(On Cable TV, April 2018) Nobody expected the 2011 Rise of the Planet of the Apes reboot to be worth anything after the increasingly campy tone of the first series or the dumb 2001 remake. So it’s a surprise to conclude, after watching War for the Planet of the Apes, that the new trilogy has managed to exceed all expectations to deliver one of the finest, most sustained film series of the decade so far. After nailing a surprisingly realistic tone for the first film in the series, the two others managed to head in the same direction. It helps a lot that the series has been a high-water mark for CGI character creation: Entirely digital “Caesar” is a memorable character with numerous emotional moments and the film is nearly flawless in how it portrays him on-screen. The trilogy tells how humans cede the planet to apes and this third instalment describes the final battle of the changeover, with enough perfidious humans to make us feel better about the succession. (If there’s a theme to this decade’s finest Science-Fiction, it’s that from robots to apes, humanity is ready to accept that we may be supplanted by something more human than itself.) Writer/director Matt Reeves leads the film with a sure hand, adding depth and sentiment to what could have been a noisy spectacle. War for the Planet of the Apes wraps up the trilogy in a way that almost makes us feel not asking for one more for fear of tainting the impact of the three films so far. Who could have expected that only a few years ago?
(On Cable TV, January 2018) I actually have faint and mild traumatized memories of seeing the end of Beneath the Planet of the Apes as a kid, with its nightmarish conclusion. A more contemporary viewing isn’t making me any friendlier toward the film, although for different reasons: I now think that the end of the film, with its horrific facial revelation and atomic conclusion, is the best thing about a remarkably redundant sequel. Not that I’ve been a fan of the original film or the subsequent series—While the 2011–2017 second remake trilogy is fantastic, the first series and 2001 singleton are dull beyond belief. Beneath the Planet of the Apes is not particularly interesting, revisiting the same material and not offering much until the end. Even Charlton Heston is sidelined for most of the film. The cosmic coincidence of having a second set of astronauts land in more or less the same place is too big to swallow, and the grimness of the ending, underscored by a fairly definitive narration, isn’t one to make one’s inner kid happy. Too bad the rest of the series couldn’t stay as dead as it should have been after the ending of this one.
(Second viewing, On Cable TV, October 2017) The original Planet of the Apes is often used as a punchline these days (if it’s not a reference to the classic twist ending, then it’s about The Simpson’s “Doctor Zaius” musical, the increasingly bad sequels or generally anything to do with a “man in ape suits” standard for bad SF movies) and it does deserve a lot of cackling. Much of the plot mechanics are silly, the overall premise makes zero sense (not to mention anything about the sequels), the thematic messages are heavy-handed and Charlton Heston does chew heroic amounts of scenery in his performance. Still, watching the film today does have a few unexpected things going for it. It’s clearly a big-budget production for its time, something that can be seen in a rather lavish opening sequence. Heston’s character is also surprisingly cranky for a heroic protagonist, and the script does have a few odd zingers here and there. Still, even the most forgiving viewer has to acknowledge that the film has aged poorly. The goofy script (by Twilight Zone legend Rod Serling) is ham-fisted, the production values show their age and much of the film feels dull given how often it goes over familiar terrain. In fact, one thing I did not expect from watching the original film is how much better it makes the 2001 remake look—especially given how I did not particularly like the remake. And this is not even mentioning the far superior 2011–2017 reboot trilogy.