Moviegoers who were born after, say, 1970 and/or have seen too many episodes of The Simpsons have most likely absorbed the Planet of the Apes series into their pop-culture lexicon by osmosis, as iconic background noise: gorillas grunting, chimps pontificating, Moses screaming “You maniacs!” Months of all-media mortar-shelling for Tim Burton’s remake (opening July 27) have succeeded in peeling a layer of tacky kitsch gloss off the dusty original batch—these Turner Network perennials are indeed worth a(nother) visit, and not just for the sake of context.
The B-for-Bombastic debut film, based on the book by French novelist Pierre Boulle, was the delirious apotheosis of Rod Serling’s dystopian futurama; adding on four sequels, the Apes compendium has proven a versatile source text, not only for Burton’s blockbusting contender but also for Troy McClure’s musical-theater comeback, Stop the Planet of the Apes: I Want to Get Off! It also marked the 45-year-old Charlton Heston’s last stand as the era’s hammiest flank of action-hero manmeat, tricked out in a skimpy loincloth/holster. By contrast, new hero Mark Wahlberg took the role on the condition that he didn’t have to dash around in a Calvin Klein hipwrap for the film’s duration; the missing beefcake only compounds the disappointment that we won’t bear witness to Marky Mark and Helena Bonham Carter plunging into the brave new world of interspecies planking.
The first film’s signifier smorgasbord—simian racial hierarchies, misanthropic space cowboys, ravaged postwar landscape—was unleashed in 1968, within two months of 2001: A Space Odyssey in a most apocalyptic year, and the metaphors potentially lurking under Kim Hunter and Roddy McDowall’s makeup numbered in the dozens: a Cold War shadow play? A geek revolt against Big Brother? A paean to scientific inquiry and religious tolerance that amounted to a feature-length pun on the Scopes monkey trial? (The Burton trailer—the best little movie at the multiplex during this dismal summer—suggests a possible animal-rights allegory.)
Clarity of intent was never the series’s strong point. The last two chapters, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes and Battle for the Planet of the Apes, are the most coherent entries and also the most tiresome, clubbing you over the head with their equal-justice message and Orwellian police-state prophecies with the same claw hammer used to edit Planet of the Apes. As for the one that begins it all, the novelty of the premise hasn’t waned with the years, nor has Charlton “I Can’t Believe I Ate the Whole Scene” Heston’s emotive puissance—he clenches that Rushmore jaw like he’s at a cocktail party forcing chitchat with Sarah Brady. It’s a curiously inert film, though; much of it seems like placeholders for that creepy-funny mindfuck ending.
That leaves the second and third films, Beneath the Planet of the Apes and Escape From the Planet of the Apes. Web Planet-arians concur that the former is the weakest of the quintet, since its first hour repeats and condenses the events of its predecessor: Clean-cut, shirtless, constipated-looking astronaut crash-lands on desert planet, is captured by apes, discovers horrible truth. But once this Chuck doppelgänger infiltrates an underground society of human mind-control experts who worship an exceedingly phallic atom bomb (sample hymn: “O instrument of God/O holy bomb!”), the lunacy begins afresh, with the Gunslinger himself eventually rejoining the action. Escape—featuring Ricardo Montalban as a carny and Sal Mineo, in his last film role, playing an ape—stands apart as the only installment with a sense of humor, sending Zira and Cornelius to the poly-blended present-day ’70s, where they become instant celebrities and the past-future disconnect reaches back-flipping Terminator proportions. As Cornelius explains, “Chimps are pacifists. Or they were. Or they will be.”
Click here to read Michael Atkinson’s review of Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes.