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Montreal, Quebec, Canada
I am a Montreal-based actor, writer and comedian. When U.S. President John F. Kennedy was shot, I was three days old. I cried all day. My favourite books of all time are Moby Dick by Herman Melville, The Last Temptation by Nikos Kazantzakis and The Ewoks Fun Time Activity Book by Chirpa and Pamploo. I am a member of The Vestibules, On The Spot Improv and The Best Buy Battery Club. Except for the Battery Club, I've been at all this stuff for over 20 years. Enjoy my blog.

Friday, August 5, 2011

The Rise of the Rise of the Planet of the Apes

If you are not familiar with The Planet of the Apes saga, 
this post contains some big time SPOILER ALERTS.

The upcoming movie Rise of the Planet of the Apes, starring James Franco, Andy Sirkus and Frieda Pinto, opens a new chapter in the history of one of the most successful science fiction film franchises ever. While Planet of the Apes is not necessarily as instantly recognizable a brand as other recently successfully rebooted franchises like Star Trek, James Bond or Batman, it is still very much a potentially lucrative property with a proven box office track record.

The original 1968 film, Planet of the Apes, starring Charlton Heston, Kim Hunter and Roddy McDowell spawned four sequels, two TV series and a 2001 remake directed by Tim Burton, starring Mark Wahlberg
The original Apes franchise was known for its use of the allegorical device of intelligent talking apes as means of making social commentary on issues like racial discrimination, animal rights,  the legal system, religion and war, to name a few.  The series’ penchant for social commentary goes right back to its original literary source material.

 Boulle felt that his "monkey" novel was a lesser work all the way to the bank.
In 1963, French writer Pierre Boulle, author of the critically acclaimed novel Bridge of the River Kwai, published a book titled simply Monkey Planet (or Planet of the Monkeys, Ape Planet, or Planet of the Apes, depending on the translation).
The novel tells the story of a French journalist embedded on a space mission who ends up stranded alone on a planet where apes are the masters and humans the beasts. It bears more similarities to Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels than it does to the film adaptations that would follow. Absurdest social satire is the order of the day as the apes are depicted watching TV, driving cars and crossing busy city streets via a line suspended between two buildings while wearing business attire.

The cover of this early edition nicely captures the book's satirical nature
At the time, France had already lost its colonies in both Algeria and Vietnam to popular anti-colonial uprisings. France’s colonial power around the globe was in decline. Boulle’s fictional monkey planet had already seen a similar decline: having been taken over by its apes hundreds of years ago. Their revolution happened simply because that planet’s humans did nothing to stop the apes.  Taken in its historical context, Boulle's science fiction parable comes off as something of a satirical cautionary tale laced with a tinge of underlying xenophobia.

The novel set the stage for a basic concept of metaphorical and satirical social and political commentary that would, to one degree or another, inhabit the entire franchise in all of its future incarnations.

Fortunately, when Hollywood adapted Boulle's novel to the big screen, they decided not to forgo the title Monkey Planet and go with a title that would appeal to audiences over the age of five: Planet of the Apes.
Veteran Hollywood producer Arthur P. Jacobs optioned the movie rights when Pierre Boulle's novel was not even published yet. Jacobs then got 20th Century Fox film studios interested in the film by attaching the then publicly apolitical Heston to the project. After that, Jacobs hired Twilight Zone creator, writer and host Rod Serling to adapt Boulle's novel for the screen.

The O.Henry of TV writers
Serling had already learned on The Twilight Zone that you can get away with a great deal of social and political commentary on TV and in movies when you dress that commentary up as fantasy or science fiction.  Cue the entrance of social commentary in the Apes’ films.

Michael Wilson, a writer who had been blacklisted in Hollywood during the McCarthy era, was hired to punch up Serling’s first draft, which the studio felt was a bit too talky and heavy handed.

In the film version, only the very basic premise of Boulle’s novel and the names of most of the ape characters remain (i.e.: Zira, Cornelius and Dr.Zauis). The French journalist becomes an American astronaut.  For budget reasons, the apes’ modern day technological society became a more primitive Bronze Age society (that has still somehow developed blood transfusions, photography, repeating fire rifles, high pressure fire hoses and even brain surgery).

