Film Review: “War for the Planet of the Apes” and the End of Humanity

Warning: Full spoilers follow.

As everyone who is even vaguely familiar with this blog knows quite well, I am an avid fan of all things Planet of the Apes. Needless to say, then, I have been waiting for the release of this film pretty much from the moment that the last film was finished. I watched the most recent entry as part of a triple feature, and I also watched it on its own (in 3-D in RPX, no less). I can say, as both a fan of the franchise and as someone who loves a well-made movie, that this is a stirring, magnificent conclusion.

The film begins two years after the conclusion of Dawn, as the forces of the Colonel (Woody Harrelson) attempt to utterly eradicate the sentient apes, who have retreated ever further into the forest in a desperate attempt to survive. When the Colonel assassinates Caesar’s wife and child, he sets out–with the orangutan Maurice, the gorilla Luca, and the chimpanzee Rocket–to gain revenge. Along the way, they meet Bad Ape, another sentient chimpanzee (who is not part of their tribe), before coming across the hideous concentration camp the Colonel has staffed with Caesar’s captured troop. The Colonel manages to capture Caesar and uses him as a means of motivating the other apes to continue building a wall around the camp. Ultimately, Caesar leads his troop to a promised land, though he gives his life to do so.

The vision of the world that War presents is the logical culmination of the narrative arc begun with Rise and continued with Dawn. In other words, it is a brutal, bleak world where both apes and humans have to contend with the darker parts of their natures. The spirit of vengefulness that Koba represented in the second film continues to haunt Caesar, a reminder that, for all of their advanced cognition and increased self-awareness, the apes are never far from sliding into violence. That this affects Caesar, just as much as it affects any other character, makes it all the more explicable and, to a degree at least, understandable. When the world has fallen apart and all you want to do is survive–and that is the one thing that humanity seems intent on preventing–it would be very difficult indeed to keep from slipping into barbarism.

A large part of Caesar’s continuing charisma stems from his portrayal by Andy Serkis. It’s not just that Serkis is the undoubted king of motion capture; it’s that Caesar is a character as complex and contradictory as any human character. He has seen so much in the course of his life–the best and the worst of humanity–and he has the physical and emotional scars to prove it. He is also far from infallible; it is his decision to pursue vengeance that leads, however inadvertently, to the imprisonment and death of many of his beloved apes. Even the greatest of heroes, it seems, are as flawed as the rest of us.

While the Colonel gets a lot less screen time than I expected, he is also a man driven by a mission. Once it becomes clear that the virus that wiped out so much of humanity has begun to mutate and cause cognitive devolution, he is willing to sacrifice the lives of everyone–including his own son–if it means that collective humanity will be saved. For it turns out that the virus that exterminated so much of humanity has once again begun to mutate, and its new form works to rob its victims of both speech and their upper cognitive capacities. Brutal, utterly convinced of his own sacred duty (he even believes that his sacrifice of his son is godlike), he represents mankind’s worst impulses, a willingness to destroy any individuals who pose a risk to the collective. Harrelson endows this creation with a certain charismatic cruelty, and that is the brilliance of the role.

If the Colonel represents the end of the emotional attachments that make us human, the mute girl Nova represents a possible new beginning. Having already survived the new form of the virus, she cannot speak, but she is fully capable of emotional attachments, and she becomes particularly bonded with Maurice. While she may not attain the same heights of intelligence as her human forbears, there is a measure of hope that she represents a new, possibly more innocent beginning for the human race.

In the end, War ends on an ambiguously uplifting note. The seeds have been sown for the ultimate decline of humanity into the mute primitives that were seen all the way back when the first film came out in 1969. The apes have at last found a place where they can build their world in safety. Maurice and Rocket, Caesar’s most devoted acolytes and disciples, will be able to train his son Cornelius so that he can take up the mantle of leadership that his father has left behind. Caesar has left the world, but his benevolent spirit, represented by the final glimpse of the sun, will continue to live on among his people.

Speaking of Maurice…I know that Caesar is the film’s star, and I have cheered for him from the beginning, but to my mind Maurice is one of the franchise’s most complicated characters. There is a richness and a depth to him that always shines through, particularly in his eyes. Like Nova, he represents the brighter, more optimistic part of the apes’ nature, a source of wisdom and serenity. Just as importantly, he will, it is hinted, form the foundation for the future of ape society.

Formally, the film is absolutely beautiful. Reeves has really matured as a director, and there are scenes that truly take your breath away: the moment when the gorilla Luca shares a bright pink flower with Nova; the bleakness of the Colonel’s camp; the sweeping vistas all combine to make this a truly astounding film. Michael Giacchino’s score, more subtly orchestrated than Dawn’s, contains allusions to the original film and also ably conveys the operatic grandness of the film’s narrative.

War for the Planet of the Apes is a fitting conclusion to this trilogy, a means of forcing 21st Century humans to confront the uncomfortable questions about what, indeed, makes us different from the other primates with which we share this planet. The films’ answer seems to be pretty unequivocal in many ways: not that much. War in many ways marks the definitive moment at which the planet has definitively turned aside from the path that humans once took. Given the amount of wanton cruelty that the humans have shown–both inside the film and outside of it–it’s hard not to feel that that isn’t such a bad thing after all.

