Critics often chide modern Hollywood as being bereft of new ideas, and relying on regurgitation to generate its profits. Which may indeed be true, but it's hardly a new phenomenon. Lest anyone think the idea of a sequel is some sort of recent invention, look no further than 1968's 'Planet of the Apes.' This sci-fi potboiler was originally intended as nothing more than a profit-generating B-picture, but its surprise success would go on to evolve into a cultural phenomenon that has now spanned four decades, five sequels, a TV series and a big-budget remake. The key to the appeal of 'Planet of the Apes' after all these years is simple -- it's not just a dated sci-fi yarn or an empty special effects blockbuster, but a still-potent racial allegory that remains as timely today as it ever was.
Laudable in today's world of cookie cutter sequels, all five 'Apes' films -- if often wildly variable in terns of quality -- are equally ambitious in their social-political intentions. Each uses the inherent duality in Pierre Boulle's original novel to explore then-timely themes of the day. From racism to atomic energy to animal rights, the five 'Apes films combined remain one of the most fascinating and challenging franchises that modern Hollywood cinema has produced. Sure, the film's are often dated and their effects cheesy, but that only adds to the charm.
One of the many fascinating things about the original 'Planet of the Apes' is how inauspicious its beginnings were. What should have been an utterly laughable adaptation of questionable source material (even the author of the original novel, Pierre Boulle, considered it one of his lesser works) instead morphed into a sturdy action film buttressed by vivid thematic layers that gave it a complexity and intelligence rare for even the heady sci-fi genre. Like the best happy cinematic accidents, here was a film that all involved had far more belief in than the studio that produced it, which allowed it to rock the socks off of unsuspecting critics and audiences. Add to that some still-crafty "ape" make-up effects, a strong lead in Charlton Heston and a stunner of a twist ending, and 'Apes' seemed to come out of nowhere and firmly lodge itself in the public consciousness almost by accident.
The plot should be now-familiar to just about everyone. Marooned on a alien planet 700 hundred years in the future, Astronaut George Taylor finds himself suddenly at the opposite end of the evolutionary scale. In this strange world apes are in control, with humans existing as mere savages. But through the compassion of a pair of intellectual chimpanzees, Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) and Zira (Kim Hunter), Taylor has a slim chance to escape the cages of his oppressors. But is there more to this seemingly alien planet than meets the eye - and what secrets does it hold in Taylor's search for his long lost home?
The shocker ending of 'Planet of the Apes' (I won't spoil it for you here, even though everyone probably knows the secret already) left the door wide open for a sequel, which Fox wasted no time in bringing to the screen in 1970. 'Beneath the Planet of the Apes' is probably the weakest of the follow-ups, however, because it most closely tries to replicate the original. With Heston bowing out except for what is essentially a cameo before he dies, we get Charlton-lite stand-in Franciscus, who is put through most of the same paces as the character in the original film. So 'Beneath' is little more than an inferior regurgitation. Oddly, Cornelius and Zira are pushed to the background, with Zaius getting far more screentime than is necessary. Not helping 'Beneath' is the fact that original director Don Medford quickly departed the project after many failed screenplay attempts (including a rejected one by Boulle), which makes the film feel even more like a patchwork of half-baked ideas. By far, this is the worst of the 'Apes' films.
1971's 'Escape from the Planet of the Apes' gets things back on track. Returning are McDowall as Cornelius and Jerry Goldsmith as composer, and in a unique hiring-against type, Frank Capra Jr. as a producer. The result is an imaginative move away from 'Beneath,' with the planet now blown up and apes Cornelius and Zira (along with Dr. Milo, played by Sal Mineo) hurtling back in space and time to 1973, not long after Heston's crew initially left Earth. It's hardly credible, but allows for a neat reversal on the original 'Apes' as Cornelius and Zira are now the circus attractions on Earth. The pair really solidified their chemistry in 'Escape,' and have a great deal of fun with the apes-out-of-water story that soon gets serious when the government and other forces close in. A fun and creative sequel, 'Escape' has much to recommend it.
My favorite sequel, however, is also the darkest. 1972's 'Conquest of the Planet of the Apes' is the only film in the series to earn a PG rating (and is presented here in an unrated version with additional footage), and intentionally plays up the then-simmering post-Vietnam civil rights tensions that were brewing uneasily in America. Directed by J. Lee Thompson ('Guns of Navarone'), 'Conquest' takes place 18 years after the events in 'Escape,' and the planet is now a hotbed of unrest and ape-exploitation. McDowall returns again as a different ape (Caesar), the child of Cornelius and Zira, who will lead an uprising against the nation's growing inhumanity and indifference. Though sometimes suffering from TV movie production values, the film nevertheless really rips at the racial and class politics inherent in the 'Apes' mythos to a far greater extent that any of the other entries. 'Conquest' also works a bit more effectively as an action film, (it runs a scant 88 minutes) and the tight pace pays off by delivering a good deal of suspense and energy. While all of the 'Apes' films have something to say, 'Conquest' is the most hard-hitting.