True to the allegorical nature of the book, Heston's naked trial scene at the hands of an ape tribunal, for instance, was a mix of allegories to the Scopes Monkey Trial and the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings with allusions to Franz Kafka’s The Trial and George Orwell’s Animal Farm thrown in for good measure.

Then there is, of course, that Cold War era ending in which Heston discovers a half buried Statue of Liberty on the beach. He realizes that he has been on a post-nuclear holocaust Earth the whole time. It was an ending that made the film and transformed a simple gimmicky science fiction story into a cautionary tale for its time.

Planet of the Apes was released in 1968. It was a massive box office hit.  Even in 1968, that meant that a sequel was inevitable.  Heston wanted nothing to do with a sequel but did finally agree to cameo role.  After passing on scripts by both Serling and Boulle himself, Jacobs settled on a screenplay by British writer Paul Dehn.

Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970) follows the story of a rescue mission sent after Heston’s ship. The new astronaut’s (played by TV and B movie actor James Fransiscus – up and coming star Burt Reynolds reportedly turned the role down) search for Heston leads him underground. He encounters subterranean mutant humans who worship an atomic bomb. Turns out, they are also holding Heston captive.

The apes soon follow; then there’s a lot of fighting and shooting.  Finally a mortally wounded Heston activates the atomic bomb and blows up the entire world. Yes, the Apes movies were always kind of downer; the heroes are hunted and chased with no relief until the entire world is blown up. All this in the second movie of a big box office franchise, no less. Imagine Iron Man II, say, ending with Tony Stark, after having been mortally wounded, decides to blow up the world and that’s that.

It was a very different pop culture landscape in 1970, that’s for sure.

So there we go. End of story.  End of franchise. 

Well, not really.

Beneath The Planet of the Apes came out in 1970 and was another huge hit. Fox decided they had a hit series of films on their hands and ordered Jacobs to make another Apes movie, leaving him to figure out how to make a sequel to a movie where the world was destroyed. Lucky for Jacobs, Dehn was a clever writer. 

In the opening of the next film, Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971), we discover that three of the apes, Cornelius, Zira and the previously unseen Dr.Milo, found Chuck Heston’s ship at the bottom of a lake, somehow repaired it and got it into space just in time to avoid the destruction of the Earth so that they could travel back in time to the early 70's.

It is better not to think about that premise too much.

Hunter and McDowell reprise the roles of the apes Cornelius and Zira. The story of the apes in present day human society mirrors much of the plot of Boulle’s original novel. Like the human in Monkey Planet, the intelligent apes are treated as celebrities and embraced by human society.  Like in the book, they are then eventually seen as a threat to civilization and hunted down. In the book, the French journalist finally escapes the planet. In the third Apes movie, the ape couple are hunted down and killed.

Yes. Killed.  Along with their newborn baby, who is seen as the ultimate threat to the future of humanity.   And you thought the end of the world was a downer ending.

The scenes of the two protagonist apes’ death especially showcase the dark nature of the Apes movies.  And Escape from the Planet of the Apes is supposedly the comic relief “fish out of water” lighter outing of the franchise.  Even so, the two main characters and their baby are shot and killed. Once again, imagine that in another big SF franchise. It would be like Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home  ending with Kirk and Spock not saving the world and then getting shot in the head, never to be seen ever again.

Only in the 70’s.

The series would get darker still in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972).  As was suggested in the one ray of light at the very end of the third film, Cornelius and Zira switched their newborn intelligent ape baby with a “normal” ape baby in a circus. 

Twenty years later, now in the year 1991, apes have become slaves to humans.  Everybody remembers that from 1991, right?  The big fads were , MC Hammer, stone-washed jeans and ape slaves. Not.

Caesar, the intelligent ape baby has now grown up. He emerges from hiding and launches a revolution against his now crypto fascist human overloads.  This time the film ends with the overthrow of all humanity.  There are a couple of sympathetic exceptions but, really, the real heavies of this movie are the humans. 
It’s hard to miss the allegories to the African American experience in the history of the United States. This is especially true during the many uprising scenes. The images of cops in helmets, holding armored shields while throwing tear gas into advancing apes also brings to mind the tumultuous youth rebellion of the era.