Book Review: “War for the Planet of the Apes: Revelations” (Greg Keyes)

Two years ago, I had the pleasure of reading Greg Keyes’ movie tie-in novel Dawn of the Planet of the Apes: Firestorm, which detailed the efforts of the chimpanzee Caesar and his fellow apes to evade the attempts by humans to eradicate them. Now, Keyes is back with a novel that serves as a bridge between the events of Dawn and those of the forthcoming War, entitled War for the Planet of the Apes: Revelations. 

The novel narrates the events that immediately precede those in the forthcoming film, in which the human forces (led by Colonel McCullough) come to San Francisco and have to confront the reality of the ape presence. Meanwhile, Caesar and his apes must contend with both the increasingly brutal human military force and dissent from within their own ranks.

The novel switches frequently between several viewpoint characters both major and minor, but it pays the most attention to Colonel McCullough, Ray the orangutan, and Blue Eyes, Caesar’s eldest son and putative heir. Other characters include Cornelia (Caesar’s wife and, in her brief time in the novel, a true badass), John (the Colonel’s son), and of course Caesar himself. All of them increasingly find themselves caught up in the increasingly large-scale conflict between the human survivors of the Simian Flu and Caesar’s apes.

Of course, nothing is easy for either side. Caesar must continue to deal with the fallout from Koba’s rebellion, including a number of apes who harbour resentment toward him, including both Red and Silver (the former of home will come to play a large part in the upcoming film). The Colonel, meanwhile, is depicted as a man of honour but also as a brutal military mastermind who is absolutely convinced of the rightness of his actions. Steeped in the military traditions of the past–he references The Iliad, Beowulf, and numerous other texts–he sees in the conflict the stage for both the salvation of humanity and, just possibly, his own chance at greatness.

One of the most fascinating things about this novel is the extent to which it shows us the gradually-evolving consciousness of its ape characters. Many of them still remember a time before the awakening, when apes still inhabited a consciousness that was powerful but qualitatively different than their human counterparts. Keyes has a remarkable ability to allow us to inhabit the minds of the non-human characters, particularly Ray and Blue Eyes. Ray has a desire to move beyond the limits of the corporeal, and he is clearly something of a mystic, someone who sees something that others do not. Likewise, Blue Eyes has the makings of a great leader, if he is able to overcome his own sense of inferiority and embrace his inner strength. Both must also contend with the fact that the world is not nearly as simple as they would like it to be, that there is much about politics, life, and death that they must contend with as they move inexorably into adulthood. The world that they inhabit is a dangerous one, and it is likely to grow more so as the years progress and humanity struggles (probably vainly) to rebuild its vanished civilization.

More importantly, it also suggests that the war that is about to unfold between the brutal colonel and Caesar and his allies is one that will determine not just the fate of the two species, but also the future trajectory of history itself. Both leaders, in their different ways, recognize the stakes of what are about to unfold, but they have very different outlooks on what the future will be like. The Colonel, in keeping with his repeated references to the wars and soldiers of the past–the heroes at Troy, his ancestors who fought in America’s conflicts, etc.–sees life as a brutal battlefield with winners and losers. Caesar, while recognizing the need for battle, is deeply wounded by the knowledge that such battle will mean the death of many of his apes. He bears the scars of leadership, and he knows that the confrontation with the Colonel will be the one that determines the future of his people, possibly for decades to come.

Despite the fact that the outcome of the larger conflict is, to some degree already known, what remains to be seen is just how many tribes of apes will eventually split off from Caesar’s original founding colony. There is no question that there are many who still see their first leader as ultimately a failed effort to co-exist with humans. Perhaps there will be a series of peaceful revolutions, but it is far more likely–given the path that many apes have already taken–that there will be as many violent confrontations between apes and others apes as there are between apes and humans. These apes are very different from humans in some ways, but in others they are far too much like us for comfort.

Revelations gives us a sense not only of the brewing conflicts that will probably take generations to resolve but also the various tribes of apes that are already taking shape at this early stage. While the chimpanzees and bonobos emerge as the clear leaders in this universe, the orangutans (as characters such as Maurice and Ray make clear) are the philosophers and the gorillas, for better or worse, are the muscle (they even refer to themselves as the wall that protects the village). I greatly appreciated the fact that Keyes had clearly done his research into ape behaviour, and it is this level of research that gives all of his ape characters such a profound sense of depth and individuality. Each of them represents a possible path forward for the heterogeneous ape culture, and it will clearly be a struggle–though a worthwhile one–for them to find unity in their difference. As Caesar himself would say, “Apes together, strong!”

I don’t know if Keyes plans on continuing to write books within the Apes universe, but is my fervent hope that he does so. He is one of those rare authors of tie-in fiction who actually knows how to write a taut, compelling story that nevertheless breathes and sighs with at-times lyrical beauty. If anyone is capable of ensuring that the stories of Caesar and his descendants are given the justice they deserve, it is surely Greg Keyes.

