Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Retrospective: Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973)

Welcome back to the Planet of the Apes retrospective! In this entry we're going to cover the fifth film in the franchise (and final film in the original series), Battle for the Planet of the Apes! Before we get into that though I want to just preface with a follow-up on my assessment of Metal Gear's Quiet last week. In the last week, Cracked wrote an article on video game sexism, although the emphasis wasn't on objectification (which is the crux of the backlash against Quiet). Rather, it focuses on the more deep-seated issues of casual sexism in narratives which feminists have been more focused on in the last couple decades. It's a good article, and certainly an enlightening one if you aren't someone who studies feminism on a regular basis, but it's not without its own issues. For one thing, the point about daddy issues is deceptively selective and doesn't really pick the best examples - Ellie is hardly a blithering mess without her male protector (for that matter, Joel refuses to let her defend herself until later in the game... I'm pretty sure that the point is that Joel's the one with "issues"). I'm also currently playing through Bioshock Infinite, so I can't give a comprehensive response to this, but it seems to me that Elizabeth was being held against her will with an entire city dedicated to keeping her in her tower. There's also the problem that article slips into its own casual sexism by stating that "BioShock Infinite's Elizabeth was born with the ability to tear portals in time and space, then learned to pick locks anyway, then sat patiently in prison until a penis arrived to save her". Yeeeeeeaaaaaahhhhh... The point about Tomb Raider is interesting though - is there any male-based origin story where the guy has to get over crying and being horrified about killing people throughout the whole adventure? Sure it's probably more realistic, but maybe that's just more of an indictment of the macho male hero trope which is prevalent in gaming. Anyway, food for thought... now let's move on to the Apes.

For the record, my review is based on the Unrated cut of the film. Unlike Conquest, this cut doesn't have any substantial changes - it's just 10 more minutes of dialogue, longer shots and some minor subplots restored.

While each Apes movie had been financially successful, with each budget cut came diminishing financial returns. As a result, the producers decided that it was time to end the series on their own terms (although two separate television series were soon produced as well). The final film would follow Caesar trying to stop the apes from repeating the mistakes that led to the destruction of Earth and show how the mutants in Beneath came about. Conquest director J. Lee Thompson returned to direct, making him the only director to work on two Apes movies in the franchise's entire history. Unfortunately, long-time series screenwriter Paul Dehn had to drop out of script-writing duties due to health complications. Instead, the film was passed off to husband-wife screenwriting duo John and Joyce Corrington. The Corringtons had recently written the Charlton Heston zombie-vampire film, The Omega Man, and so it was felt that they could do the Apes' send-off justice. However, prior to getting the job, they had never even seen an Apes film so they didn't really know the tone, themes or plot of the series. Dehn was brought in to do final re-writes (he claimed to have rewritten 90% of the dialogue and changed the ending), but the WGA ruled that the film was largely based on the Corringtons' screenplay. In spite of that, Dehn's ending was the one which was filmed and Joyce Corrington is reported to have hated Dehn's ending.

Roddy McDowall and Natalie Trundy returned once again, as did Severn Darden, all reprising their roles from Conquest. Of the new cast, the most important was Claude Akins (who was mostly known for starring in Westerns) who was cast as the villainous gorilla general, Aldo. Austin Stoker was also brought in as a replacement to Hari Rhodes' MacDonald, playing that characters' brother (it is assumed that the MacDonald in Conquest was killed sometime between the two films). Songwriter Paul Williams was also brought in to play Virgil, Caesar's genius orangutan advisor. Lew Ayres, most famous for his role 40 years prior in All Quiet on the Western Front, has a small role as the philosophical orangutan who looks just like Pai Mei, Mandemus. John Huston (a screen legend in case you didn't know) also makes a cameo as The Lawgiver, providing a framing device for the film's action. Oh and a fun fact - John Landis, director of such awesome movies as An American Werewolf in London, Blues Brothers, Animal House and the Thriller video, appears in this as a minor role (he's "Jake's friend"... I couldn't tell you who the hell that is, but who cares - it's John freaking Landis)!


Much like Conquest, Battle suffers from a severely deficit production budget, which was maybe slightly higher than the budget for the previous film. The film is supposed to portray an epic battle between humans and apes for the control of the planet, but it ends up looking like more of a short skirmish than anything (I'll talk more about the battle later though). The first 4 minutes are also just reused footage from the previous films, providing a rather unnecessary recap to pad out time. The budget also means that the same ape costumes get reused, the matte paintings are cheaper than ever and the two armies can never appear in the same shots together (clearly they did the same thing my brothers and I did in our home movies - the same extras are playing both armies). The costumes also suffer, as the apes are using the same masks that have been lying around the studio for the last few years. The mutant humans get it the worst though, as they are devoid of their impressive make-up entirely. I think the best way to describe their new "mutations" is to say that it looks like someone jizzed hot glue on their faces.

It was Earth all along!

