Most people are unaware that The Planet of the Apes was originally a science fiction novel. The 1968 movie that everyone assumes started it all was actually an adaptation of the 1963 French book “La Planète des Singes” (literally “Monkey Planet” or “The Planet of Monkeys”). In the book, a space-traveling husband and wife stumble upon an interstellar message in a bottle. The message records the journey of astronauts from earth who travel near the speed of light (thus rapidly moving forward in time by our reckoning) and come upon a planet orbiting a nearby star. The planet is much like earth, except simians have risen to dominate the world while men are primitive and kept as slaves. In the end, the astronauts escape the planet and return to earth where—centuries having passed since they left—apes have risen up to conquer the planet, in a twist of irony. At that point, the space-traveling husband and wife discard the message in a bottle, thinking it a silly story…far too silly for intelligent monkeys like themselves!
So there is a twist in the tale, but it was nothing like what happened in the 1968 film.
Rod Serling (mastermind of The Twilight Zone) drafted his own version of the story and ended it with one of the greatest twist-endings in cinema history. In hindsight of course Rod Serling went with the ending he did. He was the guru of science fiction short stories. He wasn’t a novelist, but the Twilight Zone show was nothing more than filmed sci-fi shorts, and the hallmark of every classic short is a twist ending of some kind. Making the “planet” ruled by apes our own planet not only simplified the story but gave the ending a much bigger bang. The French story ends like a punch-line; the movie ends like a gut-punch. My own mother recalled to me, years ago, how she watched the final scene in theaters, not knowing at first what the camera was focusing on (the crown of Lady Liberty), but when the final image came she was so terrified she nearly fainted…
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It’s hard to appreciate it now, since it’s such a well-known ending and has been lampooned enough to have lost all its impact, but in an era when the USA and Soviet Union had enough nukes aimed at each other’s noses to blow the planet up, the ending works.
The movie scored huge at the box office and spawned four sequels in five years, but none were able to recapture the magic of the original. Those movies have their fans, but their support is built around “yes but…” and “nevertheless I…” and other excuse-making we give to justify liking poor movies. None of the sequels measured up to the first because the first, while good (maybe even very good) for the first 110 minutes is only today considered “great” because of those final 2 minutes. You can’t repeat a successful twist ending, so once the cat’s out of the bag you’re left with everything else in the film’s world, and everything else in that world was just “okay.”
So what can you do? If continuing the story, post-twist, doesn’t work, what’s left?
Fox tried to remake the 1968 movie in 2001 and offered up a different twist ending (one closer to the original’s “Sad Trombone” conclusion) but in so doing the failed to make even a passable film in the build up to the twist. Tim Burton never got a chance to continue the remake-series (much to his relief, apparently) and Fox was left thinking their franchise was dead.
And then a decade later a new movie based on the universe was released; this one set out to explore the origins of the Ape takeover of earth. It was followed by a sequel in 2014 and now a threequel hits theaters this weekend.
The trilogy has had everything working against it: Fox is not exactly the most well-run movie studio, the franchise had little interest from general audiences after Burton’s movie, the series was helmed by unproved directors, starred unproven dramatic leads and had at its center a fully-computer-rendered character). And yet, despite so many reasons for it to fail, it succeeded.
War for the Planet of the Apes concludes one of the most unlikely success stories in modern cinema. Ours is an era where every old property is rebooted, remade, quasi-sequeled and such like, often to middling reviews and box office disappointment. Mad Men’s Don Draper summed up the problem best in just five words…
Fans are tired of seeing the same old movies redone with just a new coat of paint or a hackneyed contrivance slapped onto it.
And yet, Fox’s 2011 film Rise of the Planet of the Apes managed not only to put a fresh face on an old property, it managed to do so to great critical acclaim and box office success. And then, amazingly, Fox did it again, with 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes being an even bigger success with ticket buyers and an even better movie in the eyes of critics too. Do you know how hard it is to make a movie that fans and critics love? It’s hard. Doing it twice in a row is even harder.
Three in a row is almost unheard of.
Almost every trilogy there has ever been has stumbled in its third film. Many times a series peaks with the second installment and it just can’t duplicate the magic in part three. Return of the Jedi couldn’t compare to Empire Strikes Back. Godfather III might as well have been an entirely different movie from the two-parter that preceded it.
Sometimes a trilogy starts off with a banging opening chapter, and parts two and three are never able to live up to its beginning. The Back to the Future series had this problem, so did The Matrix trilogy. Even Temple of Doom and The Last Crusade just missed the mark of perfection that Raiders of the Lost Ark enjoys.
It’s remarkable—and something that we’ll look back on for years—how the “Apes” trilogy managed to avoid the mistakes so many “part threes” before it fell into.
It doesn’t “go bigger” for the sake of it. It doesn’t try to take its principle lead into left field storytelling territory. It doesn’t forget what made its predecessors work. It doesn’t try to repeat the success of the second (more successful) installment, nor does it go for the lazy “circular” approach of retelling the first story for “poetic” purposes. War works because it, like its previous movies, is a character-focused drama.
That the “character” in question is (1) an ape that is (2) entirely digitally-created is no longer worth even discussing, except to continue the crusade to see that Andy Serkis gets an Oscar. Caesar is so much more than a “CG character.” He’s a fully-realized, thinking, feeling, emoting lead actor. The fact that Serkis’ acting hiding behind a digital creation is irrelevant: That’s his performance; those are his “motions” being “captured” and repurposed onto the digitally-created body of an ape. When Caesar weeps, it’s Serkis weeping. When Caesar bears his teeth in rage, it’s Serkis. When Caesar grimices in pain or sighs with relief, it’s Serkis bringing it to life. It’s no different than an actor 50 years ago putting on heavy makeup and costume to “become” another character. In 1932 Fredric March won the Best Actor Academy Award for his dual-portrayal of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the latter role he performed under state of the art (at the time) makeup. CGI is just the modern-day equivalent. Absolutely Serkis deserves to be recognized by the Academy, and not in some “Special Achievement” way either.
Built around Serkis’ performance is a grounded, small-in-scope film that sees Caesar’s habitat of intelligent apes come under attack by a ruthless US Military Colonel, played by Woody Harrelson. There’s an intense action sequence early on before the film slows down, but never becomes boring. Instead it becomes almost Bridge on the River Kwai. And even though the trilogy ends with a decisive conclusion, it doesn’t—as many fans speculated—take the viewer right up to the beginning of the 1968 film. Even though this series began as a prequel, it has gone its own way and, if Fox wants, could be an effective set up to a new telling of the original story (not a re-telling).
Probably the only criticism I can think to level against it is that it never truly lives up to its title (a running gag in this trilogy). You get the feeling that there is a war going on in other places and certainly in the future, but this movie is not about big battle scenes or epic fights between heroes and villains. It’s personal. It’s introspective. It’s character-driven. In that sense it’s true to the movies which came before it and gives fans of the first two movies a satisfying ending to the story of Caesar and the beginning of Apes’ dominance. It even manages, in the opening minute, to reconcile the silly titles of the previous two movies (Why “Rise” before “Dawn“?).
10/10 – A stellar movie made even more impressive by how it managed to complete a trilogy without any missteps along the way. Serkis’ performance in all three movies has been nothing short of awe-inspiring.