|Planet of the Apes was my first obsession. It was my bizarre preoccupation with this movie series that first revealed the all-or-nothing nature of my interests. Either I don't give a shit about something, or I get consumed with it, and come to know every last detail. That's the way it became with me for Planet of the Apes.
I was too young to have seen the original movie in the theaters when it first came out. I would have been a pre-teen when it initially premiered on network TV. There was a lot of media hype about it, and I was really looking forward to seeing it.
The movie started and I was glued to the set. Three men are marooned on a distant planet with no women and go skinny dipping. Good so far (actually I didn't know that they showed naked butt in that scene until years later when I rented it on video). When the hunt began and everything went crazy, I was totally drawn in. Then they showed the first ape face. It was a gorilla on horseback who stopped and turned back towards the camera, just as a shrill sounding, military horn blasted in the background. I was captivated.
That image was really seared into my mind. First of all it was just good filmmaking. To this day I think it's the best entrance scene in any movie I've ever seen. The dark faced gorilla was scary as hell. He would have looked mean even if he wasn't dressed in leather and toting an attack riffle. He was on horseback, and he was there to hunt and kill humans. The way he stopped and looked back, as if he'd seen you and was going to come back for you, just as that frightening attack horn sounded, created an unforgettable cinematic moment.
As the film unfolded I just loved it more and more. I really, really enjoyed watching intelligent apes going about their daily lives in the little civilization that they'd made for themselves. Charlton Heston was a fantastic leading man. The characters of Cornelius and Zira were great protagonists, and Zaius was a great villain. The conclusion became one of the most classic surprise endings in the history of film. On top of all that, the obligatory damsel in distress never said a word the whole time. What more could I ask for in a movie???
From that day on I was totally obsessed with the Planet of the apes. I got Cornelius action figure as a present, probably for my birthday. I saved and saved until I had enough to go out and buy the Zira figure. My younger brother Jeff had the Zaius figure, and the next door neighbor had a gorilla complete with riffle and ammunition sash. I wanted to get more of the figures. I wanted to turn my room into a scale model of the planet. Unfortunately I had no budget on the meager allowance my parents gave me, and the stuff was rather expensive compared to other action figure sets. This was probably due to the popularity of the series. It certainly wasn't the cost of materials, since the figures were not all that big in size. They were on a much smaller scale than GI Joe's, maybe on a par with Big Jim (you know, the guy who pops the muscle band). I would draw my own Planet of the Apes comics during lunch at school. In art class I tried to fabricate my own makeup prosthetics. When the magazines came out I bought every one until I couldn't afford them anymore. I wish now that I'd held on to those very first few issues. I even bought the Super8 movie to play on my father's projector (oh, how primitive things were before the days of VCRs!).
I remember watching the sequel on TV. "Beneath the Planet of the Apes." I looked forward to seeing it for months. Once again when it premiered I was glued to the set. This one didn't start off quite as well. They launch one guy on a rescue mission. Okay... First of all, if these guys had flown into the future then how would anyone back home know they needed rescuing? Secondly, James Franciscus didn't measure up to the imposing character created by Charlton Heston. Franciscus looked and played like Heston's smaller, younger, less significant little brother.
From there on it didn't get much better. The scenes in the city were okay. Zaius was supplanted by a bigger and badder villain. The gorilla's really were scary characters, and it was a good move to set up their leader Ursus as the new bad guy. Seeing a whole arena full of gorillas was like some Nazi political rally. It was a pretty impressive image. The possibility of the gorillas usurping power from the orangutans was a pretty good premise for a film. Unfortunately it didn't go that way. Instead it focused on Franciscus traipsing all over the planet looking for Heston. Of course he teams up with the obligatory damsel in distress. At least she kept her mouth shut again. Frankly, it was getting boring.
