Film and drama

Screen Themes: War and the Evolution of Planet of the Apes

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Put on your monkey makeup and suspend your disbelief, entertainment editor John Turnbull is checking out the most recent Planet of the Apes movie and taking us back to the beginning of the story.

War for the Planet of the Apes

Directed by Matt Reeves (2017)

A little backstory for readers unfamiliar with the recent Planet of the Apes reboot: some time in the near future, scientists come up with a potential treatment for traumatic brain disorders that results in a pandemic that wipes out most of the human race. At the same time, the primary test subject for the treatment, a chimpanzee named Ceasar, becomes increasingly intelligent and eventually develops the ability to talk. As the surviving humans take revenge on the primates, Ceasar shares his gift with other apes and the tensions continues to rise.

Starring Andy Serkis (channeling Clint Eastwood) as Ceasar, Steve Zahn as Bad Ape and Woody Harrelson as the unbalanced Colonel, War for the Planet of the Apes (henceforth known simply as War) is the final movie of the new trilogy and goes all out to tell the ultimate man vs monkey tale. As Ceasar and his tribe try to live peaceful lives, they are hunted by the renegade Colonel and his platoon of true believers, determined to wipe out the apes before their own inevitable demise.

Emotionally engaging, beautifully shot and action-packed, the real appeal of War lies in the performance of the key players. In his third film in the role, Serkis is note-perfect as Ceasar — a noble creature pushed to violence by the influence of man. As his nemesis, Woody Harrelson gives what is perhaps a career-defining performance, delivering a Brando-like character that establishes Woody from Cheers as one of the best actors of his generation. Last but not least, Steve Zahn brings some much needed comic relief to the tale as former zoo resident and snappy dresser Bad Ape, the innocent counterpoint to Ceasar’s increasingly militant leader.  

Despite what the cutesy posters and action-packed TV commercials might have you believe, War for the Planet of the Apes is not suitable for children. Aside from the War mentioned in the title (which gives Dunkirk a run for brutality), there are copious scenes of man-on-ape violence, slavery, torture and even a crucifixion or two.

At 2 hours and 20 minutes War is also a little long, although this is more of a symptom of the current trend towards lazy editing rather than poor direction on the part of Matt Reeves. Reeves has taken over directorial duties on the next Batman movie and, based on War, I’m cautiously optimistic…

Rich with metaphor, amazing creature effects and probably the best Planet of the Apes film to date, War is definitely worth checking out on the big screen if you get the chance. But leave the kids at home.

Evolution of the Planet of the Apes

Based on the 1963 novel Le Planete des singes (Monkey Planet), the first Planet of the Apes movie was released in 1968, and starred future gun-nut Charlton Heston as astronaut Taylor and Roddy McDowall as sympathetic chimp Cornelius.

As much a social satire as an action flick, this movie spawned a thousand parodies and quotable quotes, including the iconic:

“Take your stinking paws off me you damn dirty ape!”

Attracting great reviews and performing well at the box office, it was inevitable that studio 20th Century Fox would jump on the sequel bandwagon, so Beneath the Planet of the Apes went into production in 1969 and was released the following year. Adding the bland James Franciscus and Kim Hunter to the cast (while dropping McDowell as Cornelius), Beneath told the story of the battle between apes and telepathic humans with a nuclear weapon and was just about as silly as it sounds. Already tired of the franchise, Charlton Heston demanded to be killed off and got his wish when the Earth was destroyed at the end of the movie.

Despite this apparent catastrophic ending, the movie was a runaway success at the box office, so Fox said "screw it" to artistic integrity and immediately started making another sequel, 1971’s Escape from the Planet of the Apes. More of a comedy than action flick, Escape saw Cornelius (a returning Roddy McDowell) and a pair of other apes escape the exploding planet and travel back in time to 1970s Earth. Cheaply made and occasionally cringeworthy, Escape had a certain level of charm, particularly when seen on a Saturday afternoon when there was nothing else on TV.

Proving that they didn’t waste time making movies in the 1970s (are you listening, James Cameron?), the next sequel came out in 1972 and told the story of how apes replaced cats and dogs as domestic pets. Significantly less successful than the previous films in the series, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes looked like the last gasp… until Tim Burton came along.

The year was 2001. Burton had already established himself as a director with a unique vision through films like Beetlejuice, Ed Wood and Batman, while Fox was struggling after a series of under-performing releases, including The Beach, Titan A.E. and The Legend of Bagger Vance. The story goes that Fox offered Burton a huge pile of money to resurrect the franchise and the director agreed even through his heart wasn’t really in it. The result is an entirely unengaging remake of the original, starring the wooden Mark Wahlberg, which also changed the final twist so it didn’t make any damn sense at all.

In a nice counterpoint to the traditional downward progression of sequels, the latest version of Planet of the Apes has got better with every movie. 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes starred James Franco and Brian Cox (along with series regular Andy Serkis) and was essentially a Ceasar origin story, suffering from the same problems that most origin stories do, in that it took far too long to get to the point where the story gets interesting.

Sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014), threw naming conventions out the window (unless, of course, Apes rise before dawn, in which case never mind) and told the story of the growing animosity between human survivors and apes, leading to a split in the ape community. Serial villain Toby Kebbell plays angry chimp Koba, who brings chaos to the fragile peace that Ceasar has struck with the humans, while Gary Oldman proves that he’s been doing evil longer and better as Dreyfus. While the apes continued to improve in terms of look and authentic movement, the humans in Dawn were generally underwhelming, particularly Aussie Jason Clarke as good guy Malcolm.

Which brings us back to War…

Planet of the Apes (1967) — 7/10

Beneath the Planet of the Apes — 6/10

Escape from Planet of the Apes — 5/10

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes — 3/10

Planet of the Apes (2001) — 1/10

Rise of the Planet of the Apes — 7/10

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes — 7/10

War for the Planet of the Apes — 8/10

Books by John Turnbull are now available on Amazon and Kindle. There’s supernatural thriller, Damnation’s Flame; action/romance, Reaper; black comedy, City Boy; and travel guidebook, Bar Trek: EuropeDamnation's Flame by John Turnbull is also available in the IA store HERE. (Free postage!)

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