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Saturday Afternoon Chess thread 08-29-2020 | Main | Saturday Overnight Open Thread – 8/29/2020 [Buck Throckmorton]
August 29, 2020

Saturday Evening Movie Thread 08-29-2020 [TheJamesMadison]

It's a Planet of...Apes

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The Planet of the Apes franchise that ran from 1968 to 1973 and consisted of five films was the first modern science fiction/fantasy franchise. Before Star Wars and Star Trek came to the big screen, there was the series of movies about a planet of apes, and like many franchises it was essentially birthed by accident. The first film took forever to get off the ground. An adaptation of a French novel by Pierre Bouelle (who also wrote The Bridge on the River Kwai), the original Planet of the Apes was a surprise success that became the seventh best selling movie at the box off in 1968. It was also the same year that 2001: A Space Odyssey was the second best at the box office and the same time that the original run of Star Trek was airing on NBC.

There was an appetite for science fiction, and Fox wanted money.

However, franchise filmmaking, being in its absolute infancy despite earlier franchises like The Thin Man and the Charlie Chan movies, was still being figured out. There were things that this early franchise did that studios would later learn to avoid. While the other examples were based around characters, the Planet of the Apes franchise was built around an idea, and what if someone showed up for the second movie and hadn't seen the first?


Recap

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So, Planet of the Apes goes from unfilmable concept because of the ape makeup to smash hit. It was never designed to carry sequels ending pretty definitively with that iconic shot of the Statue of Liberty. The assigned writers and producers struggled to come up with something because, in their minds, they needed Charlton Heston to carry the film, but Heston gave them a flat no to appearing in the sequel. After some negotiation, he agreed to appear if he died in the first scene. The writers went back, worked, and came back with a counteroffer that he would disappear in the first scene, reappear in the third act, and then die. He agreed, saying that they could use him for two weeks.

The writers' solution was to introduce a new human character, a carbon copy of Heston's Taylor named Brent. Another astronaut who landed on Earth, he essentially recreates the entirety of the first movie for the first half of the second movie. It does two things: It catches up the main character to the events of the first movie, and it tells the audience that never saw the first movie what's going on. And yet, should a second film in a franchise hold the hands of the audience to that degree? Granted that this was before home video was an option, but Planet of the Apes was not a unknown entity that needed a massive recap for those who missed the particulars of the first film.

And this is an issue that plagues the franchise in every sequel through Battle for the Planet of the Apes. There are extended re-introductions to the concept and the plot of the previous movies. Escape from the Planet of the Apes has long dialogue scenes to merely justify the inherently stupid concept of three primitively civilized apes from the future finding Taylor's ship at the bottom of the forbidden lake, fixing it, launching it into space, and then seeing the world ending destruction that finished the previous film. Conquest of the Planet of the Apes has a secondary character explain things to the primary character that he should know in a very long bit of exposition. Battle for the Planet of the Apes uses footage from the third movie as a plot device to help explain how the world of the fourth movie came about.

It feels more like a television show convention than something that should populate a feature film. Of course, the franchise did become a television show after a while, but spending so much limited screen time trying to catch viewers up (upwards of half the film in Beneath the Planet of the Apes' case) is a bad use of time. There should have been greater concern with telling the story at hand, not the story already told. Interestingly, the one movie that does this the least, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes is, in my opinion, the most successful of the four sequels. It's not just because of this point, but it certainly has something to do with it.

Budgets

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These days, when a movie is a surprise success and studios want to follow up with a sequel, budgets tend to balloon. Think of The Matrix, which had a relatively small budget of $63 million and its two sequels had budgets of $150 million each (they were filmed at once for a total instant investment of $300 million).

That's not how Fox approached the success of Planet of the Apes. They wanted the residual money from new movies, but they didn't want to spend more. Here's a chart from the-numbers.com to show that:

planet4.png


Each budget decreased until they pretty much got to a point where they couldn't make a movie for any less with Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. The interesting thing about the move from the fourth to the fifth movie is that while the fourth was cheaper it looks a lot more expensive because they used good locations to film a futuristic city where the fifth was filmed in a field with some trees and then some dark tunnels.