As for the story, Battle carries on from the more positive theatrical ending of Conquest with humans now serving the apes, but living in relative peace. However, the gorillas' leader, General Aldo, believes that humans should be exterminated and constantly clashes with Caesar over this point. Looking for guidance, Caesar decides to go into the ruins of Los Angeles to find video footage of his parents to try to discern the future of ape society. In doing so, they stir up a hidden society of mutant humans living in the fallout, led by Kolp. Kolp ends up pursuing Caesar back to Ape City and a battle is waged between the two sides. It's a pretty simple story, but you might notice one thing about it which differentiates it from previous Apes films - it's almost entirely devoid of social commentary and/or satire. All of the previous films in the franchise had shown that man brings about his own downfall, but in this one there really isn't much of a message about humanity - it's more concerned about the society of the apes. You might argue that the apes are supposed to be an analogue for humans, but it occurs to me that the message is more that the apes' society is going to be the same as humanity's, which again is more of a self-contained critique about the apes in the film.

In general, the script isn't anywhere as near as tight or clever as it was in previous Apes films either. Lines like "I think Aldo may be riding for a fall" come across like they were supposed to be clever, but don't succeed in that regard. Then there's lines like "one day you will be as tall as a king" which is supposed to be a touching moment, but the line is so stupid that it makes you go "umm... what?" instead. The only really good line is "ape shall never kill ape", which has actually become one of the most iconic lines in the whole series. Plot-wise, the film has other sections which don't make a lot of sense or which are too rushed, such as Caesar leaving Ape City without any sort of preparation as soon as he learns about the existence of the tapes of his parents... although to be fair this is probably more of an editing problem, but either way it hurts the flow of the film. When they get into Los Angeles, there's also an arbitrary 2 hour countdown before the apes cannot leave again (even though this is never brought up again). The whole idea of the video tapes of Cornelius and Zira is flawed as well because it turns out that some of these tapes they watch were obviously audio recordings in Escape - however, the film inexplicably treats them as video recordings regardless (clearly they think that we just forgot this fact). Oh and then there's the goofiness which is Mandemus' armory - all of the apes' weapons are kept behind a flimsy wooden door. Gee, I sure hope that an army of gorillas doesn't try to take over and steal them all... I'd like to think that these problems are all on the Corringtons, but I wouldn't be surprised if the bad lines in particular were all Paul Dehn's idea. Some story elements just don't work though either, such as the fact that this movie takes place at least 12-27 years after the last movie, and yet no one looks any older than they were in Conquest.


That said, there are some pretty good plot points and ideas that liven things up a bit. Probably the biggest of these plot points is when (SPOILER) Aldo learns that Caesar's son, Cornelius, has heard his plan to steal the guns. Aldo becomes quite sinister here, chasing Cornelius up a tree and then throwing the child from it, killing him. It's a pretty shocking moment and adds a lot of gravitas to the final showdown between Caesar and Aldo (which is another rather cool sequence). It's also nice to see the orangutans get more screentime after being sidelined for the last 2 films, getting only small cameos in Conquest. In particular, Virgil is a good introduction as Caesar's closest advisor and sort of acts like a heroic version of Otto Hasslein (he even regurgitates Hasslein's theory that time is like a highway with multiple exit points). The introduction of Aldo also manages to make Escape more of an interesting film - in that movie, it established that it was Aldo who first said "No!" and started the ape revolution. However, by having Caesar interrupt this timeline and bring about the ape revolution in a more peaceful manner, it creates new questions for viewers to mull over. Is it possible for Caesar to create a more peaceful future for apes and man since the revolution was not founded on bloodshed? The film itself leaves it uncertain.

As for the characters, McDowall's Caesar is the core as ever. Unfortunately, McDowall isn't given quite as much to work with as he has in previous Apes films, but he is still unquestionably the best actor of the lot. Aldo is a very one-dimensional villain, graduated with honours from the school of douchebaggery, who hates humans and therefore Caesar as well for not killing them. The second he opens his mouth, you know that he's going to be a bad guy. That said, Akins fulfills the meathead role well enough, even if the role is unfortunately one-note. Unfortunately, the rest of the acting is ranges from inconsistent to bad. Natalie Trundy is still pretty bad, but at least she has a very small role this time as Caesar's wife, Lisa (that said, for sticking it out for 4 Apes films, I appreciate her contribution to the longevity of the series). Kolp is probably the worst of the bunch though, and easily the worst antagonist in all of the Apes films - he just sounds bored the entire time, which doesn't exactly make him a particularly menacing villain by any means. I think he's meant to be the main villain, but he gets totally upstaged by Aldo (how often does the thug-villain overshadow the brain-villain?). MacDonald and Virgil both have their moments, but half of the time their lines are delivered with absolutely no emotion. In fact, this is really the first Apes movie with bad acting as the rule rather than the exception.


Of course then there's the main attraction, the titular battle. It's fairly entertaining, but as I've hinted at earlier, the miniscule budget really doesn't do it justice. Rather than an epic clash to determine who will rule the planet, instead we get a small skirmish between maybe 30-40 people per side which goes on for about 10 minutes. On top of that, the supposedly "mechanized" mutant army consists of a few mortars, a couple jeeps, a couple motorcycles and their major superweapon... a school bus. Yes, a school bus is the peak of their technological superiority. The penny pinching extends to the filming itself, as the mutants supposedly blow up a number of the apes' buildings... however, it's exceedingly obvious that they just blew up 1 or 2 buildings and filmed them from different angles to try to pass off a bunch of houses getting destroyed. That said, there's a surprisingly high number of explosions in the film to represent grenades, mortar strikes, etc.

