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Ape Shall Not Kill Ape: A Look at the Entire Apes Franchise | Far Flungers

Ape Shall Not Kill Ape: A Look at the Entire Apes Franchise | Far Flungers

Franklin Schaffner’s “Planet of the Apes” (1968) is still the best and most memorable “Ape” movie ever made, truly a classic. Three astronauts travel in time and space according to Eistein’s theory that claims the former accelerates when a body travels at great speed. They land on an upside-down world where talking apes are the leading species and humans are the subordinated mutes. George Taylor (Charlton Heston) gladly leaves the world of the 1960s, disillusioned by humanity, only to later find himself claiming its superiority in front of Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans). The thrust of the twist ending is that he discovers man never deserved defending in the first place. Schaffner does a great job of creating the right creepy mood and sense of anticipation by delivering the film’s surprises patiently. The one key aspect that helps enhance the impact of the movie is watching it through the eyes of Heston’s outsider—his own shocking reaction at facing this upside-down “madhouse,” and the ape’s own response when they realize what makes him unique among humans in what is perhaps the best moment in a series full of memorable ones. The ape makeup may feel a bit outdated, and these cinematic beings may not resemble the real creatures all that much, but there’s no doubt that the illusion works completely. Much like the shark in “Jaws” became exactly what a great-white looks like in the minds of audiences, the same applies here when it comes to a talking ape. When the end of the film arrives, Schaffner introduces the final image progressively. Identifying that certain monument becomes like solving a puzzle with pieces that are only recognizable little by little, giving shape to one of the greatest shock endings in cinema history. Not that there should have been that much surprise, after all, here you had a planet, with oxygen, vegetation and water, where all of the (talking) population spoke English. ****

The second entry, Ted Post’s “Beneath the Planet of the Apes” (1969) is one of the lesser films in the series. Another spaceship from the same time period as Heston’s lands on the Ape planet and the only survivor, astronaut Brent (James Franciscus), goes in search of Taylor in the midst of a push by the belligerent gorillas to attack the mythical “Forbidden Zone,” a place populated by a hidden society of humans that have lived underground for thousands of years. This second entry basically rehashes most of the same sets and tries to advance the story by involving a group of humans, unseen until then, something more than a little hard to believe. The fact that these lizard-looking people (affected by the radioactivity of a nuclear blast) communicate through telepathy, worship a nuclear bomb and have the ability to control the minds of other beings is a little bit too much to buy (even for a series that has been humorously described as “monkeys on horses”) and they belong in a different movie. Franciscus seems to have taken over Heston since he is the one actor who has his looks and mannerisms down to a “t” (the idea was for audiences not to miss the mostly absent Taylor character too much). The film’s apocalyptic ending works reasonably well, but if this sequel proved anything about the “Ape” world is that without the surprise factor, it loses quite a bit of impact. In the story of the ape society, what follows is just not as interesting as what happened before, and how we got to that point where apes came to rule Earth. **

The third entry in the series is Don Taylor’s “Escape from the Planet of the Apes” (1971). Just before Charlton Heston managed to detonate the nuclear warhead that destroyed Earth, the benevolent ape marriage of Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) and Zira (Kim Hunter) apparently managed to pull his spaceship from the lake where it landed, ran it backwards, and traveled back in time to the ’70s where somebody was bound to wonder how exactly their ape society came to be. “Escape” is much smaller in scope than its predecessors. The idea was to save on the production of a third entry by having to apply the expensive ape make-up only on a handful of characters (they even land in LA to make things even easier for the producers). Even though not quite as ambitious as the two prior pictures, “Escape” is by far the best of the follow ups in the original pentalogy. By choosing to travel back in time and deal with how the apes came to rule the world (instead of trying to force another preposterous continuation to their society’s story) the rest of the movie practically writes itself. This was the first film to come up with the fascinating premise about how the killing of an unborn child could prevent/cause the end of the world as we know it, later used in the Terminator movies. In the original “Planet,” Charlton Heston’s character was the outsider through whose eyes we got to discover this new world, but from this third entry forward the audience will watch these movies from the point of view of the apes, which is just as fine, as the Zira and Cornelius characters are really likable, three-dimensional beings. Just like in the first two films we had the ape couple that was kind to humans, we now have a couple of humans sympathetic to the ape’s plight and even though the audience might end up on the ape’s side, the biggest quibble with the story is how it tries to downplay the fact that the Bradford Dillon and Ricardo Montalban characters will be directly responsible for the end of Earth as we know it. The last shot of a baby chimpanzee was clearly moved back and forth repeatedly to give the impression that it could actually talk just a few days after birth and yet this turns out to be another chilling, apocalyptic, great shot for the series, promising of great things to come that were only partially delivered. *** 1/2

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