Of course, conversely, you can see that box office receipts were going down at the same time, so the reduced spending on sequels made sense there. Their thinking was different from modern franchises, though. There's always going to be an element of money-grubbing to every greenlight of a movie, but there had never been proof that an audience could grow over a series of movies. Even Star Trek fell into this from the first to the second, slashing the second movie's budget by more than half of the first. It wasn't until The Empire Strikes Back, really, that studios had proof that you could spend more on a sequel and get even more in returns for it.

However, the bet of diminishing budgets seems guaranteed to ensure that the ensuing movies will appeal to smaller audiences. It's not that smaller movies automatically appeal to smaller audiences, but the effort to build audiences isn't there. In fact, you're not really appealing to people who haven't seen the first movie. You're guaranteeing a smaller adventure that should only appeal to people who already are fans of the first one which, when combined with the fact that each movie had massive recaps of the events of the previous film, ends up being a series of movies for no one in particular.

Connections

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Beneath couldn't happen without the star of the original. Escape couldn't happen without two apes we'd seen in the previous two films. Conquest couldn't happen without using the baby from the previous film. Battle couldn't happen without the main character of the previous film.

There were rather severe breaks in the narrative from one film to the next starting with the second to third movie, and yet the writers, producers, and directors kept feeling like there needed to be a character connection from one movie to the next. This is most egregious in Escape and Conquest.

To justify Escape, they used previously the known characters of Zira and Cornelius to function as the bridge, but the bridge makes no sense (the repair and relaunch of the downed spaceship on the bottom of a lake) and the movie takes forever trying to justify it. They could have written the same ridiculous reasoning and had it been apes we'd never heard of before in another part of the world, but no, it had to be the apes we sort of knew.

To justify Conquest, they used the son of Zira and Cornelius, who was born at the end of the previous film and named Milo, changed his name to Caesar inexplicably, and built a completely authoritarian and totalitarian America around him. The jump in time from the previous film to Conquest is not that large (less than 20 years) and America has completely morphed into a fascist police state where everyone wears uniforms and apes have become pets and even servants/slaves. The rather short time difference is a hard pill to swallow, but the writers, producers, and directors felt that if we didn't see the character that was the baby ape at the end of the previous film, we'd be lost, or something, even though Ricardo Montalbaum spends a few minutes summing up the last movie anyway. Instead of putting the movie a hundred years ahead with a descendent of Zira and Cornelius, smoothing over the time transition, they spend about fifteen minutes trying to justify the timeline.

Now, modern franchises still want to hinge movies on characters and actors because no one really knows anything in Hollywood about what will be successful and they still hang onto the belief that actors are stars and attract audiences. That hasn't really changed. What's changed is that modern franchise films are more concerned with telling the story at hand (or fitting as a piece in a larger story to come) than trying to tell the story that came before. It's a modern effort to proactively make the franchise last longer rather than just trying to push out one more movie with a familiar name that could bring in a few million dollars.

Theme

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Franchises don't have to maintain themes from the first film. Limiting the rest of the films by a particular thing to say also limits the directions that new entries can go. What's interesting about the Planet of the Apes franchise is that for the first three sequels they tried to maintain the central theme of the first film, namely that man is self-destructive and destined to wipe itself out (it was the 60s). They only really broke with it fully in the fifth and final film, Battle for the Planet of the Apes, in order to come to a more hopeful ending.

Beneath took the idea much further than the original with an old atom bomb destroying the world at the end (in order to help Charlton Heston say yes and fend off any more sequels at his request). The problem with the series' thematic thrust isn't how far it goes in Beneath or in how it reverses it in Battle but in how it tries to split the baby in Escape.

Escape's ridiculous plot of future apes coming to contemporary Los Angeles ends up showing how nice humanity is for half of the film's runtime. We're not monsters out to destroy ourselves. Instead, we treat these talking apes like heroes, pampering them with gifts of clothes, cars, and living arrangements that makes the ape treatment of Taylor in the first film look even worse by contrast. Are humans the monsters if they're willing to treat the different so well? The movie then tries to claw back the idea of humanity being the source of its own destruction in the second half through a character who wants to kill the apes because of their story that he extracts from them that apes will rule the Earth. It's introduced really late for such a short film and gets pushed to the side in favor of plot mechanics around a chase, but it's a half-strained effort to expand on what was said before by adding the idea that humanity was operating in what it thought was its self-interest when it triggered the end of the world. It's just underdeveloped to the extreme and conflicts with pretty much the entire first half of the film.

