Dec 31, 2014
5 things War for the Planet of the Apes should do (but probably won't)
War for the Planet of the Apes comes out this July. It’s the third film in the Planet of the Apes prequel trilogy (or maybe more than a trilogy?), the others being Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, respectively, which reboots/resets the classic Planet of the Apes series which ran from 1968 to 1973 and comprised five movies, in order: Planet of the Apes, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, Escape from the Planet of the Apes, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, and Battle for the Planet of the Apes. (Hey, guys? Can we possibly just go with Planet of the Apes Part [X] going forward? Mull it over.)
I make no secret of the fact that I love the original Apes series. I consider them sci-fi cinema landmarks. I’ve seen each film at least twice. I even named a pet rat Dr. Hasslein. So it’s understandable that many people have solicited my opinion on the prequel series.
My reaction? It’s fine.
“What?”, they say, because they expected me to play the contrarian hipster and hate it.
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But yeah, the series is fine. The same way your mom used “It’s fine” when you took it upon yourself to do a nice thing and run the dishwasher for her, except you didn’t load it right and didn’t do any pre-scrubbing and some of the stuff got put in upside down. That’s the emotion RotPotA and DotPotA (seriously, guys, mull it over, there’s no way to even abbreviate this shit) inspire in me. Appreciate the effort, guys. Not a war crime on the level of Tim Burton’s remake. Competent. No glaring flaws. Mo-cap apes are an impressive technical achievement. Didn’t make me want my money back. No, really, it’s fine.
Really, the biggest sin that Rise and Dawn (hey, there we go!) both commit is their failure to spiritually succeed the original Apes series. The reboot series doesn’t share continuity with the original series, which I don’t really care about; it’s kind of the point of a reboot. However, it doesn’t share much of anything else, either. Drop “Planet” from the title, change the main ape character’s name, and poof! You’ve got an entirely different film series about apes taking over the planet. It’s clear that Planet of the Apes means nothing more to the makers of the prequel series than a popular, established property to hitch their financial wagon to.
I’m going to propose a list of ways in which War and the other Apes prequels could have avoided this. I know it’s too late for this series, but there are other film series (serieses?) that Hollywood is going to want to reboot. The only question is how much it’s going to hurt when they do. So, on the off chance you’re a big-time Hollywood producer who somehow happens to be browsing this site, first off, you should totally get in touch with me about my spec script about the congressman who’s secretly a robot, and second, try to apply this advice to whichever film series you want to dig up and ravage for cash in the near future.
1. Create a true alternate reality.
What made the original Planet of the Apes so creepily affecting is the effort it took to establish a fleshed-out parallel reality. Shit, man, it’s right there in the name. Planet of the Apes. A whole planet. As in, a planet with its own civilization, its own environment, religion, history, politics, race and class tensions, clothing, food, and technology, all featuring illustrative parallels to human society, but remaining distinct.
And the writers of Planet of the Apes built this planet not after the modern fashion, with huge pace-killing infodumps and characters who do little but supply exposition by the ream, but out of tiny little scraps of throwaway dialogue (“the quota system’s been abolished!” one chimpanzee says to another, hinting at the existence of a hard-won civil rights victory) and blink-and-you’ll-miss it goings-on in the background of a shot (Taylor runs through an ape church, and interrupts an ape funeral service).
Furthermore, this alternate reality doesn’t remain static, but evolves and mutates according to its own societal conditions. The only original Apes movie that takes place in “our” reality is Escape, in which the friendly chimpanzees from Planet and Beneath, Cornelius and Zira, manage to travel back in time to 1970s America. By the time Conquest rolls around, in the far-off year of 1991, we’ve got a Balkanized American continent, gleaming, antiseptic THX 1138 future-cities, and multitudes of jumpsuited ape slaves wandering around picking up the trash. Battle takes place ten years after the apocalypse, in an ape/human hybrid society living in Swiss Family Robinson treehouses. It’s all convincingly alien.
The reboot series, by contrast, doesn’t feel very alien at all. There is no “Planet” of the Apes; there’s just a planet with some apes on it. Every bit of it, even the post-apocalyptic bits, are firmly set in our own mundane reality. Despite the fact that the universe of the Apes prequels has, obviously, diverged from our own (what with the world ending and apes becoming smart and all that), it doesn’t feel any different. It feels like the same old crap propelled forward in time. There’s none of that hallucinatory strangeness that marked the old movies.
I think part of the problem stems from the decision to use motion-capture CGI apes instead of makeup and costume effects like in the old series and the Burton remake. Yes, it results in apes that are more “realistic”-looking by our standards of apeness, but the thing is, I never watched the old Apes movies thinking of them as “apes” per se. They were an entirely new kind of creature, descended from modern apes who’d evolved over many generations to the point where they could walk upright and speak English and stuff. That perception helped sell the creepy alternate reality to me. With mo-cap apes, you get apes who look more apish, but not only does the Uncanny Valley effect result in apes who are less compelling and relatable as characters, but their photorealistic nature dispels the alienness of the atmosphere.
2. Create a unique visual aesthetic.
This is related to my first point. In fact, most of these are going to be in some way related to my original point. Anyway, here’s a picture of Ape City from the original Planet of the Apes:
Isn’t that shit neat? It looks like Bedrock as envisioned by the guy who painted the covers to Yes albums. It strikes the perfect balance between primitive and futuristic. Just stellar production design.