As for the battle itself, it's kind of pathetic. The humans decide to advance through the middle of an open field with only a little smoke and mortar cover to stop them from getting mowed down by the apes. The apes set up a hasty barricade, but are quickly pushed back into the city... where Caesar springs a trap and then routs the surviving mutants. However, Aldo and his gorillas attack the fleeing mutants and kill them all. That's it. I know it's probably not a good idea to expect Black Hawk Down on a ~$1.7 million budget, but for the focal point of the film it's a bit of a letdown.

"If this monkey business about ownership of the planet can't be solved in one 10 minute battle, then what's the point!?!"

Then there's problems with the editing. While I like the final showdown between Caesar and Aldo, it was clearly edited really badly. It seems like Aldo was supposed to get killed by the other apes, but instead they decided to have Caesar chase him up a tree... however, when they speak to each other they're still clearly in the crowd together. Furthermore, as soon as Aldo drops from the tree, Caesar is back on the ground instantly. It seems that this sequence was changed and then they just tried to edit it and hope no one noticed (perhaps they thought that the crowd killing Aldo wasn't "personal" enough, so they made him die in a manner mirroring how he killed Cornelius... or maybe it was just really badly shot in the first place). It's not quite as obvious as Radioactive Man: The Movie, but it's still pretty damn noticeable and further evidence of how meager the budget was that they couldn't even properly shoot the finale. Other parts are edited in such a way that they lose their impact, especially the part near the opening when Aldo chases the teacher, Abe - it's supposed to be a suspenseful scene, but it is entirely devoid of suspense in the way it's filmed and edited (and it doesn't help that Abe doesn't look too distressed throughout the chase).

All-in-all, Battle for the Planet of the Apes is a pretty poor way to end the original series. The reduced budget once again crippled an Apes movie, but this time there wasn't a solid script or actors to save it. Simply put, Battle is easily the worst entry in the franchise up until this point and even a big fan of the series like me has a hard time defending, or even recommending, it.

4/10

Be sure to come back soon for part 6 of this retrospective series as we look at our first remake, Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes!

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Retrospective: Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972)

Welcome back to the Planet of the Apes retrospective! In this entry we're going to cover the fourth film in the franchise, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes! However, before we get into that I want to talk a briefly about Metal Gear Solid V. As a huge fan of the series, I'm obviously very excited for the new game(s?) and have been gobbling up new details like candy. That said, I'm less-than-enthused about one particular character who Konami has been highlighting lately, and that's the new female sniper, Quiet. Details on her actual history and role are scarce, but all that we've gotten so far is a couple renders and a shot in the trailer. If you've been following the progress of the game and/or this story then you probably know where I'm going with this...


Yeah, she's basically stripperella. "Dressing" Quiet up like this just furthers the notion of sexism in video games and the nerdy virgin stereotype of those who play these sorts of games (EVA in MGS3 was bad enough). Even if there is a good reason for Quiet to be dressed this way, the damage has been done as Kojima has been getting a fair bit of backlash (which he has taken in stride). That said, I really do hope that there is a good reason for the outfit so that it's not just fanservice. For example, if she can photosynthesize and change her skin colour like The End then it would make perfect sense that she would wear that kind of outfit and then pretty much everything would be forgiven by me. Whatever the case, Kojima seems to have some sort of big reveal surrounding it, but I guess we'll have to wait... Metal Gear games tend to play their cards close to the chest... Anyway, let's get into Conquest of the Planet of the Apes...


Unlike all of the other Apes films to this point, Escape was written with the intention of producing a follow-up. Conquest was greenlit by Fox, but it was under an even more constrained budget than previous Apes films, estimated to be around $1.7 million. Escape had been designed around its small budget, reducing the number of on-screen apes and need for expensive sets - Conquest, on the other hand, could not do this. Conquest would require extensive use of extras for riot and battles scenes and was set 20 years in the future, which would require convincing futuristic technology and architecture. Simply put, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes might have been ones of the most constrained major studio sci-fi films ever released. As a result, major cost-cutting was needed if they were even going to stand a chance at releasing the film. Costumes and props were reused from Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, City Beneath the SeaThe Time Tunnel and previous Apes films, and the bulk of the movie was filmed in and around the Irvine campus of the University of California - in particular, the social science complex. This complex had been designed with a futuristic aesthetic, and so it could double as a futuristic city block. Unfortunately this area was relatively small, so the crew ended up filming it from different angles to try to convince the audience that this one complex was many parts of a sprawling metropolis (it doesn't really work).


