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Monday, June 10, 2024

The modern ‘Planet of the Apes’ series is a sleeper masterpiece

The film saga is the gold standard of reboots — why is it still slept on?


By JOAQUIN WATERS — jwat@ucdavis.edu


“You might not like what you find.” These are the words spoken to Charlton Heston’s marooned astronaut in the 1968 film, “Planet of the Apes.” He is told not to go looking for answers about the ape-ruled world he is trapped in. Sure enough, Heston falls to his knees upon discovering the ruins of the Statue of Liberty, realizing that this supposedly alien planet run by super-intelligent apes is, in fact, Earth thousands of years into the future. “You maniacs!” Heston cries, “You blew it up!” It is an ingenious, thought-provoking sci-fi twist ripped straight out of “The Twilight Zone” (in fact, the original “Apes” was penned by “Twilight Zone” creator Rod Serling), and it is one of the most iconic moments in film history. 

Unfortunately, the scene’s iconic status now means that practically everybody sitting down to watch the film today knows it’s coming, even if they know nothing else about the movie. It’s a problem shared with most of the great film twists: everybody knows that Bruce Willis is dead the whole time in “The Sixth Sense,” that Norman Bates is the killer in “Psycho” and that Darth Vader is Luke’s father (apologies if you didn’t know, but come on, you totally do). 

These twists have a diminishing effect on their respective stories. When the surprise ending is the whole point of the movie, watching it with that knowledge tends not to be nearly as rewarding an experience. So, understandably, the “Planet of the Apes” film series languished for decades, plopping out the occasional limp sequel in the 1970s and an ill-fated attempt at a remake in 2001. None were very successful because, well, where can you go from there?

At long last, an answer was found. In 2011, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” was released. “Rise” is the seventh “Apes” film, but chronologically, it is a prequel set in (at the time present-day) 2011, explaining the origins of the super-intelligent apes and the circumstances behind humanity’s downfall. Already, this was a strong decision: rather than exploring the aftermath of the original, tackling the loaded implications of the iconic “it was Earth the whole time” reveal allows the series more freedom and intellectual weight. 

The film more than lives up to that promise. Rather than a campy action schlock-fest like most previous attempts at continuing the franchise, “Rise” is a slow-paced, thought-provoking and frequently depressing sci-fi parable about human hubris and animal cruelty. It takes its ludicrous premise (talking apes taking over the world) as seriously as possible. 

A scientist in San Francisco is trying to discover a cure for Alzheimer’s by testing a brain-enhancing viral drug on apes. The drugs work on one — a chimp named Caesar, who is adopted by the scientist only to wind up in a cruel animal shelter. Waking up to the injustice of how humans treat primates, Caesar stages a rebellion among his ape brethren, gradually increasing his intelligence. Meanwhile, further attempts at getting the viral drug to work on humans result in a deadly pandemic that wipes out 90% of the human race. It’s seriously grim stuff, not to mention unapologetically political — as all great sci-fi should be. Rod Serling would be proud.

Even more important than the writing (although the writing’s quality cannot be overstated) to “Rise’s” success is the great Andy Serkis as Caesar. Serkis is a motion-capture wizard best known for bringing Gollum to life in the “Lord of the Rings” films, but as far as I’m concerned, “Apes” is his best work. While the early films occasionally used hokey makeup and prosthetics to bring the apes to life, “Rise” and its sequels use motion capture, which, to the uninitiated, involves filming actors on set and layering a Computer Generated Image (CGI) character over their performance. The influence of the modern “Apes” films on motion capture cannot be overstated. The “Apes” films legitimized the craft. The entire team who worked to bring Caesar and his ilk to the screen — actors and VFX artists alike — deserve Oscars, especially Serkis himself, whose powerful, layered acting as Caesar is one of the great on-screen performances of the modern age, CGI be damned.

“Rise” was a sleeper hit, resulting in two sequels helmed by acclaimed director Matt Reeves: “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” released in 2014, and “War for the Planet of the Apes,” released in 2017. These three films chart the life of Caesar, from precocious child to grizzled old simian statesman, as he attempts to make peace with the fractured remnants of humanity in “Dawn” and begrudgingly battles them in “War.” The trilogy unfolds like a Greek tragedy, with each installment adding new layers to the foundation “Rise” built — from Biblical imagery to allusions to the rise and fall of Ancient Rome (fitting, given Caesar’s namesake), to the American slave trade, all coming back to the same central question: can intelligent beings live together in peace, or are even the best of us doomed to repeat the same cycle of war and tyranny for time immemorial? It’s dark and heady material, punctuated by thrilling action sequences and truly astounding VFX. It is, in short, a perfect film series. So why isn’t it discussed more?

For what it’s worth, these films are not languishing in obscurity. They are big-budget mainstream Hollywood productions that have received rave reviews with each passing installment. But they seem to fade from public consciousness far too quickly, never making as big a cultural mark as their immensely high quality suggests they should. The modern “Apes” films are a genuine contender for the best film franchise of the last 30 years. Yet, they are rarely mentioned this way and often brought up only in passing statements like “Hey, those movies are surprisingly good.” 

The latest installment, “Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes,” released just this month and set hundreds of years after the previous three, continues that tradition. It has received rave reviews and a solid box office, yet it still sits in the vast shadow of other recent hits like “Dune: Part Two” and “Civil War.” It’s just as well. Time will tell how the “Apes” films are remembered, and I suspect their reputation will vastly grow with time. Until that day comes, I will continue to espouse the gospel of Caesar: watch “Planet of the Apes.” You will like what you find.


Written by: Joaquin Waters — jwat@ucdavis.edu 

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by individual columnists belong to the columnists alone and do not necessarily indicate the views and opinions held by The California Aggie.


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