When they got into the underworld and met up with all the mutants it took a slight turn for the better. It was plausible that humans could have survived in the post-nuclear ruins, and that if they did they could be mutated telepaths. But the story didn't go anywhere interesting. They worshipped a hydrogen bomb. That was poignant in its irony, that nuclear survivors would embrace that which almost destroyed them, but not too good for story telling. Then after Franciscus gets hazed by the mutants for a while eventually meets up with Heston. FINALLY! I'd been waiting impatiently all movie for them to hook up. But it was too little too late. It had no bearing on the story whatsoever. Just as soon as they find each other the gorillas burst in and start shooting up the place. How convenient that they decide to take on the mutants just as our chief characters find their lair. And how easily the gorillas found it for themselves. So the gorillas shoot the place up, they kick some serious mutant butt, and in the end Charlton Heston blows up the world.
What the hell was that??? I was definitely disappointed in it, but at the time I was still too infatuated with the whole thing to admit to myself that it basically sucked! Planet of the Apes went from one of cinema's best endings to one of its worst sequels. It could have been so much better than it was. There were millions of possible story lines that the writers could have followed. Why did they waste every one's time with this one.
The problem was with the studios. I don't know how the film industry has been able to survive this long, because studios know a lot about producing movies, but they prove time and time and time and time and time again that they know nothing about telling stories. That's why the trend these days is towards independent film. No studio wanted to touch Planet of the Apes. They only way it got made was the independent producers sold Charlton Heston on the idea, and the studios finally bought it based on his star power. If it had been up to the studios' judgment, the world would never have known the Planet of the Apes.
With a commercial success the studios naturally wanted to do a sequel. But in their infinite wisdom they decided that it couldn't be done unless Charlton Heston reprised his role. If they didn't go that route, they still could have any number of good, gripping stories. The whole thing about the power struggle between the gorillas and the orangutans for example would have made a great movie unto itself. The chimpanzees would have been caught in the middle, and there could have been interesting sub-plots with who sided with whom and why. Cornelius and Zira could have been pulled in opposite directions, creating the exact kind of conflict and tension that makes a great movie.
But no. They didn't take any of the limitless options they had without Heston. They convinced him, against his better judgment, to sign up for the project. Then they had to deal with his reluctance. In fact, he only agreed to do it when the studios agreed that he would have a very small part. They could have gotten that over with in the beginning of the film. They could have killed him off and been done with it. But no. Instead they concoct this implausible rescue mission scenario, and waste the entire picture stringing the audience along until finally we get an unsatisfying and inconsequential appearance by Heston.
Actually I shouldn't exactly say inconsequential, because it was Heston who blew up the world. That was my ultimate grip with the film. Why end it that way? Why dig your writers into a hole like that? Given the unfortunate route that the story took, why not just let the gorillas win, kill off Heston and Franciscus, and even the mutants while they're at it, and clear the boards for the next sequel.
For years I figured that they blew up the world because they wanted to top the ending of the first movie. Of course they failed miserably, but how could anyone top that? It wasn't until years later, quite recently actually, that I learned the truth. It's a text book example of why actors shouldn't try to be writers. Charlton Heston knew there would be a good chance for a third movie, and he really wanted to be rid of this character once and for all. So he suggested to the director that in the end he could set off the bomb and blow up the world. There was no way they could make a sequel to that. He was wrong, and the director was wrong to take his advice.
Of course there was to be a sequel to the sequel, and the bogus ending of the second film mandated an implausible and illogical start to Escape from the Planet of the Apes. When last we left Cornelius and Zira, they were in their apartment fretting over the gorilla's attack on the forbidden zone. The world would have been blown up very soon after that. Maybe 24 hours later, or 48 hours on the outside. So we're supposed to believe that in that time, the new ape on the block convinces them to climb into this wrecked space craft that he's cobbled together, and escape the end of the world that no one knew was coming. Yeah. And another thing. These space craft flew forward in time. How did an ape who lived in a civilization that hadn't yet invented steam power manage to completely reverse the functioning of this high tech device, and get it to launch from the planet's surface?