Film Review: “Battle for the Planet of the Apes” (1973)

Well, we’ve finally made it to the last of my write-ups of the original Planet of the Apes films. Sometimes derided as the worst of the series, Battle for the Planet of the Apes occurs some time after the previous installment. Mankind has nearly destroyed itself with a terrible nuclear war, while Caesar has led a group of exiles–comprised of both humans and apes–into a sort of peaceful coexistence.

Not all is as serene as it might appear, however. While the apes have quickly adapted and evolved in their social habits–having already donned their signature suits and attained the use of speech–humans remain a somewhat subservient class. They are not quite reduced to slaves, but it’s clear that Caesar has not forgotten the hard lessons learned during the reign of Governor Breck, and that he is not foolish enough to give them the same power that they possessed before they brought about their own destruction. They are almost, but not quite, equals to their ape companions.

One of the things I’ve always found utterly fascinating about this film was the decision to cast it as basically an extended flashback recounted by the aged Lawgiver several centuries after the events have taken place. It’s a bit of a stroke of brilliance to have John Huston play this venerated ape figure, as he always adds a touch of class and gravitas to the proceedings, and this Lawgiver, at least at this point, embodies the principle of peaceful coexistence that seems to be the film’s endpoint. He is even shown teaching his wisdom to a mixed group of ape and human children. This, at least on the surface, represents a more promising, optimistic future than the one presented in the film that began the series.

Throughout the narrative, the film essentially pits four different groups against one another:  the reasonable apes led by Caesar and his loyal followers such as Virgil, the bellicose gorillas led by the general Aldo, the humans led by MacDonald (the brother of the character of the same name from the previous film), and the mutants that remain in the ruins of the radioactive city (led by a new governor named Kolp, the chief interrogator under Breck). Each of them represents a different vision of the future, whether it will be one of peaceful coexistence of humans and apes or whether it will be one in which the two races remain locked in conflict until one utterly destroys the other.

In that respect, Kolp and his fellow mutants act as some of the most compelling characters. Kolp has clearly been driven mad by his confinement in a world increasingly restricted and poisonous. For their part, the mutants that still dwell in the ruins of their former home are just as disturbing and compelling as any other creations from this film series. Of particular note are Alma, Kolp’s right hand, and Mendez, one of the few mutants who understands the need for a more peaceful world. Indeed, their final scene in the film shows him declaring that they use the doomsday bomb not to bring about the end of the apes–which were Kolp’s last orders before his death–but instead serve as a source of inspiration for generations to come. Clearly, he is meant to be understood as the progenitor of the Mendez cult that will come to rule the mutants in the centuries and millennia to come.

There is a certain irony in the fact that Aldo is the other primary villain in this film. Canny fans will remember that when Caesar told of how apes came to dominate the world, it was an ape named Aldo who first uttered the word “no” and struck the first blow in the revolution. Now, in a timeline in which that revolution has been accelerated by several centuries, Aldo has been reduced to little more than a failed revolutionary, a belligerent, not very intelligent gorilla general who fails in his attempt to mold the future in his own image. The fact that he is portrayed by Claude Akins (known for his portrayal of bluff, belligerent types in many TV shows) heightens the contrast between him and the more cerebral, thoughtful Caesar.

What I really love about this film, however, is how truly ambiguous it remains. Unlike each of the previous installments, which struck a decidedly bleak and despairing tone about not just the future but about human nature itself, this film seems a bit (just a bit, mind you), more optimistic. The final shot of the film, in which a statue of Caesar appears to weep is, by all accounts, a touch from the screenwriters to suggest that the more peaceful vision of the future this film offers ultimately failed. This, of course, leads to all sorts of questions. Does something happen during the lifetime of the Lawgiver that makes him turn against his human pupils? When does the final break between human and ape occur? These are all fascinating questions, and the film (rightly so, IMO), leaves them unanswered.

While some might regard this as the weakest Apes installment, it will always occupy a special place in my heart.

Film Review: “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes” (1972)

Continuing onward with our exploration of the original Planet of the Apes film series, we come to what has always been one of the most genuinely disturbing and frightening entries in the franchise, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. In this film, Zira’s and Cornelius’s son (originally named Milo by his parents but renamed Caesar by the circus owner Armando), is brought to the (unnamed) city, where he witnesses the horrible treatments that apes endure at the hands of their human masters. In the years since his parents’ death, cats and dogs have been wiped out, replaced by apes who moved quickly from being pets to being servants. In this strange, disturbing space, apes fulfill the menial jobs previously filled by humans. Caesar, as the lone talking ape, is the spark that ignites this smoldering powder-keg of a world.

It does not take long for the film to show us that this is a stark and totalitarian vision of America’s future. The apes have already been degraded to the point where they are dressed according to their species, a key means of ensuring that they remain separated from one another, unable to form the bonds of solidarity that would, any good Marxist leads knows, lead to the revolution and overthrow of the existing power structure. However, even in this early point in the film their latent dissatisfaction is obvious, as it takes a great deal of human-inflicted violence to make them fully quiescent.