They even open fire on the crowd, just like at Kent State.

Caesar (as played by the same actor who played his dad, Roddy McDowell) is a simian Che Guevara. His final revolutionary simian victory speech, along with much of the violence of the first cut of the film, was toned down for the Conquest of the Planet of the Apes’ domestic release. The violence and the speech was considered too disturbing for US audiences, especially those in the younger target audience(the original cut with the violence and the speech intact was released internationally and can also now be seen on the excellent Blu-ray edition of the Apes series).

Battle for the Planet of the Apes followed in 1973. The least successful film of the series, both creatively and financially, it marked the end of the big screen Apes franchise. The story of the Apes and their fledgling new civilization is still full of social commentary, most especially when it comes to the issue of the human’s place as second class citizens in the new ape world order. It also contains one of the most popular lines of the entire series “Ape shall never kill ape”.

Spoiler alert: it’s a rule that gets broken.

 The Starsky and Hutch Fugitives on The Planet of the Ape

The fifth film was followed by a 13 episode TV series that originally ran on US TV in the fall of 1974.

The producers of the first small screen Apes venture went to a guy who knew both Planet of the Apes and TV science fiction pretty well, Rod Serling. Though uncredited, the basic premise of the show and the characters were based on Serling's ideas. Sadly, the assignment would mark one of Serling's final TV jobs before his untimely death in 1975.

The show followed the adventures of two Starsky and Hutch look-alike astronauts stranded on a version of the ape world not unlike that of the fifth film.  Roddy McDowell put on the ape make-up one last time to play his third different role in the franchise: that of Galen (a character created by Serling in his first draft of the first film, the name can spotted in the end credits of the movie, in fact) the sympathetic ape who aids the two stranded humans, Verdon and Burke.

The model for the show was basically that of The Fugitive (the 60’s TV David Jansen version not the 90’s action movie Harrison Ford version). The humans were chased by the apes from village to village each week, usually helping some humans and/or apes in the process and always getting into at least one or two really cool fights.

The show did carry on the Apes tradition of social commentary, albeit in a more simplistic form. The commentary usually came in the form the morally and intellectually superior humans teaching the apes everything from how to hunt, farm and fish to basic physics to aviation to medicine to lessons in truth, justice and the American way. There was usually some kind of message about tolerance in there somewhere too.  Benevolent Americans aiding the inhabitants of the socially, industrially and politically inferior Third World  was the basic paradigm utilized in all 13 episodes.

The Apes TV series also presented something very significant in the franchise, something that had hardly been seen at all up to that point: optimism. Though not enough optimism to keep the show from being cancelled mid-season.

The optimism, however,  would continue to grow in the animated series, Return to the Planet of the Apes which premiered in the US in the fall of 1975.

Interestingly, the Saturday morning cartoon version would go back to some of the franchise's earliest and most obscure ideas. For one thing, the apes had, for the first time on screen, a modern day technological society similar to one described in Pierre Boulle's Monkey Planet some twelve years earlier. Secondly, the series incorporated ideas from both Serling and Boulle's rejected screenplays for the sequel to the first film.

In Boulle's version, the intelligent human helps the primitive humans to escape from the apes. The humans then take up residence in a fortified camp and attempt to establish a new civilization.  Serling's version added to that the humans discovering and subsequently utilizing old human weapons and technology like airplanes.

Those two elements made up most of the story arc of  the series. Sadly, the show was cancelled before the continuation of that story arc ever made it to the screen (unless there's  a comic book adaptation or some fan fiction out there somewhere I'm not aware of ).

The Apes animated series featured very limited animation and much of the writing was forced and clunky. Great ideas, not so great execution. If they have used those ideas in the live action show, with stronger writing, they may well have a hit TV show on their hands.

In addition to optimism the Apes animated series also brought something heretofore unseen in the franchise: empowerment. Up to that point the humans has always been portrayed as running, hiding, getting beaten up, shot, cut up and generally, well, losing every time to the apes. For the first time, the Apes series showed humans starting to get an upper hand over the apes. Ironically, Return to the Planet of the Apes also marked the decline and fall of the entire franchise.

