Back to the Planet of the Apes

As a follow up to my review of the film, here are a few more personal thoughts about Rise of the Planet of the Apes and the series that inspired it.

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Like many a nerd, I grew up a big fan of the Planet of the Apes movies. I was far too young to catch either the TV series or the comics, but after my dad introduced me to the original film I was pretty much hooked. There is of course the infamous ending; a brilliant Twilight Zone-esque twist which gives new meaning to everything that has gone before. There are the layers of allegory within a razor-sharp script; the great action sequences; the superb make-up, costumes, photography and sets; and the iconic performances of Charlton Heston, Roddy McDowall et al. It is, in a word, a classic.

The sequels couldn’t quite match their illustrious predecessor, but most of them do at least offer a new angle on the same concept, pushing the story forward in intriguingly daring directions. The apocalyptic nihilism of Beneath, the satire and romantic tragedy of Escape, and the social upheaval of Conquest all brought something new to the table; only Battle, with its minuscule budget and compromised script, failed to say much of interest (though it does boast an ambiguous ending). 

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the first three sequels shared the same screenwriter, Paul Dehn; he also worked on the final film, but his original draft was rejected for being too dark and it ended up being rewritten for the family market. It would have been fascinating to see how it might have turned out as originally conceived. Even so, the fact that the sequels aren’t simply dull retreads of the original story has given the POTA franchise a quality and longevity that is quite unusual for the period.  

Since the late 80s a new Apes project was in development at Fox. It would have been amazing if, as was rumoured, it emerged as a genuine sequel, one that would fit in with the original series’ timeline. Alas, in 2001 we ended up with Tim Burton’s version of the saga: not without interest but a disappointment nonetheless, hamstrung by a wooden lead performance from Mark Wahlberg.

Now, ten years later, Rise of the Planet of the Apes honours the heritage of its forebears far better than Burton’s misfire by refusing to be satisfied with mimicking past glories; instead it views the familiar scenario with fresh eyes. Some fans may quibble it doesn’t fit in with the existing series, but then why should it? It’s been too long to hope that a real sequel might one day come along. And what worked for one generation doesn’t necessarily work for another. The filmmakers have delivered a prequel that cherishes the ideas behind the original films, and comes up with one or two new ones of their own. It might look and sound different on the surface, but I for one am glad that the apes have taken over the planet once more.

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