Indeed, Armando represents in the film’s imagination one of the few humans who actually possesses a sense of compassion, and his death at the hands of government-sponsored interrogators stands for Caesar as the final piece of evidence that there is nothing remotely redeemable about the world that man has created. Caesar knows that he only has two options:  he can either fulfill his destiny as the harbinger of ape revolution, or he can embrace the death that surely awaits him at the humans’ hands.

Thus, one cannot really blame Caesar for eventually leading the rebellion. Who could not, seeing the tremendous cruelty that humans continue to perpetrate against their ape slaves, ranging from the everyday abuse they suffer at the hands of their human masters to the more extended rigors inflicted at the Ape Management Center? The humans, in their desperate attempt to keep their simian cousins under control, end up producing the very catastrophe they so assiduously sought to avoid. Even at the level of narrative, humankind reminds trapped in a mesh of its own creation.

Formally, this is a tremendously complex and compelling film, and it certainly makes the most of an obviously-decreasing budget. The half-hour or so of the film is shot in very stark lighting, with the austere office buildings and too-bright light showing us that this is a world that has already slipped precipitously into totalitarianism. Humans have gradually abrogated any of their moral superiority, and by the time the night of fire and death arrives, we can’t help but cheer for our own downfall.

Governor Breck, the film’s primary antagonist, may be an absolutely disgusting and terrifying tyrant, but he is an utterly compelling villain. Like his predecessor Hasslein in Escape from the Planet of the Apes, he recognizes something fundamental that eludes most of the other characters; he knows that part of the reason that humans have enslaved apes is because they recognize in their simian cousins the aspects of human nature that he most wants to abolish and control. Within every human, he knows, lurks the dark, primate doppelgänger just waiting to leap out and wreak havoc. Caesar, for better and worse, is merely the inverted reflection of his archenemy Breck.

Now, there is one thing you should know about this film:  there are actually two very different endings, depending on which version you watch. The one that actually reached theaters was a more hopeful ending, in which Caesar declared a measure of mercy for the humans that he had just overthrown, sparing Governor Breck’s life rather than allowing his fellows to have their vengeance. In this vision, there is hope, however frail, of a rapprochement of sorts between the humans and the apes. It is one of the few moments of optimism in an otherwise quite bleak film series.

The restored ending, however (now available on the Blu-Ray), has Caesar unabashedly proclaim his desire to take the reins of power from the humans who, he knows with certainty, will one day bring about their own destruction. Breck is then beaten to death by the gorillas that have surrounded him.  This version also features a great deal more blood, as well as a scene in which human bodies are heaped on one another in the aftermath of the revolt (a scene eerily reminiscent of the hunt of the very first film). Being the person I am, I actually prefer this version, precisely because it denies us the optimism that so often acts as a opiate, dulling our awareness. If you can, watch this version and embrace its visceral bleakness.

Next up, I’ll cover the last film in the original film series, Battle for Planet of the Apes, in which the future fates of humans and apes will at last be decided.

Film Review: “Escape from the Planet of the Apes” (1971)

Since I’ve already written reviews of the first two Planet of the Apes films, I thought I would keep things going by jotting down some of my thoughts on the third installment, Escape from Planet of the Apes. In this film, Cornelius and Zira (Roddy McDowall and Kim Hunter) have managed to escape the conflagration that consumed Earth in the previous film, along with the genius chimpanzee scientist Milo (Sal Mineo, in one of his final film roles). They crash land on the Earth of Taylor’s time, and once there they are taken into custody by the U.S. government, setting in motion a chain of events that will have tragic consequences for everyone involved.

For better or worse, Escape from the Planet of the Apes has always been my least favourite of the original Apes films. Part of this has to do with the very comedic element that suffuses the majority of the film. While this has always struck me as somewhat odd (given the somber, even bleak tone of the preceding films), it’s only fair to acknowledge that some of the film is actually quite funny. For example, in a tense scene in a courtroom in which the two apes are being interrogated, Cornelius is asked, obliquely, whether he can speak. With a delivery that could only come from McDowall, he says, “Only when she lets me.” It usefully breaks the tension, but it also sets the stage for the tragedy that gradually unfolds.

In keeping with its predecessors in the franchise, the film does ask some troubling philosophical questions. During a heated debate between Dr. Hasslein and the U.S. President,  the latter expresses the belief that perhaps it wouldn’t be such a bad thing after all if apes displaced humans as the dominant species. After all, he points out, humans haven’t done such a great job as stewards of their own planet and besides, perhaps it is beyond the ability of humankind, even the (arguably) most powerful man in the world, to prevent the workings of fate. Hasslein, of course, remains unconvinced and it is his belief–which the film encourages us to understand as sincere–that leads to his unrelenting pursuit of the talking apes who represent, for him, the extinction of the human race and all it holds dear.

There are a number of other things that I always enjoy about this film. One is Armando, portrayed by the inimitable Ricardo Montalban, the owner of a circus that shields Cornelius and Zira from the avenging government agents out to sterilize them and abort their offspring. He also, it turns out, shelters their children, ensuring that the very future Hasslein fears with such panicked intensity will come to pass.