Conquest was directed by J. Lee Thompson, a longtime fan of the series who was known for such films as the original Cape Fear and The Guns of Navarone. Thompson was a fairly accomplished director who was very hands-on with the production - he made the human characters wear muted clothing and the apes wear bright, vibrant colours to make them stand out more (a technique familiar to fans of Star Wars). The film was written by long-time Apes screenwriter, Paul Dehn. As with previous films in the series, he drew upon previous experience and current events to create a story that would resonate with the audience. This time he decided to incorporate references to racial conflict, civil rights movements and the history of slavery. These would become more relevant by filming some scenes in a documentary style, since civil rights and racial clashes were very much in the news at the time. The script and film were also quite notable for being considerably more violent than previous Apes films. All of the other movies in the series had G ratings, but Conquest was pushing a hard PG (think of some of the violent content in Raiders of the Lost Ark and you'll have a good idea of how bloody it gets at times). Unfortunately, further studio meddling meant that some of the more violent bits were excised to avoid a potential R rating. This was bad enough, but it also meant that the film's ending was changed (which I'll get to later) and that the opening of the film was removed entirely. This is a real shame because the opening sounds like it was quite affecting (police shoot an escaped ape, only to discover that the ape was covered in bruises and welts, indicating that he had been severely abused by his masters). While the other footage has been released in the Unrated Blu-ray version of Conquest, the original opening has not been restored and I fear that it may have been lost entirely.

As for the cast, Roddy McDowall returns once more, this time playing Cornelius' son, Caesar. Natalie Trundy also returns as a serving chimpanzee, Lisa. Ricardo Montalbán is the only returning cast member to be playing a recurring character, returning once again as zookeeper Armando. Other noteworthy cast are Don Murray as the villainous Governor Breck and Hari Rhodes as his moral second-in-command MacDonald. While he has a fairly minor role in this film, Severn Darden's character, Kolp, is also worth mentioning as he would carry on Breck's legacy in the next Apes film.


The story of Conquest is fairly straightforward - 20 years after the previous film, the chimpanzee Milo is brought to civilization by Armando and is horrified to discover that humans have enslaved apes as predicted by Cornelius and Zira. Milo is enraged by this and ends up going on the run, hiding amongst the apes and observing the humans. Eventually he takes on the name Caesar and becomes a leader for the apes, starting an armed revolution against the humans. While the story is relatively simple, it has some fantastic ideas at its core. The film has a lot to say about power relations and slavery (in fact I wrote a short paper about the film in my second year of university, analyzing it through Hegel's master-slave dialectic). The master-slave dialectic is made most obvious through the humans and the apes, but it also crops up in regards to race relations. Governor Breck's second-in-command, MacDonald, often makes references to the history of slavery, suggesting that he doesn't approve of the way that Breck is repeating the past. However, it is quite clear that there is a power dynamic between the pair and that MacDonald is seen as another slave by Breck himself, despite being a supposedly "free" man. Inevitably, both the apes and MacDonald rise up against their "masters", with the (re-edited) ending representing a possible synthesis. The film also emphasizes the power of speech - the humans are terrified by the idea that there may be an ape capable of speech, which relates to the importance of power relations, identity and the ability to have a voice (key in theories regarding race, feminism, aboriginal rights, etc). Similar to Caliban in The Tempest, the ability to speak will give the apes self-awareness and cause them to revolt. Simply put, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes has some fantastic ideas at its core which may not be entirely obvious at first glance.

Unfortunately, in spite of the good ideas that Conquest has, the budget does not allow the film to actually do justice to them. In spite of (or perhaps because of) all the cost-cutting measures used, Conquest feels a bit tacky - if Fox had given the production even $2-3 million more then the film could have been far more convincing and spectacular. The sets are noticeably cheap and unambitious-looking and there's often minimal lighting used (if any). Furthermore, sometimes the footage is just really bad looking and the setting doesn't feel like a sprawling city. Instead, it feels more like a block or two in a city district, which really cheapens the impact of the supposed "ape revolution". Then there's moments where the film just feel incomplete, like they didn't have the budget to edit things together properly (which they probably didn't). For example, suddenly the apes start revolting just because Caesar looks at them - we're not given any indication that he has actually become their leader figure yet, so it just comes out of the blue. Another instance of this is when the revolution itself happens - Caesar escapes captivity, but as soon as he does so the apes have all gathered and suddenly they're ready to kick some ass. Then there's really bad cost-cutting measures, such as the "wireless phones". Check out the picture below (click on it if you need to):


Notice anything odd about that phone? How about the mismatched red tape along the bottom where they obviously cut off the wire to make it look like a future-phone? Yeah, the film's that tacky... Then there's just plain embarrassing moments, particularly when Caesar gets tortured by the humans. They hook him up to an electrocution machine, but MacDonald shuts off the power... only for Caesar to FREAKING PRETEND TO BE DEAD. This leaves Breck and Kolp 100% satisfied and no one even thinks to check and see if he's maybe not really dead, throw out the body, notice that the machine wasn't even working or something. It's a major facepalm moment for sure.

However, not everything's all that bad. The costumes might be a bit cheap, but the apes themselves look quite good, especially considering how many of them there are (and the masks are integrated far better than they were in Beneath). The ape revolution itself is pretty exciting, featuring dozens of ape and humans battling it out with each other (although the music is a major letdown). The scene where Caesar names himself is also pretty damn awesome, and Breck's line "Caesar? A king?" is just the best way to end it.