Well, for about 30 years anyway.

An Apes revival had been in the works for many years after the end of the animated series. When Generation X irony made the Apes movies and TV shows hip in the 90's,  remake initiatives got some serious attention.  At one point Oliver Stone was going to direct a remake starring Kevin Costner in the old Charlton Heston role. It seems Stone's basic take on Planet of the Apes was to replace an overblown conservative with an overblown liberal. Then it was rumored that James Cameron would direct Arnold Schwarzenegger in a Planet of the Apes remake. That team would have brought empowerment x10 to the power of 10 to the Apes franchise. Plans for that version were finally abandoned when neither Cameron nor Schwarzenegger could figure out a viable means of hiding an Uzi in a loincloth.

Finally, in 2001, Tim Burton got to make his "re-imagined" version of Planet of the Apes. Burton's take on the Apes premise featured some great special effects, make-up that was light years ahead of the original, beautiful production design, a cast filled with some impressive actors and, the film's ultimate undoing, a muddled screenplay.

Burton's vision of the Ape society is interesting.  In a rarity for the series, the apes actually take on some simian behavior (though no feces throwing, fortunately). The jungle-based ape city and the Kurosawa-esque ape army are visual treats. Tim Roth is particularly good as the aggressive ape, General Thade. Then there's Charlton Heston making an uncreditied cameo as a dying ape named Zaius (Heston's first and only return to the franchise since blowing up the world in Beneath the Planet of the Apes).

There is certainly some social commentary in the film but the whole endeavor is lacking the gravitas and darkness that made the original films so memorable. In the first series, the Planet of the Apes is brought into being due ultimately to humanity's tragic  flaws. In the 2001 version, the Planet of the Apes is brought into because Mark Wahlberg fucked up.

That aside, Burton’s remake was released to disappointing critical and commercial success.  Other than perhaps the success of the 1974 live action TV series in international markets outside of North America, no subsequent Apes property has lived up to the initial success of the Planet of the Apes box office phenomenon of 1968-73.

Nonetheless, Fox was still not content to just let a successful franchise sit on the shelf . As early as 2005, rumors of another Apes reboot started flying around the internet. This time it was said that the plan was to start the series over at the very origin of The Planet of the Apes itself. In other words, a remake of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes.

Originally titled simply Caesar (the main character of Conquest), the project then later became Rise of the Apes.  In the hopes that some brand recognition would buy another couple of million bucks on opening weekend, the movie was finally titled Rise of the Planet of The Apes.

Younger stars like James Franco and Slumdog Millionaire's Freida Pinto were then attached to the project. In a bit of interesting type casting, Andy Sirkus, the actor famous for playing, via a motion capture suit, roles  like Golum in Lord of the Rings and King Kong in the 2005 remake, was cast as Caesar.

Not surprising then, that Fox is giving the series another go. Though they are taking a few odd risks.

For some reason, Fox moved the release date up from November to August. This opens the film in and amongst many other big time summer blockbusters like Harry Potter, Captain America, Cowboys and Aliens, The Smurfs and the third Transformers movie.

Remaking the fourth film of the series could be a risky commercial move too. Most audiences today are probably much more familiar with the original 1968 film or the even the 2001 remake.  Awareness of the third sequel in the series does not seem to be as high in the mainstream.

The whole approach is certainly a gutsy move all around.

Who knows what will become of the social and political commentary that has become an intrinsic part of the Apes genre. The cautionary tale of nuclear Armageddon seems to be gone in favor of what seems to be a cautionary tale of genetic engineering.  Social commentary today doesn’t play the way it did in the 60’s and early 70’s. Today, such undertones are often tempered with optimistic and upbeat endings, if they are there at all.

It is very unlikely that Rise of the Apes will end with Andy Serkis blowing up the world or with James Franco and Fried Pinto getting shot in the head. Without a similarly audacious downbeat ending or unflinching social commentary, it’s hard to say if, in fact, we will again witness a real Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

Should Rise of the Planet of the Apes fail, the series may want to take on a new motto:

"Ape shall not remake ape." 

1 comment:

  1. Caught the film last night. Not quite as much or the same type of social commentary as the original series but still a very good film, worthy of the franchise.