For me, though, the most powerful thing about this film is its tragic ending, in which both Zira and Cornelius are murdered by humans, the final shot of the film taken from overhead, capturing their last embrace. It’s a heart-wrenching end to the film, especially that we have been with these characters through two previous installments. It also serves as a brutal reminder of the cruelties of which man continues to prove himself utterly capable.

Though somewhat marred by its tendency toward silliness and comedy, the third installment in the venerable Apes franchise does, nevertheless, manage to set the stage for the struggle that will eventually lead to man’s self-immolation and his supplanting by the apes that he will ultimately seek to enslave and bend to his will. The irony, of course, is that Hasslein’s relentless pursuit of Zira and Cornelius is itself the manifestation of mankind’s relentless desire to dominate and control both his fellow creatures and his own future, two forces that always seem to find some way to confound those very desires.

Like the other Apes films, Escape suggests that human (and, I would say, ape) agency remains caught up in a double-bind of its own creation. In attempting to prevent the future from happening, the various humans and apes who try to forestall the day of their doom end up hastening its arrival. It’s a rather bleak understanding of the way the world works, but one entirely in keeping with the angsty nuclear age that produced it.

Film Review: “Beneath the Planet of the Apes” (1970)

Since I watched Planet of the Apes in theaters recently, I’ve felt the familiar urge to revisit the other entries in the original film series. So, of course, I began with the sequel, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, in which another astronaut, Brent (the absolutely delicious James Franciscus) crash-lands on the titular planet, only to discover (as Taylor did) that he is on Earth. In the process, he finds himself caught in the middle of a war between the apes and a race of telepathic mutants inhabiting the ruins of New York City.

While many critics find this one of the weakest entries in the series, I actually think it’s the strongest next to the original. This is due to three factors. One, the continued intractability of Dr. Zaius, who cannot see beyond his own understanding of the world and who thus inadvertently brings about its destruction. Zaius, brought to nuanced live by the late, great Maurice Evans, will always be one of my absolute favourite Apes characters. Two, General Ursus, showcasing the wonderful talents of James Gregory (and who could ever forget the incredible line, “The only good human, is a dead human!) In many ways, he represents the darker strain of ape society, the (dare I say it) almost human drive to conquer and destroy those that are different.  Three, the terrifying vision of the future of humanity amid the radioactive ruins of New York City. While they have some power, they also recognize their own fragility in the face of the brute force that the apes possess.

I always feel a pleasurable thrill of terror when I first see the ruins of New York City, as Brent wanders through its underground remains. There is something, I think, sublime about seeing the remains not only of one of the world’s greatest cities, but specifically of the bastions of man’s economic and enlightened achievements (hence the appearance of both the Stock Exchange and the NYPL). Similarly, it’s hard not to feel a mixture of horror and utter captivation when you realize that the telepaths have taken over St. Patrick’s Cathedral in order to offer their adulation to the bomb that could, literally, bring all life on Earth to an end. The fact that they have so thoroughly interwoven the most destructive weapon known to man into their religious life is one of the film’s more brilliant inventions, as is the fact that they only reveal their “inmost selves” to their “god” (though they normally wear masks and wigs to make themselves appear normally human, they reveal their mutated selves during worship).

Of course, it’s rather easy to read the telepaths as being more than slightly ridiculous in their worship of the Alpha/Omega bomb, but I personally find those scenes to be intensely, viscerally disturbing. I suspect this has to do with the fact that in this world the bomb has become indissolubly wedded to the divine, man’s ability to co-opt God’s destructive capabilities is indeed terrifying to contemplate. This is hardly surprising, especially if (as I have) you have studied the period and know that, indeed, there were many who saw in the bomb the incarnation of a divine power. The film tempers this somewhat by allowing Taylor the final triggering of the bomb, though to my eye it remains unclear whether he does it as a final thrust of revenge toward the intractable Zaius or whether it just happens to be where he falls after his fatal shooting (to my eye, it remains ambiguous).

In many ways, the vision of the world offered by Beneath is even more terrifying than its predecessor. In this world, humans occupy two equally unpalatable positions in this world:  either utterly devoid of the basic patterns of civilization or reduced to dwelling in a ruined city whose wreaked visage matches their own. There is really no hope for redemption, except for the perilous, ultimately fatal one offered by the detonation of the bomb.

Even the ending is, in its own way, bleaker than the original film. While there was at least hope that civilization and the future, even if ruled by apes, would continue (such was Dr. Zaius’ hope when he had the signs of man’s former dominance destroyed) in the first, at the end of this one we know that the entire planet has been effectively rendered a dead wasteland by the Bomb. The dreary intonation at the end, pithy and matter-of-fact, suggests that, in the end, the Earth is but an unimportant part of the universe.

Truly, a terrifying proposition.

“Planet of the Apes” and the Phenomenology of the Theatrical Film Experience

As a film scholar whose work examines the importance of technology to the way in which spectators experience the cinema and the world around them, it’s always something of a pleasure to see something actually in a theater. Part of it is the sociality of the space, seeing a film (whether a classic or a new release) with others who have made the effort and spent the money to see the same film you are and (hopefully) have some measure of investment in it. But an equally important part is the experience of the big screen itself. We in the world of academia refer to this study of the sensory and bodily appeal of cinema as phenomenology, that is, how we experience, often at the level of our bodies, the world around us.