Finally, the series concluded with 'Battle for the Planet of the Apes' in 1973. It's lighter in tone and intent than 'Escape' and 'Conquest,' and sadly not much better than 'Beneath.' Though an original story concept by Paul Dehn was far more ambitious in tying 'Battle' in with the previous entries, it was largely jettisoned for a family-friendly and light-hearted romp. Caeser is back (again played by McDowall) but doesn't seem like the same character, feeling neutered in his passivity. The story, which depicts a planet pretty much wiped out after an atomic blast, does little of interest with the new order of ape and man, which is blandly egalitarian. 'Battle' is also quite talky, with long boring speeches (the late director John Huston would embarrass himself as the Lawgiver in the bookend segments) that are didactic and silly. Add to that a very cartoonish tone and a lack of action, and 'Battle' only barely rises above 'Beneath' in terms of quality. The series certainly deserved a better capper than this.
All told, many elements of the five films haven't held up so well. Effects-wise, it's hard not to guffaw often at the immobile facial expressions of the apes, and the phony hair and costumes. Roddy McDowall and Kim Hunter seemed to have mastered the necessary skills to act through the groundbreaking prosthetics, but other actors aren't so lucky. To be fair, the effects do improve as the series wears on, but even by the time of 'Battle,' they still come off as antiquated (if endearingly so). And as action films, all of the 'Planet of the Apes' films suffer from slow-ish pacing and long, talky passages. Though the suspense quotient does get upped by the time of 'Beneath' and particularly 'Conquest,' most viewers today will probably find these films lethargic to say the least.
Where the 'Apes' films really earn their stripes is, of course, in their use of allegorical elements. Who can't see oppression, discrimination and prejudice in the apes treatment of man? It's a clever reversal of '60s and '70s politics, if none-too-subtle. But because the films are imaginative in structuring the social order of the apes and man, the mythology created still resonates. And even though Heston has never been my favorite actor (and his own Republican and NRA political leanings only underscore the irony of his casting in the film), he makes for a human hero whose predicament we can empathise with and root for. Sadly, none of the human characters in the sequels ever quite match him, but it's still impossible not to examine our own shared prejudices and discriminatory impulses throughout the series. It is this confrontation of the audience's own values that is the 'Planet of the Apes' franchise's most notable achievement. For that alone, these films have rightly earned their place in the sci-fi pantheon.
(Individual ratings: 'Planet of the Apes' 3.5/5.0. 'Beneath the Planet of the Apes' 2.0/5.0. 'Escape from the Planet of the Apes' 3.0/5.0. 'Conquest of the Planet of the Apes' 3.5/5.0. 'Battle for the Planet of the Apes' 2.5/5.0.)
Fox previously released the 'Planet of the Apes' films on standard DVD in multiple configurations. These Blu-ray versions are culled from the same masters used for the most recent anamorphic DVD transfers, and are generally good-looking if a bit inconsistent from film to film. The original 'Planet of the Apes' and its four sequels are each offered in 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 video and framed at 2.35:1. (Note that 'Conquest of the Planet of the Apes' and 'Battle for the PLanet of the Apes' include both the original theatrical and unrated extended versions accessible via seamless branching.)
'Planet of the Apes' fares pretty well. There is a small if noticeable amount of dirt and blemishes on the print but no major wear and tear. Softness is rampant, and overall visible detail enjoys an uptick over the DVD, but not a monumental leap. Colors are solid and clean, but are not intensely vibrant -- 'Apes' in high-def still screams "'60s flick!" Black levels generally hold solid and contrast is adequately balanced, but shadow delineation is not superior and some darker scenes lack for definition. On the plus side, the encode is top-notch with no visible artifacts save from some noisy grain (which is indicative of the source). Make no mistake, 'Planet of the Apes' is still a very good transfer, just no revelation.
'Beneath the Planet of the Apes' looks a tad better than the first film in spots, but worse in others. Colors are generally bolder and cleaner, and fleshtones more realistic. Detail is about on par with the first film (aside from the opening prologue sequence that recaps the first film, which looks noticeably inferior) and depth holds up well for such a vintage title. The print is also slightly cleaner, as I noticed less blemishes overall (except on some of the phony matte and effects shots). However, there are sporadic shots that look very soft, and lack decent shadow detail. 'Beneath' is perhaps the spottiest of all five films.
Next is 'Escape from the Planet of the Apes,' which I thought looked the best. It's the most consistent, with a nice clean source and an attractive color palette. Detail is quite strong for the era, and this is also the sharpest of the transfers. There are still moments of softness and flat contrast, and certainly the effects shots still fare poorly. But 'Escape' still gets the nod as the most improved of the five films.
