War for the Planet of the Apes is coming to home video in a couple of weeks, which has me digging out my old DVDs and giving the whole franchise another once over. And what a franchise it is. Planet of the Apes, the renowned 1968 science fiction film was a pioneer of its time for many reasons. It had everything a movie goer could ask for:
- A morally complex, philosophical story
- Famous, talented actors
- Cutting edge special effects
- One of the best twist endings in cinematic history
It is the rare gem in science fiction that both worked well in it's own era and still holds up today — remaining entertaining and extremely relevant, possibly even more so now than in its initial release. It's easy to see why it is often named as the first true blockbuster film, setting the foundation for movies today that fall under that term.
There is one stark aspect of the modern blockbuster that can arguably be traced back to this film: the proliferation of sequels, prequels and other extended universe tie-ins that simultaneously expand the world and milk the success for every penny the studio can get. This quality perhaps marks the modern blockbuster more than any other. For better or worse, when something works once, we are likely going to get more of it — a lot more.
Sometimes this can be a good thing. As shown in the graphic above, the success of Iron Man in 2008 has led to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which has given us some of the best sci-fi/action movies of the last decade, arguably longer. But what if Iron Man wasn't followed up by anything as good as The Avengers or Daredevil? What if they went straight to something like Iron Fist or Inhumans?
This is the case with the Planet of the Apes franchise. While Planet of the Apes is easily one of the best science fiction movies of all time, it was unfortunately followed up by a flood of what can generously be called mediocrity, including:
- Four sequels
- A TV series that only lasted 14 episodes
- An animated series that only made it to 13 episodes
- An extended universe of comics and novels that would make George Lucas blush
To top it off, it also had a remake that not only completely failed to portray anything that made the original so beloved, but also kickstarted the modern remake/reboot craze that we are still suffering through today. (Funny side note: this remake was actually a more faithful adaptation to the original novel than any previous film in the franchise.)
So how did this franchise, which by just about any metric has been in a constant sharp decline since the first film left theaters in 1968, end up giving us arguably the best trilogy of the modern cinematic era?
Rising From The Ashes
It's no secret that this new Planet of the Apes trilogy is held in pretty high regard by critics and audiences alike, at least to a level unseen in the franchise since the original movie. There really is no parallel in cinema to this kind of resurrection. The closest comparison is probably Star Wars, but even that had more than one well-received movie before it's comeback. So how did the studio manage to make something so good out of something that had gone so wrong continuously? In large part by sticking to what made the original movie work so well in the first place. The new movie focused on:
- Morally complex/philosophical stories that take time to develop
- Extremely talented performers
- Ground breaking special effects
- A big, if predictable, twist at the end (it's hard to have a shocking ending in a prequel)
It is a testament to the original movie that after so many failures, Fox was even still willing to take another shot at the franchise. It was only four years after the Tim Burton remake failed to catch on that Fox started development on Rise of the Planet of the Apes. It spent about five years in development hell but was eventually released in 2011.
Rise and its two sequels work on several levels. While squarely within the Planet of the Apes franchise, each one is set up as a movie that could be the last of its own self contained series. A viewer could watch and adore all three without ever realizing there was a decades-old franchise connected to them. But perhaps the biggest success of this film is in its characters — the true life and death of any story. Shockingly, in an age of alien invasions, super hero team-ups and over-the-top car heists, these movies got us to care, deeply, about an ape.
While the old apes franchise had devolved into simple popcorn spectacle, being more about the ape suits than the characters underneath, I can say confidently that there is no greater, more sympathetic, more entrancing character in modern science fiction than Caesar, the embattled leader of the apes in this new trilogy.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a powerfully emotional, moving, ingeniously written story, and while the human side of the plot can drag a little from time to time, every second that Caesar is on screen is completely captivating. It is a story that does not rely in the slightest on previous knowledge of the franchise, while simultaneously plugging it with as much fan service as lifelong fans could ask for.
While, admittedly, almost the entire story was spoiled in the trailers, someone watching this film casually is surprised around every turn. The film is utterly unpredictable, jumping genres several times throughout. Starting like an ad for PETA, shifting into to a medical sci-fi drama, to what could believably be a Disney movie, on to a crushing story of oppression and revolution rivaling Spartacus. This is a major feat in the era of watered down stories meant to be just palatable.
Planet of the Apes is a franchise that has been considered dead for over 90% of it's existence, but has produced a new trilogy that has absolutely annihilated the box office. It has garnered nearly universal positive critical reviews, sparked a revolution in visual effects and is possibly changing the way actors can be recognized at the Academy Awards.
It's a safe bet that this franchise is not going away any time soon. Given the direction they've taken it, I am very happy about that, and eager to see where the story goes from here.
War for the Planet of the Apes comes to digital HD on October 10th, then on Blu-Ray and DVD October 24th.