While it can sometimes be difficult to experience older films in their original theatrical format, there has been a recent spate of re-releases by theater chains, including an ongoing partnership between Fathom Events and Turner Classic Movies. Fortunately or me, they recently had a showing of Planet of the Apes (the one and only original), and I was more than pleased to be able to attend.

Now, Planet of the Apes has long been one of my absolute favourite films. As chilling and mind-bending as ever, I truly enjoyed watching it on the big screen and this experience convinced me, once and for all, that sometimes yes, it is indeed better to see the film in an actual theater rather than relying on seeing it on TV (yes, even if you’re lucky enough to have an HDTV). There is just something about seeing it in a multiplex that forms a link between me, sitting in the theater in the present day, with those who would have seen it when it was originally produced and even, terrifyingly enough, with the hero Taylor as he struggles to make sense of this baffling world in which apes are the intelligent form of life while humans struggle at the bottom of the ecological hierarchy.

Industrially, it’s important to remember that these films of the pre-VHS/DVD/Blu-Ray era were especially designed to be seen on the big screen. (Geoff King has a fascinating discussion on this very issue, if you’re interested in reading about it further). Seeing things on a larger scale allows not only for a greater amount of scrutiny of the formal composition of the screen space, but also a greater sense of immersion in this profoundly unsettling and challenging world. And for a film like Apes, this immersion can prove to be profoundly unsettling at a deeply primal, psychological level.

Seeing it in a larger format also allows for a more nuanced appreciation of the formal complexity of this film. From the perpetually unsettling score (one of the finest ever produced for a feature film, IMO), to the way in which the onscreen space is often organized around blocks and and obstructions that separate Taylor from those who inhabit this world, the diegetic space mirrors his own fractured consciousness and invites us to inhabit it as well. Further, there are some particularly brilliant moments when we see Taylor/Heston’s countenance brought into close-up, even as he reflects on (and is forced to acknowledge) his own smallness in the vastness of space and in the world that no longer truly has a place for him. The human, in the film’s imagination, is both centered and decentered.

Furthermore, the film makes some truly (a mark, no doubt, of the films production after the advent of the New Hollywood, which posed significant challenges to the earlier conventions of Hollywood style). There is a lot of very jumpy camera movement, as well as a few key scenes (such as Taylor’s attempted escape from Ape City), where the camera actually turns the world upside down. It’s not necessarily a subtle bit of cinematography, but it is effective. Coupled with the disturbing film score–which often mimics the sounds of the apes–it really does serve to disorient us as viewers and make us reflect on how fragile and precarious our own superiority truly is.

All in all, this was truly a tremendous cinematic experience, and I’m glad I took the time to do it. The hilarious interview between TCM’s Ben Mankiewicz and “Dr. Zaius” was a fond, tongue-in-cheek send-up of the film’s most notorious, sanctimonious villain. It was certainly one of the most absurdly bizarre (in a good way) interview that I have seen on Turner Classic movies. While I enjoyed it, I do wonder what was in the minds of the producers when they decided on that particular avenue. Still, the definite queer edge made it a little extra special for me (as you know, I’m always on the lookout for the queer side of things).

So, if you have the chance to see a classic Hollywood film in theaters, do it. You won’t regret it.

Review: “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”

I will admit to no small amount of trepidation going in to Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.  As a long fan of the franchise and a devotee of the reboot Rise of the Planet of the Apes, I had high expectations of this sequel (made all the more intense by the overwhelmingly positive reviews the film has so far garnered from the critics).  Even as a devoted acolyte I couldn’t help but wonder:  will this film live up to my expectations?  Is it even realistic to think that it will?  I honestly didn’t think I could stand the disappointment if it turned out that I couldn’t connect with the film in the way I had to its predecessors.

Luckily for me, I did.

Not that there weren’t a few touch-and-go moments.  The beginning of the film is very deliberate in its pacing, showing us in great detail the society that Caesar and his fellow apes have painstakingly carved out of the Muir Woods.  For a while, I wasn’t sure that I was going to be able to connect viscerally and emotionally with Dawn, although I should note that from the beginning I was intellectually engaged with the aesthetics and politics on display.  Two scenes (neither, ironically, involving the main protagonist Caesar, but instead his chief lieutenant and confidante Maurice the orangutan), proved unequivocally that this film indeed reaches into the depths of emotion, both human and nonhuman.  In the first, Maurice carefully instructs young apes in the laws that govern their fledgling society, including the cardinal rule that ape shall not kill ape.  In the second, Maurice bonds with the young human Alex, both of them connecting over a comic book.  Throughout these two scenes, and indeed throughout the film as a whole, the deep, soulful eyes of Maurice beckon to us, suggesting a world of wisdom gained through suffering and pain, but also through witnessing the miracles of compassion and triumph through adversity.  At the same time, they also remind us of the fact that, for all Maurice and his fellow apes may behave like humans, part of them remains beyond the pale of human understanding.

