Going Ape

Planet of the Apes is perhaps the longest running science fiction film franchise in history (unless you consider James Bond sci-fi—and Star Trek originated as TV series that didn’t arrive as a theatrical film until 1979). The original Planet of the Apes movie, based on a novel by French author Pierre Boulez, produced by 20th Century Fox, and co-written by Rod Serling of Twilight Zone fame, was followed by four sequels. The budgets for these sequels were tight (miniscule by today’s standards) and the results progressively cheesier. But despite its special effects and makeup, state of the art for the time though primitive now, the original still holds up today. There were also two relatively unsuccessful TV series in the ‘70s, plus books, comic books, and other spin-offs.

That 1968 film is still considered a classic, but the franchise remained relatively dormant over the next two decades. But director Tim Burton’s 2001 reboot, while financially successful and a hair better than its crushing critical reception might suggest, was nevertheless crippled by a poor script loaded with lame references to the original that were more cringe-inducing than funny, cluttered with performances that ranged (with one or two exceptions) from wooden to scenery-chewing, and climaxed by a head-scratching epilog. The film was distinguished primarily by composer Danny Elfman’s score and Rick Baker’s makeup work—the latter far more realistic than in the 1968 film (though Helena Bonham Carter, giving the film’s best performance, was far prettier, even in that makeup, than any chimp I know!).

But you can’t keep a good ape down, and in 2011 the epic was resurrected with Rise of the Planet of the Apes. While the original took place in the distant future, with apes in charge and speechless humans existing as either slaves to the ruling apes or constantly hunted as wild animals, Rise was an origin story, taking place in present day San Francisco. The smart apes are created by human experimentation in search of a cure for Alzheimer’s disease. The usual memes of evil drug companies and cruelty to animals are trotted out, but they’re vital to the plot. The film made brilliant use of motion capture techniques and CGI to produce shockingly believable and expressive apes.

Fans of the original, of course, might still argue that it’s the best Apes films, despite its rickety, 1968 makeup and special effects. But at the time of its 2011 release, Rise made a good argument for stealing that honor.

Now we have Dawn of the Planet of the Apes opening this Friday, July 11. I was privileged to see a sneak peek of it last week as part of a Hollywood event called the Los Angeles Times Hero Complex Film Festival (this was the first time I’d heard of this event, although it has been running annually for several years now).

As Dawn begins it’s ten years later. In the 2011 film, the Alzheimer’s drug that at first proved successful in humans (and unexpectedly “successful” in apes) morphed into a disease fatal to humans but not to apes. It has now spread around the world, killing billions. The few surviving humans, apparently immune to the disease, are hunkered down in isolated communities. The story centers on the one in San Francisco, desperate to regenerate a hydroelectric dam north of the city to give them the power they need to contact other human survivors. But the ape community, now relatively sophisticated though as yet nowhere near the level we see in the 1968 film, is in the same region. When the two communities interact, trouble follows.

The 3D showing I attended was in one of the TCL Chinese’s six-plex of theaters in Hollywood, but not in the 900+ seat, classic TCL (formerly Grauman’s) Chinese Theater next door. The latter, recently converted to an IMAX house with a 94 x 46-foot screen and stadium seating, was apparently too busy handling the crowds for the latest Transformers film. (It’s possible, though don’t know for certain, that Dawn will open in the big house on July 11). The advantage of the smaller auditorium was that it offers Dolby Atmos sound. The latter, an advanced, object-oriented, multi-speaker surround system, was introduced to the theatrical market a couple of years ago. A home theater version was recently demonstrated to the press in New York and should be widely available from a number of vendors this coming fall (you can find recent stories about this Atmos demo on this site and elsewhere).

The disadvantage in the Dawn presentation I attended was that the theater’s sound was so loud and edgy that the Atmos effects could only be appreciated in the quietest scenes. As for the 3D, I hardly noticed it after the first few minutes, and felt that it neither added nor detracted from the film’s impact.

Fortunately, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes doesn’t hammer you with the non-stop noise and chaos that’s become so common in many of today’s summer action films. No six-story tall dinos stomp through the city, no metal monsters fight it out, and no superheros and villains battle for supremacy. There’s plenty of action, of course, but also time for the viewer to appreciate the drama and characters (as silly as that might sound when we’re talking about a humans/ape confrontation). The movie also doesn’t bludgeon you with one point of view. Are the humans or the apes the victims here, or both? It’s complicated, and largely up to you to decide. As the original films suggest, the apes may eventually triumph in the inevitable, future sequels. But in a reboot anything can happen!

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes may be the best of this summer’s movies. I haven’t seen them all by a long shot, though among those I have seen I’d definitely put How to Train Your Dragon 2 in second place. I look forward to seeing Dawn again in a better theater, and will definitely be adding the Blu-ray to my collection when it comes out later this year. In Atmos, perhaps?

dommyluc's picture

I believe you mean that Pierre Boulle was the author of the novel which the film was based on, not Pierre Boulez, the legendary French conductor and composer. Boulle also wrote the novel that was the basis for "The Bridge on the River Kwai".

David Vaughn's picture
Saw it yesterday in 2D and thought the movie was outstanding. In many ways better than the first film of a couple a years ago. While I really liked that one, I thought the ending was kind of weak, but that isn't the case here. Well-rounded characters, good acting, and the CG is amazing. Highly recommended!