It's interesting that the effort to keep the same theme was kept for so long, and when you learn a bit about the different endings to the fourth movie, Conquest, it gets even more interesting. The original ending of Conquest ended with the apes' violent murder of the human antagonist, but it didn't test well and they re-edited the ending to soften it with Caesar, the main character, letting the antagonist live with a short speech about possible unity. The final film, Battle, follows the released ending (though you can watch the original on home video releases), which makes the desire to go with a more hopeful ending to the entire series flow a bit better at least.

The great break in theme by the third actually created a fan theory that the ape world at the end of Battle is different from the ape world that Taylor crashed on at the beginning of the series, and that when he would crash again he would find a different world from the world he had originally found (though he'd never know). The quantum physicists can tell us if this piece of science fiction nonsense has any validity.

In Conclusion

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Planet of the Apes is an interesting series of films, the first of its kind in modern cinema. It was born by accident and progressing in very quick spurts over a grand six years and five movies until it finally died. Obviously, it was brought back in 2001 by Tim Burton in a terrible film and to much greater success in 2011 with the new trio of films Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and War for the Planet of the Apes, but those first five movies are a microcosm into another time and another, more fractured, way at thinking of franchise filmmaking.

While they're not all great films by any measure, they're an interesting case study in how things have evolved.

Movies of Today

Opening in Theaters:

New movies at the theater! Holy crap!

Bill and Ted Face the Music

The New Mutants

Next in my Netflix Queue:

In Search of the Castaways

Movies I Saw This Fortnight:

Planet of the Apes (Rating 4/4) Full Review "This movie really has stood the test of time, and it's not because it has some great quotes or a great twist ending. It's well anchored by a great central character and journey, elevated by Charlton Heston giving a surprisingly committed performance while dressed in rags." [Personal Collection]

Beneath the Planet of the Apes (Rating 2.5/4) Full Review "It's far from one of the worst sequels to a great film ever made. It has too many interesting ideas and visuals to dismiss it completely, but it could have been better." [Personal Collection]

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Rating 4/4) Full Review "Matt Reeves took the foundation laid in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and he just flat out ran with it, making one of the best looking, most emotionally involving and satisfying, and all around best built film of the franchise.." [Personal Collection]

Starship Troopers 2: Hero of the Federation (Rating 1/4) Full Review "The characters are thin and poorly drawn, the terror unconvincing, and the special effects sub-par. They didn't understand how to properly use their limited budget, wasting a large chunk on an opening battle that is both unintelligible and ugly. And yet, I can't hate it. In fact, I want to like it more than it deserves, but then I remember the long stretches of boring nothing that dominate the movie and the urge dies away." [Netflix DVD]

Come and See (Rating 4/4) Full Review "It drops you in a specific time and place and instills the emotions it wants in the audience with such precision that it's beautiful in its ugliness. It really is one of the greatest movies made in the Soviet Union." [Personal Collection]

District 9 (Rating 3/4) Full Review "As it is, though, District 9 is a solid action movie with a different aesthetic and a great central performance." [Personal Collection]

Hobson's Choice (Rating 4/4) Full Review "Full of human touches and wonderful performances while feeling incredibly cinematic at the same time, it shows how a great filmmaker can really translate from one medium to another. David Lean was a treasure of a filmmaker." [HBOMax]

In Which We Serve (Rating 3/4) Full Review "It's handsomely made and very much of its time being made mid-war and about the war effort itself. However, Coward's pen and Lean's directing makes it about the men themselves which turns the timely tale into a timeless one of men in war and the women they leave behind" [YouTube]

Contact

Email any suggestions or questions to thejamesmadison.aos at symbol gmail dot com.
Follow me on Twitter.
I've also archived all the old posts here, by request. I'll add new posts a week after they originally post at the HQ.

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