Perhaps no figure exemplifies that message better than Koba, the tortured and scarred bonobo from the first film.  Having made it through the rebellion and risen in the ranks to stand next to Caesar, Koba represents the fundamental distrust that nonhuman apes  have of their human counterparts (and with good reason, considering the troubled and violent history that undergirds the relationship between the two groups).  When a troop of humans seeking the use of a hydroelectric dam to keep their struggling colony stable stray into ape territory–shooting a young chimpanzee along the way–it is Koba who pounds the drums of war.  And it is Koba who ultimately betrays Caesar by shooting him and leading the apes on a march on San Francisco.  And it is, alas, Koba  who not only imprisons Maurice and others he deems too faithful to the memory of Caesar, but it is he who also breaks the ultimate commandment and murders Ash after he refuses to kill a defenseless human.  In the end, after an epic battle between Caesar and Koba, between conciliation and annihilation, Caesar sends his erstwhile friend plunging to his death, having proclaimed that Koba, through his betrayal of his own kind and his warmongering, is no longer an ape.

Far more than a typical action flick, this film is instead a tragedy, brimming full of pathos and the seeming inexorability of war between humanity and apes.  Koba, far from being an outright villain, emerges from this film as its antihero, but this is not to say that his vision of the future is an unjust one nor that Caesar’s is the only viable option.  When Koba, having successfully overcome the human defenders of the San Francisco colony, stridently and defiantly announces that now they know what it is like to live in cages, I honestly felt the same thrill I felt when the apes succeeded in escaping from San Francisco in the first film.  Given the tortures he has endured–made clear when he shows, in brief and poignant gestures, the human-inflicted scars on his body–how can we, as viewers, not be sympathetic to him?*  The fact that his body, especially his face, is rendered in such exquisite detail, underscores the dark depths of his tortured and twisted psyche.  The film may not ultimately ask us to approve of his actions, but it does invite us to understand them.

All of this is not to take away from Andy Serkis’s performance as Caesar.  Dawn of the Planet of the Apes allows us to see the ways in which he has evolved as a leader and as a character.  If Rise chronicled Caesar’s loss of innocence in the face of human cruelty and subsequent rise to leadership, Dawn shows us the terrible price exacted by that role.  There is a world of sadness and melancholy in Caesar’s eyes as he views the digital footage of his long-dead father-figure Will, and even more when he regretfully tells his human ally Malcolm that all-out war between humans and apes has already begun.  We, in the audience, also understand that Caesar has finally accepted the unfortunate fact that violence and bloodshed will only end when one side has finally emerged triumphant.  It is a truth all the more bitter in that it so nakedly reflects the unfortunate realities of our own geopolitical experience.

This film is, ultimately, an expression of what the best science fiction can do.  It can utilize the filmic technologies available to evoke a world so completely that we believe it is possible.  The cinematography here is brilliant, ranging from the murky, blue-tinted shadows of the apes’ forest home to the glaring reds, oranges, and blacks of Koba’s triumphant yet costly (in terms of ape life) siege of the human colony.  Just as importantly, Michael Giacchino’s score manages to evoke both soaring emotions, as in the final scene of Caesar’s acclamation by his followers, to deep and abiding unease, as in the score’s numerous disturbing and unsettling orchestral allusions to the original 1968 film’s soundtrack.

In the end, however, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a potent reminder to humanity of not only how precarious our species’ existence is but also, as Caesar ultimately realizes, how little separates us from the nonhumans with which we share the world.

Five Things to Do Before Watching “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”

Now that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is almost ready to hit theaters, it’s time for all Apes fans and newbies to start preparing for the movie of the year.  Though one can certainly go into this film cold, I would recommend enjoying many of the other films and novels that comprise this venerable franchise.

1.)  The Original Planet of the Apes Novel

Whether you’re new to the franchise or an experienced Apes veteran, you should definitely take a look at the novel that started it all.  Though substantially different in tone and plot than its subsequent adaptations, Pierre Boulle’s novel is nevertheless a masterpiece and classic of science fiction and well worth the read.

2.)  The Original Planet of the Apes Films

If you haven’t seen the original entries in the franchise, you should absolutely do so before the release of Dawn.  Though the first in the original five films is by far the best, the others have their virtues as well, despite declining budgets and box office returns.  The fifth and final film, Battle for the Planet of the Apes, has a great deal in common with the upcoming Dawn, and it will be interesting to compare how the two films respond to the different cultural and social pressures of their moments of production.

3.)  Rise of the Planet of the Apes

When it was released in 2011, very few thought that this film was going to be anything close to a success.  With the bitter taste of Tim Burton’s unfortunate remake still lingering ten years later, it was with unalloyed joy that many Apes fans greeted this thoughtful and intellectually challenging reboot.  Far from relying on trick endings (as Burton’s remake did), this film, like its venerable predecessors, asked some tough questions about the nature of sentience and the complex and fraught relationship between humans and their closest living relatives.