Compare that to Dawn, in which the apes run a grubby little Ewok village:
Not distinctive, not appealing. Meanwhile, the humans live in the overgrown, derelict ruins of a city, which is admittedly kind of cool in a Life After People way…
…but can’t hold a candle to the nuclear-blasted hellscape city from Beneath the Planet of the Apes, which was done on the cheap with mostly matte paintings:
Or the gleaming, antiseptic Alphaville from Conquest:
Sets. Backgrounds. Costumes. Props. These things matter. Even Tim Burton’s execrable Apes remake had its visual aesthetic sorted out; for everything else wrong with it, you couldn’t argue it was no fun to look at:
In the prequels, by contrast, everything’s so drab and indistinct. Those movies seemed to take for granted that the viewer’s eye would be drawn to the apes, and declined the opportunity to create anything else of visual interest. The result is a couple of movies with almost no scenes that I can picture in my head myself if I had to.
3. Write a score that doesn’t suck.
All five of the original Planet of the Apes movies had a really kooky, unsettling score, which helped to sell the creepy alternate-reality feel: Odd meters, Schoenbergian atonality, fluttery little fugues that wander all over the place, jazz-inspired intervals, shifting textures, and strange percussion. It puts me in mind of the great sci-fi scores of the 1960s: Star Trek, The Outer Limits, etc.
The reboots, by contrast, have a quite typical modern Hollywood blockbuster score: lugubrious, ponderous, slow, monolithic, and loud. So, so loud; smushing you into your seat with gigantic, tall chords. Every swell, every theme has to be huger, more monolithic, and more epic than the last.
Skip that shit.
4. Don’t be afraid to get weird…
The original Planet of the Apes series was a grab bag of bizarre sci-fi plot devices. These movies were characterized by a giddy sense of wild invention: Multiple instances of time travel. Divergent human evolution. Telepathic mutants who worshipped a nuclear missle. Plagues from outer space. Machines that force people to tell the truth. An underclass of nonhuman slaves who get rescued from their servitude by a walking bootstrap paradox. The series is an issue of Amazing Stories come to life.
By those standards, the sci-fi shenanigans displayed in the reboot series are disappointingly tame. The central conceit of Rise—a gaseous medicine designed to treat Alzheimer’s, which makes apes super-intelligent but creates an epidemic that kills all the humans—stands out as an incongruously silly moment in a leadenly serious series. I’m all for “realistic” sci-fi, but part of what makes us invested in a sci-fi picture is the sense of wonder that clicks on when we suspend our disbelief. And the capacity of our brains to do just that is, in a certain sense, like a muscle: we have to stretch it before it’ll work properly. How are we supposed to fully commit to a fantastic narrative when there’s not enough here to engage our sense of fantasy?
5. …Or get political, either.
Debuting as it did in 1968, Planet of the Apes clearly had no shortage of contemporary hot-button issues to draw upon for thematic material, but even with that going for it, the movie surpassed itself in how broadly and effortlessly it drew upon a whole host of relevant sociopolitical trends, including race, civil rights, the space program, nuclear war, animal rights, the fall of American hegemony, and even a bit about the generation gap.
And that was just the first movie. Beneath the Planet of the Apes had a clear Vietnam allegory with a guerilla insurgency of natives using unconventional tactics to fight off a numerically and technologically superior invader. Escape, in addition to a wealth of material exploring the relationship between science and politics, had a talking ape couple from the future pregnant with a baby that the humans wanted to destroy to forestall a possible ape uprising, bringing up eugenics and abortion in a way that was both subtle and incisive. Conquest, in its depiction of a society that runs on the labor of dominated apes who eventually revolt, appropriated imagery from several salient points in American racial history, from slave auctions to the Watts and DNC riots of the ’60s. Even the legendarily bad Battle had a few interesting points to make about integration and racial harmony (including a scene where a human gets scolded for his use of the N-word on an ape, and is upbraided and given a lecture of the ugly history of the word and its use as an instrument of ape degradation—that word being “no”).
By contrast, Rise hits important, contentious issues like… animal testing? Elder care? Hmm.
And Dawn, I’m not sure at all what it’s on about. It tries to lay down a tired old avoid-revenge, seek-mutual-understanding, tolerance-and-respect, someone’s-gotta-be-first-to-lay-down-the-sword message in the most mealy-mouthed and unspecific way possible. From what I’ve seen of the trailer for War, the series is hardly in danger of getting any more politically incisive. You could argue that the filmmakers are toning down politics in order to reach a wider audience, which is a good lookout on their part, because no overtly political films have enjoyed much success of late.
To be clear: I’m not saying that Rise and Dawn are necessarily bad movies because they don’t have any of these elements in them. I like to think I’m above that kind of pedantic nerd shit, and moreover, I already said that I thought they were fine; pretty good, even. I’m also not saying that movie series(es) have to remain thematically and aesthetically set in stone and can’t ever evolve. That’s so, so stupid. I could cite any number of examples of movie series that didn’t ever become great until they were reinterpreted.
What I am saying is that I, as a fan of Planet of the Apes, want some sort of justification for why a new movie that’s coming out has the words “Planet of the Apes” in the title. It comes off as incredibly cynical and money-grubbing when you attach the name of a successful property to a movie that does absolutely nothing to evoke the spirit of the original.
So, I guess if I had to make an elevator pitch out of this article, I’d say something like “Don’t remake, reboot, or continue a film series just for the sake of doing it. Instead, study the series and figure out what makes it distinctive, and use what you find as a reference point for the direction in which you take the new installments. Don’t copy the source material, but do keep it in mind. If you don’t, you run the risk of creating a series that may be financially successful and critically well-received, but…” Wait. Shit. Can I start over?