Geez, we got all this way without even talking about the characters. Roddy McDowall sells it yet again as Caesar. You could be forgiven for expecting him to be a carbon-copy of Cornelius, but you'd be wrong - Caesar is a whole different character than Cornelius. Cornelius was timid and cautious, whereas Caesar is brash, commanding and confident. He's basically ape-Jesus or ape-Che Guevara. MacDonald is decent enough, although sometimes Hari Rhodes over-emphasizes his lines. Ricardo Montalbán is also awesome once again as Armando, although he isn't given nearly enough screen time. Unfortunately, despite no longer having a speaking role, Natalie Trundy is embarrassingly bad yet again. Since she can't speak she exaggerates like mad, playing her chimpanzee as a cartoonishly doe-eyed southern belle. Then when Caesar gets taken to her for breeding, she lies there like a sultry pin-up girl... again, it's embarrassing (and vomit-inducing... well, unless you're a furry anyway).

As for Governor Breck, he's more of a straight-laced villain than previous Apes nemeses. Most of the other villains had been somewhat sympathetic, but Breck basically just hates apes and think they all deserve to be enslaved and beaten whenever necessary. I guess it's noble that he doesn't want apes to control the world, but it's not really played up as the sort of thing that would make him sympathetic. Don Murray plays the part with a great deal of passion (and some good old-fashioned ham), so he's quite fun to watch in the role. However, his assertion that humanity enslaves apes because they represent the evil inside of mankind just comes out of nowhere - had it been set up in the narrative somewhere I might have bought it, but just throwing it in in the last five minutes of the film was ill-judged.


And finally we get to the controversy surrounding the film's ending. Watching Conquest, it's pretty obvious that the ending has been re-cut - suddenly the camera zooms in on Caesar's face (with really grainy footage to boot) and he says a speech about forgiving humans for their perpetrated evils, while the same footage of MacDonald looking surprised and Lisa blinking and looking up is repeated a few times between shots of onlooking apes. It's terribly edited and very clearly a patch job because Fox refused to give the production any more money. In fact, it's so badly done that it further diminishes the quality of the film. What was so wrong with the original that they had to cobble together a new ending so badly? Well check it out thanks to the magic of Youtube:


In case the video isn't available anymore, here's the original ending: Caesar tells the apes to show Breck no mercy, and then they proceed to beat him to death with their rifles, signifying that the apes will be no better rulers than the humans were. It's a pretty damn bleak ending, but it fits well. That said... I'm kind of torn on it. I think I actually prefer the message of the theatrical ending, but I hate how it was integrated. If it was filmed properly then I think I'd actually like the theatrical ending more, but considering how it was done I much prefer the unrated ending (even if it isn't canon anymore).

So clearly Conquest is a bit of a mixed bag. On one hand it has a fantastic story, Caesar is awesome and there are some very exciting moments. On the other hand, it is ridiculously cheap, has been torn apart by studio meddling and has some embarrassing moments. Conquest might just be the most divisive entry in the original Apes series because of this - if you can't get past the tackiness and shoddy bits then you might not be able to appreciate the film. To be honest, Conquest might actually be my favourite Apes sequel in the original series although I'll acknowledge that it isn't nearly as good as Escape. If only the studio had given it a proper budget and hadn't meddled with the production so badly we might have gotten an awesome film out of the deal... ;)

6/10

Be sure to come back soon for part 5 of this retrospective series, Battle for the Planet of the Apes!

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Retrospective: Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971)

Welcome back to the Planet of the Apes retrospective! In this entry we're going to cover the third film in the franchise, Escape from the Planet of the Apes! Yes, that's right, after doing everything in their power to kill the franchise for good in Beneath, the producers decreed that the series was destined to live on regardless. However with the future eliminated, the only avenue left was for them to explore was the past...

Kind of a lame poster, and don't even get me started on the tagline... but still, it's much better than the Polish version.

Despite the machinations of Charlton Heston and even the bloody studio head, work on a sequel to Beneath the Planet of the Apes started before that film was even completed. However, due to the obvious problem of having the entire planet destroyed at the end of the previous film, the producers had to pull a J.J. Abrams and work on a preboot/sequel. Once again, the budget for this sequel was cut back down to $2 million, meaning that the producers had to figure out how to cut costs. The solution to these issues was that film would plant the seeds of the ape revolution by propelling Cornelius, Zira and a third ape, Dr. Milo, back in time. Additionally, by setting it in the present day the crew were able to minimize the need for ape costumes.

The film was written by Paul Dehn once more with Pierre Boulle providing some advisement to incorporate satirical elements. Finally, Don Taylor, famous for such notable films as Father of the Bride and The Naked City, was brought on to direct. In terms of cast, Roddy McDowall and Kim Hunter were brought back to play Cornelius and Zira, respectively. Sal Mineo was also cast as a third ape, Dr. Milo, but he was so uncomfortable in his make-up that he gets killed off less than 5 minutes after his introduction. Also making a return was Natalie Trundy, who played a lead mutant in the previous film, this time playing one of the human doctors sympathetic to the apes' cause. The other main leads were Bradford Dillman as Dr. Dixon and the villain, Eric Braeden as Dr. Hasslein (a character who had actually been mentioned in the previous two Apes films). Rounding out the cast is Ricardo Montalbán who plays Armando, a secondary character who owns a circus.


