition would not be possible. After all, it is they who gave his laughably simplistic character dialogue like “We want GUNS! GUNS are POWER!” And I know you’re trying to convince us you’re a gorilla, Claude, but at least half those grunts are unnecessary.
Continuity Boo-Boos: This fairly unremarkable picture distinguishes itself in just one category: the number of things about it that don’t make a lick of sense. As I mentioned earlier, the exact amount of time between “Conquest of” and “Battle for the Planet of the Apes” is incredibly vague. The gruesome Governor Kolp (Severn Darden) mentions an armistice that’s lasted 12 years; the guard at Caesar’s armory claims to have worked the job in the same ramshackle hut for 27 years. The weird thing is that, either way, every ape in the entire world has learned to talk in the course of a single generation. It’s an extraordinary feat when you think about it — in tens of thousands of years, apes have collectively spoken nothing. In 12 (or 27) years, Caesar has taught all of them while simultaneously razing the earth to the ground. That is some hellacious multitasking.
(On a side note, how come all the dusty, broken electronics on the Planet of the Apes all still work? And where is all the electricity coming from?)
“Planet of the Apes” (2001)
Directed by Tim Burton
Synopsis: In the year 2029, on a space station full of astronauts and astroapes, Leon Davidson (Mark Wahlberg) trains a chimp named Pericles to pilot a little rocket ship. When a freak electromagnetic storm appears, Pericles is sent against Leo’s orders to investigate. When Pericles’ pod vanishes, Leo hops in another pod and gets sucked into the storm. He’s tossed 1000 years into the future and crashes on a nearby planet where he’s shocked to discover a society where apes reign supreme and men are kept as slaves and pets. He’s captured, but escapes with the help of a sympathetic chimp named Ari (Helena Bonham Carter) and later, they’re chased across the planet by the brutal General Thade (Tim Roth). In the middle of a battle between Leo’s allies and Thade’s army, Pericles lands in his pod. Leo takes it and heads back into an electromagnetic storm, bound for his own time back on Earth…
Until! …he crash lands once again, this time on a planet that looks like Earth and has a city that looks like Washington D.C., only the Lincoln Memorial is now a monument to General Thade. As Leo tries to figure out what the hell that means, a bunch of ape policemen and ape soldiers pull up in their ape cars and ape tanks and ape arrest him. On his DVD commentary for the film, director Tim Burton says that the notorious “Ape Lincoln” image was intended as a cliffhanger designed to facilitate additional movies, and declines to explain further for fear of undercutting the dramatic impact of future sequels. It’s a convenient excuse, anyway; Burton’s intense stammering hints at a different truth (Sample commentary: “To me, I wouldn’t have taken it further. I wouldn’t have explained any more even — whatever — if I could of, or — whatever…”). Still, he remains defiant in his film’s defense. “I’m not quite sure what people are responding to,” he shrugs, “because for me, I had no problem with the ending.” The most likely explanation of the Ape Lincoln statue? Pretty simple, actually; Leo leaves Thade trapped but still alive on the Planet of the Apes. So Thade must have found some working remnant of Leo’s technology amongst the wreckage of his ship and used it to go to Earth at some point before 2029 and reshape it in his image. As for those proposed sequels, they seem to have vanished, like an astronaut sent into an electromagnetic storm.
Metaphors of the Apes: The cornerstones of “Apes” iconography — racial inequality, religious fundamentalism, unchecked militarism — are all present, but they’re significantly tamped down in the interest of making an uninspired chase picture. Much of that has to do with Wahlberg and his (non-) character Leo, who, unlike nearly all the protagonists in the original “Apes” series, has absolutely no opinion about any of the issues the films traditionally explore. Where Taylor left Earth to escape mankind’s faults (only to find himself doomed by them once more), Leo wound up on this Planet of the Apes (one that is most certainly not our own) mostly because he cared a little bit too much about a monkey. Once he’s there, all he wants to do is go home. He’s not a scientist or an explorer or a philosopher. The role calls for Wahlberg to do nothing but look determined in the elegantly tattered remains of the impossibly chic space suit. Evidently at some point before 2029, G-Star purchases the exclusive rights to design all of NASA’s uniforms.
People Forget: That this movie’s storyline is actually closer to the one in the original novel by French author Pierre Boulle. There, as in Burton’s version, a human has an adventure on an alien world with dominant apes, and returns to Earth only to discover that it, too, is now ruled by a bunch of talking gorillas. Burton’s sin isn’t one of faithfulness to his source; it’s one of boring his audience.
The Don Murray Award For Scenery Chewing Goes to: Roth as General Thade. His makeup, designed by Rick Baker, may be far more complex, but the character is just as simplistic as Aldo, another utterly one-dimensional tyrant. And I know you’re trying to convince us you’re a chimpanzee, Tim, but at least two-thirds of those snarls and seven-eighths of those nostril flares are unnecessary.
After Seven Years It’s Easy to Seem Dated: This “Apes” was made at the height of Hollywood’s love affair with wirework stunts and boy, does it ever show. Whenever Thade smacks someone upside their heads, they go careening away as if they’ve been shot out of a cannon. That bad wire-fu effect — where the action says someone is being pushed, but the body language of the person flying through the air says they’re being pulled by digitally erasable cabling — permeates (and pretty much ruins) every major action sequence.
Continuity Boo-Boos: The humans in this “Planet of the Apes” can still speak, which makes their enslavement tough to swallow. If they’ve kept their intelligence, what’s led to humanity’s fall? Kris Kristofferson should have no problem showing these apes who’s the boss. Such is the magic of these films: I have no problem accepting talking apes on an alien world, but the fact that the humans are wearing banana leaves bothers me.
[Photos: “Battle for the Planet of the Apes,” 20th Century Fox, 1973; Tim Burton’s “Planet of the Apes,” 20th Century Fox, 2001]