Clearly it was one of the most bogus plot devices ever used. But once I got over that, the rest of the movie actually played out okay. It did make for a striking opening sequence. The coast guard finds the missing space capsule off the coast. Everyone had been waiting for Franciscus to return with news of the first flight. They haul it in and blow the hatch. Three astronauts emerge wearing USA space suits. There must be survivors. But wait. They remove their helmets, and-- Oh my God! They're apes!!!
Even back then I considered time travel to be a pretty cheap plot device. But thanks to Charlton Heston's brilliant idea, it was really the only direction the writers could possibly take. Once I was able to accept that and get over it, the movie was actually a lot of fun to watch. The bit about them not talking was a good way to get people involved. The audience knew that the apes would talk sooner or later, and they're glued to the story waiting for it to happen. Then when it finally does, it happens through Zira's strong personality in a classic turn-the-tables way. The researchers test her intelligence by luring her with a banana. She easily solves the puzzle and gets access to the banana, but doesn't eat it. The researchers wonder why, and she blurts out, "Because I loath bananas!" Classic!!!
Then they kill off the new ape on the block. Works for me. He wasn't a particularly interesting character. Get him out of the way. Then Cornelius and Zira become celebrities, and the story gets very fun. Then the political heavies hit the scene and the sinister nature of man is asserted. With Heston gone the studios had lost their sequel-phobia and end this film with a surprising and intriguing twist that leaves the audience begging for more.
By the time the fourth and fifth movies were made I was starting to lose interest a bit. In Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, Cornelius and Zira's child Ceasar grows up to lead an ape rebellion and spawn what later became the original planet of the apes. In Battle for the Planet of the Apes, the nuclear holocaust has apparently occurred. The apes, who must have gone off to live in the country, were apparently spared. The humans who did survive just happened to be the same ones who lost the conquest in the previous movie. They're also already well on their way to becoming mutants. Apparently unwilling to let the apes live in peace, they gather what's left of their military machine and march on the ape village. A battle ensues, and the mutants enter the ape village to find them all dead. But wait, there's more! Ceasar jumped up and yells, "Now! Fight like apes!!!" All the apes who were just pretending to be dead, and for all we can tell were previously letting the mutants win, now drive the mutants out of the village. The apes live happily ever after for a couple thousand years, until one day Charlton Heston lands and really starts fucking things up.
The movie series played itself out, and although the conclusion was mired in cheese, it was clearly the end. When I learned that they were planning a Planet of the Apes TV series, I was very excited. With all that foolishness done, they could get back to a good, basic story that just happened to be set on a planet where apes ruled. Once gain, the possibilities for story lines was endless.
By the time the TV series debuted, I was in high school. But still I was glued to the set to watch the premier. I knew the show was doomed before the first station break. While the writers could start off fresh, they somehow chose to start off with a fresh set of humans crash landing on a fresh planet. The names were changed, but the plot was the same. I was pissed. If the people controlling this project had one ounce of originality they could have made the show into a wildly successful science fiction drama. But they didn't. Having rehashed the original scenario, they had to set it up so that it could continue as an ongoing series. They did this by sending the humans on the run with their sole ape compatriot. Every week they'd get chased some more, and barely escape with their lives.
I was old enough at this point that I started to understand some of the principles in writing. I knew that this series had been taken in a direction that was doomed to failure. It was the exact same thing with Battle Star Galactica. It debuted relatively early after the demise of the original Star Trek. Star Trek became a wildly successful show, but Battle Star Galactica fizzled and died. I knew the reason was that the protagonists in Star Trek were successful, able-bodied heroes. The show was fun to watch because it celebrated success and achievement. Battle Star Galactica, on the other hand, was a rag tag band of survivors clinging to life, forever chased by the forces of evil. No one ever wants to watch that. The episodes weren't triumphant and life-affirming. They were arduous strides in a prolonged death march where the protagonists somehow manage to hold on to life for another week. That kind of story will never find an audience. The Planet of the Apes series was doomed for failure from the start, and I knew it. After the first few episodes I didn't even watch the show anymore. It could have been so good, if only...