Looking at its production, it would be reasonable to expect Escape from the Planet of the Apes to be a bit of a mess - it's clearly a very forced sequel (which is practically a remake of the first film), it has a lower budget than the previous two films, it doesn't have a major star like Charlton Heston to lead it and it had a very rushed production (it was filmed in 6 weeks and released less than a year after Beneath)... however, it does have a good cast of old and new characters and has a great director at its helm. Were the cast and director able to overcome the very obvious and major hurdles presented to them and make Escape a worthy sequel to the Planet of the Apes? Well read on and find out...

Escape opens with the American military discovering that Taylor's space craft has been found off the coast of Los Angeles. However, when they open it up they discover that the astronauts inside are actually three chimpanzees - Zira, Cornelius and Dr. Milo. It turns out that when the gorillas marched off to war in the previous film, Dr. Milo (supposedly the most intelligent chimpanzee in the ape colony) had discovered Taylor's shuttle and salvaged it, allowing he, Zira and Cornelius to escape the planet just as it was destroyed by the Alpha Omega bomb. The shockwave of the explosion causes a wormhole to open which propels the apes back to the 70s. It's a pretty tenuous set-up, but considering the circumstances that had to happen for the film to even work, it's serviceable... but thankfully they don't dwell on the point too much, because it's frankly ridiculous. This point is also probably the biggest stumbling block that a viewer could face - if you can't suspend their disbelief enough to allow this plot point to pass then it might completely ruin the film for you.


Anyway, Dr. Milo gets killed by a gorilla while awaiting examination, so Zira and Cornelius have to speak before a committee by themselves. They end up telling the world that apes are going to rule over humans in the future, but most people don't seem all that bothered by this, turning the pair into celebrities. The only human who seems truly troubled by this revelation is Dr. Hasslein, the President's science advisor, who believes that the presence of Cornelius and Zira is enough to expedite the ape revolution. His fears are further reinforced when it is discovered that Zira is pregnant.

As that short plot synopsis should convey, Escape from the Planet of the Apes actually has a pretty compelling narrative (if you can get over the wormhole contrivance anyway). Unlike Beneath, it's very character-focused rather than action-driven and has some very clever twists and turns along the way. It even has a very dark twist ending which, while not as surprising as the original film's shocking reveal, certainly lives up to the series' legacy. The film also works in the series' satirical hallmarks which were very inconsistent in the previous film. There's obvious fish-out-of-water stuff (Zira getting drunk for the first time), but there's also clever stuff like Cornelius watching boxing and getting turned off by the brutality, the notion that humans love their pet more than other humans (and can't live without them), jabs at celebrity culture and a priest freaking out about the notion that two apes could be married. In addition to the satirical elements, philosophical questions about time travel have also been added in, courtesy of Dr. Hasslein. Questions of choice and predestination are brought up, because Hasslein believes that the future is a multitude of potential futures, but the ending of the film calls this into question. Hasslein also struggles with the philosophical conundrum of murdering a future threat - is it justified to prevent future atrocities by killing an unborn child? It's questions like this that make Hasslein a great villain in this film: he's extremely intelligent, but conflicted, sympathetic and morally ambiguous. He's truly the film's villain, but he's trying to ensure the survival of humanity in the face of future destruction, much like Dr. Zaius in the first film.

He also definitely rocks that suit.

As for the rest of the cast, Roddy McDowall and Kim Hunter continue to shine as Cornelius and Zira, respectively. In fact, with the increased screen-time afforded by becoming the leads, Escape is probably the finest showcase of Zira and Cornelius' characters in the whole franchise. The pair are extremely sympathetic, but the darker side of the apes is really highlighted - Zira in particular, who we have been very drawn to for the past three films, is a great character but one who is voluntarily involved in experimental surgery on live human beings. This is something which had been acknowledged in the original Planet of the Apes, but the implications of her actions never really dawn on viewers until this particular entry. Ricardo Montalbán's Armando also has a relatively small part, but it is very memorable due to the passion in which he plays the role. Unfortunately the two other leads aren't so great. Bradford Dillman's Dr. Dixon is alright, but he isn't given a lot to work with considering that he's supposed to be the human hero of the film. Likewise, Natalie Trundy's Dr. Branton isn't given much to work with either, but Trundy butchers her lines all the same. Her acting is particularly wooden... I'm almost tempted to compare her to Romy Windsor who, if you read my Howling IV retrospective, you may remember as being one of the worst actresses I've ever seen. Trundy's that bad in this, but thankfully her lines are extremely cut-down.


That said, Escape has its fair share of problems. For one thing, the soundtrack is noticeably worse than in the previous two films. It sounds very generic, almost like a 70s cop movie. I think the intention was to create a different sound-scape since it is set 2000 years before the previous films, but comes across as clearly inferior and much less evocative (barring perhaps the finale aboard the derelict ship). There's also plot holes introduced in the script, such as Cornelius and Zira's story about the rise of the apes - they claim to know that the apes rose against the humans and took over, but this contradicts the stories of the sacred scrolls in the original Apes film, which claimed that apes had always been dominant over man. With a bit of work this could have been integrated better, but as it is it's a massive plot hole (or, at the very least, a major retcon). Then there's smaller issues, such as the embarrassingly horrible-looking gorilla, which is clearly a man in a bad suit... made all the worse because he's the one who strangles Dr. Milo to death, so it's not exactly a background detail. For a series which prides itself on fantastic make-up effects and costumes, this is one embarrassing blemish which is hard to let slide and I can only imagine is to blame on the reduced budget. Another problem is the fact that Zira and Cornelius escape the military base because there is absolutely no one guarding the two apes, which is a pretty ridiculous plot contrivance (one which still crops up today). Finally, a pregnant Zira drinks even though she knows she's pregnant. I guess that Fetal Alcohol Syndrome had not been discovered yet, but for a modern audience this is a pretty terrible detail which derails the film for a moment or two.