'Conquest for the Planet of the Apes' doesn't seem to receive the same attention as the others. It's a darker film, and suffers because of it, with often poor shadow delineation and quite a variance in visible depth and softness. The richer colors are still pretty clean, however. The print is also somewhat worn around the edges, with noticeable dirt and blemishes. Though this is far from a superlative transfer compared to the others in this set, on its own terms it's still a pretty good catalog remaster.
Finally, we have 'Battle for the Planet of the Apes,' which benefits from a brighter look than 'Conquest' but it's still inconsistent in terms of the quality of the source. There are blemishes, and contrast tends to waver in darker scenes. Detail can be quite good to mediocre, with the image sometimes flattening out. Colors are a bit more attractive than 'Conquest' but not up to par with the earlier installments. As with all these transfers, the encode is solid, with no major blemishes or artifacts.
Individual ratings: 'Planet of the Apes' 3.5/5.0. 'Beneath the Planet of the Apes' 3.5/5.0. 'Escape from the Planet of the Apes' 4.0/5.0. 'Conquest of the Planet of the Apes' 3.0/5.0. 'Battle for the Planet of the Apes' 3.0/5.0.
All five 'Planet of the Apes' films receive a DTS-HD Lossless Master Audio 5.1 Surround track (48kHz/16-bit), which is a bump up from the plain Dolby Digital tracks of the previous DVD releases. Unfortunately, none really display a gargantuan improvement, and in fact I had trouble discerning much in the way of an upgrade at all.
'Planet of the Apes' sets the tone for all the tracks. Surrounds are largely inactive. There are a few obviously-processed discrete effects here and there, but they stand out in the mix like a sore thumb rather than feeling natural and integrated. Forget any sustained ambiance, and even Jerry Goldsmith's memorable score is almost entirely front-directed. Taken as a stereo mix, however, this is more impressive, with a nice spread across the front soundstage. Dynamic range is fairly good for a 1968 film, and dialogue is clearer and more pronounced than I expected. Low bass is lacking in modern terms, but not bad. The source is also free from distortion or other major age-related anomalies.
'Beneath the Planet of the Apes' and 'Escape from the Planet of the Apes' are a bit more lively in terms of surround use, but discrete effects are still scattered and obviously processed. Score bleed is also still lacking. Dynamics are a bit improved, however, with slightly more robust low bass and decent heft to the upper ranges. Dialogue remains on the tinny side, though intelligible.
'Conquest of the Planet of the Apes' is the most active of all the mixes, as it is also the most action-oriented of the five films. Surrounds still won't rival a new release, but there's a bit more sustained rear presence. Low bass is also perhaps the strongest of the five. The source does suffer from harshness, and sadly, dialogue is the most obscured of the bunch, as I struggled at times to understand the apes.
Finally, 'Battle for the Planet of the Apes' gets an adequate mix. It sounds on the cheap side (with phony dialogue replacement), and surrounds are neither here nor there in terms of discrete effects and ambiance. Low bass is decent, and the source is clean if flat (particularly on the high end).
Individual ratings: 'Planet of the Apes' 3.0/5.0. 'Beneath the Planet of the Apes' 3.0/5.0. 'Escape from the Planet of the Apes' 3.0/5.0. 'Conquest of the Planet of the Apes' 2.5/5.0. 'Battle for the Planet of the Apes' 2.5/5.0.
'Planet of the Apes: The 40-Year Evolution' may be the most handsome box set I've yet seen on Blu-ray. This is really one attractive, sturdy collection. The outer box is thick, oversized cardboard, which houses a pull-out hardcover book-slash-'Apes' timeline. Information on the films and their release is provided in the timeline. All five discs in the set are housed here, too, along with a quite beautiful 200-page(!), full-color book (written by Lee Pfeiffer and Dave Worral) with tons of info on the 'Apes' films, including essays, production detail and rare photographs. Fox has really pulled out all the stops here, and it shows.
As for the supplements themselves, the standard set of extras that is shared with past DVD releases is largely focused on the original 'Planet of the Apes.' There's no real upgrade here (either in terms of the 480i/MPEG-2 video or new materials, aside from some exclusives below), but what we get is already so extensive there's little room for complaint. (Individual ratings: 'Planet of the Apes' 4.5/5.0. 'Beneath the Planet of the Apes' 0.5/5.0. 'Escape from the Planet of the Apes' 1.0/5.0. 'Conquest of the Planet of the Apes' 1.0/5.0. 'Battle for the Planet of the Apes' 0.5/5.0.)
Planet of the Apes:
'Planet of the Apes' is undeniably a science fiction classic, while its four sequels vary in quality but all still contain intriguing thematic elements. But if the franchise as a whole is a mixed bag, this '40-Year Evolution' Blu-ray box set is a winner. It is the most handsome collection I've yet seen released on the format in terms of packaging, and with all five films enjoying remastered video, DTS-MA audio, and tons of supplements (both old and new), this is a no-brainer for 'Apes' fans. Sure, the set is pricey, but there's such great value for the money here that it's hard to imagine anyone going home disappointed.