4.)  Dawn of the Planet of the Apes:  Firestorm

Normally, I am not a fan of media tie-ins, largely because they are often full of bad writing and execrable plotting.  It was with some surprise, therefore, that I read Greg Keyes novel, which chronicles the immediate aftermath of the outbreak of the Simian Flu and Caesar’s successful rebellion.  The plotting is deftly and concisely wove and the writing is at times profound.  It takes a special kind of talent to create ape characters who can be both similar and yet utterly alien to human sensibilities, and Keyes does this admirably with Koba, the tortured bonobo.  Like the two films it straddles, this novel forces its human readers to evaluate their own complicity in the oppression of nonhuman animals.

5.)  Quarantine, All Fall Down, and Story of the Gun

These three short films provide a window into the world that emerges after the Simian Flu begins to take its toll.  I have to admit that I was somewhat wary going in, but I was blown away by both the quality and the emotional depth of these short films.  Each of them has their own shining moments, but I was particularly struck by the ghostly presence of the apes that haunts the second and third films, in the forms of a pair of ghostly eyes/a footprint and the sound of screaming chimps/a silhouette, respectively.  Story of the Gun is especially moving, as it shows, in the ownership history of one gun, the gradual decline and collapse of human civilization as we know it and in the process shows just how fragile and illusory are the bonds that stand between us and anarchy.

And if you have time…

Planet of the Apes on Television

Believe it or not, there were not one but two Planet of the Apes television series, one a live-action drama that takes place centuries before the events of the original film and the other an animated children’s series that features a much more advanced civilization of apes.  While somewhat spotty in quality, they are still worth seeing as they help provide an even more in-depth look into the sprawling mythos that has emerged around the idea of apes becoming the dominant species on planet Earth.

(We’ll just try to collectively forget about the unfortunate 2001 remake, though it too has spawned its own mythos-in-miniature).

“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” May Be the Best Movie of the Summer

It’s no secret that I am a huge fan of the Planet of the Apes franchise, so it will also come as no secret that I am VERY excited for the imminent release of the newest entry, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (and, unlike some, I don’t mind the repetitiveness of the titles).  Now that we have gleaned several tantalizing glimpses as a result of a fevered marketing campaign, it’s time to ask the tough questions.  What is there really to look forward to in this recent entry?

To start with the most basic, we will finally get to see the aftermath of what occurred in the first film.  While escaping from San Francisco and fleeing into the Muir Woods, to say nothing of starting a devastating flu epidemic were truly stupendous accomplishments, the trailer for the upcoming films suggests that we will get to see what the fallout from that is like.  (The immediate aftermath is laid out in the novel Dawn of the Planet of the Apes:  Firestorm by Greg Keyes.  It is a truly well-written work that asks the same sorts of questions raised by Rise).  This is a world, after all, that has been radically altered by the downfall of humanity into disease and lawlessness.  As a result, there is an openness to the world that this film will represent, in which the future is literally up for grabs as each side stakes out its territory.

As part of this, the trailers and other TV spots suggest that we will gain a greater glimpse of the social organization of the apes.  Clearly, Caesar will be the leader of his fellow non-human simians, but the society the trailers have shown is highly evolved.  We will at last get to see how it comes to pass that the apes have their own homes, as well as how some of them have mastered language, both signed and spoken.  While this society will, undoubtedly, bear some relationship to our own (since, as most readers will recall, Caesar was raised among humans and only left their orbit once they showed their cruelty to him and his kind), it will also be vastly different.  These are, after all, apes that have evolved to be human-like but not entirely human.  As such, the film provides a fascinating and tantalizing possibility of what a non-human civilization could look like.

While the apes will no doubt steal the show (as they did in the first film), the human characters also look like they will gain more development than they did in the first installment of this reboot.  Gary Oldman (his most recent asinine statements notwithstanding) will no doubt shine as Dreyfus, the human leader spurred on by a hatred of the apes and a deep mourning for his lost family (who presumably died of the flu).  I suspect that most of the human drama will hinge on their collective sense of precariousness.  Though certainly precipitated by 10 years of post-flu chaos and martial law, this feeling will most certainly be heightened by the looming possibility of an ape invasion that could snuff out what little tendrils of civilization humanity has managed to cling to and resurrect out of the chaos.

The truly pressing question, however, is this:  what will be the outcome of the battle that we have seen in the final trailer?  The stakes, we know, are as high as they possibly can be, as this seems to be the point at which the scales may tip decidedly in favour of the apes.  After all, at some point in the franchise we are going to have to learn how it came about that non-human apes came to be the dominant species on planet Earth.  Just as importantly, we will also find out whether Caesar will survive the battle that threatens to engulf both his people and the humans to whom he clearly feels some ties.  If he does not (and it is a definite possibility that he will meet his death in this film), then the misanthropy represented by the vengeful bonobo Koba could well set the agenda for future generations of apes.  And for humans as well.

While it will no doubt draw heavily on its precursor in the original series Battle for the Planet of the Apes (in much the same way that Rise drew inspiration from Conquest), Dawn looks as if it will, in good post-apocalyptic fashion, point out just how transient we humans really are.  And that is a truly good lesson for us as a species to learn.