However, all-in-all, Escape from the Planet of the Apes is a pretty damn solid film overall. In fact, it has a 78% on Rotten Tomatoes, the highest score of any Apes sequel in the original series. It has its problems, but most of the are relatively minor. However, like I said earlier, if you can't get over the circumstances of the apes' time travel then your chances of enjoying it are going to drop dramatically. Escape from the Planet of the Apes is a sequel which should have failed miserably but ends up being a great watch and a very worthy film to carry on the legacy of the Apes franchise.

7/10

Be sure to come back soon for part 4 of this retrospective series, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes!

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Retrospective: Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970)

Welcome back to the Planet of the Apes retrospective! In this entry we're going to cover the second entry in the franchise, Beneath the Planet of the Apes! After the success of the original film, the producers quickly began work on a sequel. Considering that the original film left plenty of room for the writers to maneuver, making a franchise of the apes seemed like a fantastic idea. How did Beneath the Planet of the Apes fare? Read on to find out...

I'm really digging the old-school charm of this poster, it's refreshing compared to the standard techniques you can expect out of a modern Hollywood marketing team.

The ending of Planet of the Apes was rife with sequel opportunities. When I first heard that there were five films in the original series, I naturally assumed that they chronicled how man breaks free from ape oppression and retake the planet for themselves. As it turns out, this was the direction which the producers originally were planning to take. Pierre Boulle, who wrote the novel which the first film was based on, created a script which centered around Taylor leading the humans into war against the apes, led by General Ursus. While this script was rejected, the overtones of war and character of Ursus both made their way into the final film. Paul Dehn and Mort Abrahams then took a crack at script writing, with Dehn inserting the elements of atomic paranoia into the film. Thankfully one idea of Dehn and Abrahams' which was dropped was that of a half-human, half-ape child... I just can't see that having worked out in the slightest (watch Howling III: The Marsupials and try to convince me otherwise).

All of the major actors from the previous film returned to reprise their roles, although not as one would have hoped. The biggest blow to Beneath's success was that Charlton Heston wanted nothing to do with it. This was incredibly unfortunate and I'm not sure why Heston was so opposed to it - perhaps he didn't consider the Apes franchise "serious" enough work for a Best Actor winner. As a result of his apprehension to appear, the film was drastically rewritten to allow Heston to stay out of it as much as he could. This put a serious damper on the natural progression of the series, although it probably ended up giving the franchise a greater longevity in the long run. Roddy McDowall also couldn't appear in the film due to scheduling conflicts, but did show up in the form of archive footage. This makes Beneath the only original Apes film in which McDowall was not directly involved (and one of two Apes media in which he wasn't involved - there were two TV shows created after the original series ended, one of which featured McDowall in a starring role). Aside from that, the rest of the original cast appeared although their screen time was generally reduced.


As for the new cast, the film stars James Franciscus as an American astronaut, Brent. He does an okay job in the role, but one can't help but feel that he was only cast because he looks like Charlton Heston in wide shots which can be used in the trailers to convince people the movie stars Heston instead. There's also the fact that once Heston does appear in the film he absolutely overpowers Franciscus, although that's more of a credit to Heston's screen presence. I guess in summary, Franciscus does an okay job but he's hindered by being forced to play a lesser version of someone else. The other major new character is the gorilla general, Ursus. He's basically a chest-thumping, overt villainous character, but he's a lot of fun to watch on screen. Also, he has a great design and is probably one of the more iconic characters in the franchise, despite only appearing in this film. It should also be noted that McDowall's Cornelius was recast, with the character being played by David Watson. Watson does an okay job, but like Franciscus his performance is completely overshadowed by the actor he's replacing, not to mention that he looks noticeably different.

Before we get into the meat of the film itself, it should be noted that the film had a significantly lower budget than the original film did. The original had a budget around $6 million, whereas Beneath was originally budgeted around $4.5 million. However, this was apparently slashed down to $2.5 million due to a string of underperforming films from Fox studios. As a result, the film suffers in quite a few areas. The most obvious is the make-up effects compared to the original. The movie does feature some good make-up (which I'll get to later), but there is also very obvious cost-cutting going on which isn't present in the original film. For example, check out the following picture:


Quiz time: which apes are convincing prosthetics and which are obvious Halloween masks? If you said the ones with the gaping mouths are the masks, then congratulations. In pretty much every scene with orangutans and chimpanzees, these poor effects are very noticeable and distracting (the gorillas seem to get off the hook since they have a greater focus this time around). On top of that, Beneath relies far more on special effects than the original film did, but they look pretty terrible all-round. The film uses poor cartoon overlays, bad looking "cut-out" characters and obviously fake matte paintings throughout, when such things were unheard of in the original after the first 5 minutes. As a result, Beneath looks very dated. Oh and on top of all that, the first 3 minutes of the movie are just reused footage from the original. Remember how I said that reusing footage is basically the worst excuse to cut costs?


