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).