Anyway, onto the film itself. The movie revolves around Brent, an astronaut who crash lands on future-Earth while on a mission to rescue Taylor's crew. While this doesn't make a lot of sense (since Taylor's crew were intentionally on a one-way journey), it's more egregiously contrived as a means to get another talking human into the picture. Really, it just smacks of laziness on the part of the writers. Anyway, Brent ends up stumbling across Nova and discovers that she knows Taylor because she has his dog tags... wait a second. Taylor's possessions were stolen from him by the humans and then apes when he was captured... where the hell was he hiding his dog tags this whole time!?! If he was played by Christopher Walken then we'd probably know, but as it is I'd rather not venture a guess (aside from stating that this is yet another another lazy, poorly-thought-out plot contrivance). Over the course of the first 40 minute, Brent and Nova run into the apes, get captured, escape 5 minutes later and then make their way into the forbidden zone. This is another issue with Beneath and Heston's lack of involvement, as the first 40 minutes are a complete rehash of the plot points of the first film. If Heston had returned, or a different narrative been considered, the audience could have been saved from having to watch a much weaker rendition of the first film.

However, when Brent and Nova make their way into the forbidden zone and into the ruins of New York, things become far more fresh and interesting. Brent ends up discovering a cult of psychic, mutant, bomb-worshipping humans who have been in hiding from the apes for God knows how long. Dr. Zaius implied in Planet of the Apes that there were intelligent humans living in the forbidden zone too, so the addition of the mutants wasn't even that much of a stretch. The best part of all of this though is that it really expands the Apes mythology - instead of apes as the uncontested overlords over primitive humans, there's now a secret faction of hyper-religious fanatics who pose a threat to the apes themselves. These mutants offer a great counter-point to the threat of the apes and remind us that humans are the real enemies all along, because they are truly sinister bastards. They insist on numerous occasions that they are peaceful people because, as one puts it, "we don't kill our enemies, we get our enemies to kill each other" by telepathically controlling them. The latter-portion of the film is quite interesting and even thrilling due to the inspired addition of the mutants. Oh and if that wasn't satisfying enough, the make-up department outdid themselves with some truly disgusting effects on the unmasked mutants:


Blehhh... understandably, when the hoods come off this is quite a shock to the viewers. In fact, the whole sequence that this appears in is probably the strongest in the entire film. Unfortunately I can't find a Youtube clip of it, but the sequence involves the mutants worshipping an atomic bomb in a religious service which apes Sunday morning worship services. Lines such as "Glory be to the Bomb, and to the Holy Fallout. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be. World without end. Amen" really crack me up as someone who attended (and still does attend) church. While I won't exactly agree with the sentiment that religious people are dangerous fanatics, I can't deny that this scene is spot-on and is the only really good use of satire in the whole film. The film barely even tries to be humorous or satirical. There's a group of hippy chimpanzees which seem to try to tie the film into the Vietnam War, but otherwise it generally plays the premise straight.

With all the promise of the mutants being added to the plot, it's just too bad that the ending is such a downer. Heston and the studio head wanted to kill the series for good, and did a damn good job of trying... that is to say that they gun down Nova, then all of the mutants, Brent, Ursus and Taylor, who detonates a bomb that wipes out all life on Earth in the process. That's right, they kill off the characters so thoroughly that they kill the Earth itself. Damn, that's... that's a bit harsh. Geez. Is it possible to have a bleaker ending than this? It's just so pointlessly nihilistic, and the ending narration doesn't help this perception any: "In one of the countless billions of galaxies in the universe, lies a medium-sized star, and one of its satellites, a green and insignificant planet, is now dead." That's cold man... cold. Heston must have really wanted to get out of the series.


Still, Beneath might still have been half-decent entirely due to the second and third act with the mutants if it had been filmed a bit more proficiently. New director Ted Post doesn't do half as good a job as Franklin J. Schaffner did, and the film feel like a bit of a jumbled mess at times. The pacing is totally off in the first 40 minutes, and the editing doesn't help it to flow much better. On top of that, many of the attempts at action scenes are very poor, such as the scene where Brent fights an ape atop a wagon - the scene is just plain terrible, with bad editing, no music, no dialogue and no real suspense. The film also obviously suffers from a weak, butchered script where many of the characters are practically useless (Nova being the most egregious offender, she's basically just a useless tag-along for 99% of the film... also, is it just me or is she wearing even less clothing this time around?). That said, Beneath is buoyed mostly by some good ideas (the apes going to war, the mutants, the bomb), expanding the mythology (learning about the gorilla caste) and a few good sequences (the bomb worship scene, the bleeding Lawgiver and crucified gorillas illusion), but it's very weak overall.

5/10

Be sure to come back soon for part 3 of this retrospective series, Escape from the Planet of the Apes!