Before the Dawn: A Look Back at One of Sci-Fi’s Great Franchises

One month ago, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes came out to impressive critical acclaim—and has made a lot of money. Few were more excited than I, and in anticipation I took a look back at some of the franchise’s earlier works. I won’t review Pierre Boulle’s original 1963 novel (frankly, the films are much more interesting), I haven’t read the comic book adaptations, and I’ve yet to view the 70s TV shows. But I’ve now seen all eight films and I want to share that with you. 

Planet of the Apes (1968)

I really love this movie. Parts of it are ridiculous, and seem foreign to the concept of subtlety. Charlton Heston’s performance as the astronaut Taylor is aggressively over-the-top, sometimes coming across more as a gross caricature than as an actual person. But honestly all that just adds to the charm. Taylor and some other astronauts travel to a distant planet in the distant future, all for different reasons. For Taylor, it’s the conviction that there’s got to be something out there that’s better than humans. Taylor is a jaded nihilist and not averse to violence himself, but he finds his species’ (and his own) capacity for destruction despicable (remember this is the decade of the Cuban Missile Crisis). This complex psychology, by the way, was completely absent from the protagonist in Boulle’s book.

The astronauts eventually come across a primitive-seeming group of mute humans who are then hunted by apes. We see gorillas posing for photographs with slaughtered humans, evoking a proud game hunter or fisherman from our own era. Taylor is taken captive by the apes, and we see that their society is a relentless satire of all that’s wrong in our own. The antagonist, the religious orangutan Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans), is an impressively layered skewering of not just the clergy, but any form of elite. He sees Taylor as a threat to the integrity of the “Sacred Scrolls,” which proclaim ape supremacy and the lowness of man. Zaius’s dogmatism is partially inspired by Joseph McCarthy—one of the film’s screenwriters had been blacklisted for being a suspected Communist. Zaius is also emblematic of white privilege: the orangutans control the government, while the chimpanzees are kept out of power. The racial (or species-based) hierarchy of ape society, coupled with all apes’ systematic persecution of humans, was especially pertinent to the Civil Rights era, and remains very relevant today.

Taylor is helped by Zira (Kim Hunter) and Cornelius (Roddy McDowell), two chimpanzee intellectuals who respect Taylor’s personhood (though at least part of their interest is scientific), and decide to help him. Even they are no saints: Zira is quite sheepish in explaining to Taylor the invasive experiments she runs on captive humans, and Cornelius is overly concerned with his reputation. In fact, the only character the film seems to be sympathetic to is Lucius, Zira’s nephew, who spends most of his time complaining about adults being bossy. The message I took is this: the reigning system is backwards and destructive, so fight it with everything you’ve got.

Planet of the Apes is full of allusions to the hot social issues of the 60s, with scathing critiques of how human nature has manifested itself. It doesn’t offer much in the way of a positive alternative, but it’s good at creating an enemy, and the enemy is us. Plus it’s just so fun.

Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1969)

Probably not the most necessary sequel, but fairly harmless. The astronaut Brent (James Franciscus, not to be confused with future Apes star James Franco) lands on a mysterious planet in the distant future, and finds out it’s ruled by apes! Sound familiar? Brent, it turns out, is on a rescue mission trying to find Taylor. Franciscus seems to be doing his best Charlton Heston impression, and for the first two-thirds of the movie Brent goes through more or less the same plot points as Taylor did in the original. Then the end takes a weird turn with a secret underground society of humans who worship an atomic bomb, but are otherwise quite uninteresting. Beneath doesn’t cover any new thematic ground and hardly any new plot ground, but it keeps some of its predecessor’s charm.

The highlight is the return of exceedingly likable chimp scientists Cornelius (played by David Watson this time, not Roddy McDowell) and Zira (Hunter), who help Brent out and then, when the warlike gorillas plan to attack the humans, join a pacifist chimp protest. I am not sure the film’s war is a coherent commentary on Vietnam, but this allusion is still a nice touch. If you’ve ever wanted to hear a bunch of chimps yell “Gorilla brutality!” while gorillas on horseback drag them off of the road, this is the movie for you.

Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971)

Cornelius (Roddy McDowell again) and Zira (Hunter, one last time) travel back in time to the human-dominated 1970s and become celebrities. If that sounds awesome you’ll love this movie; if it doesn’t, what’s wrong with you? The conflict lies with the US government, who fear Zira’s unborn child will bring about the predicted downfall of man. Is it morally justified to kill an innocent child to save the species?

This movie also calls into question our attitude towards animals, specifically in the lab, more directly than the previous films. It’s not super sophisticated in this regard (the “friends” to animals work in zoos or the circus, espousing their love of beasts as they walk past tiny cages), but at least it raises the issue. And if that’s not enough for you, Zira gives a feminist speech at the Bay Area Women’s Club, right after a groovy montage in which she and Cornelius get a new wardrobe. And the score, the beautiful score, sounds like a parody of a 70s movie, but it’s the real thing! Incidentally, it’s probably the only Apes movie that can be described as “groovy.”

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972)

When dogs and cats all died in a plague in 1983, humans started using their fellow primates as pets. They discovered the great apes could be trained to do menial labor (cleaning, waiting tables, bartending, running errands), and by 1991 apes are essentially a slave class, kept subjugated by an escalating police state. This is to the chagrin of the human working classes (who want their jobs back), pro-animal advocates, and, of course, the apes themselves.

Caesar (in the voice of his father Cornelius, good ol’ Roddy McDowell), goes through ape training, and is hired by Governor Breck. The Governor’s assistant, MacDonald, is African-American and descended from slaves. In a surprisingly moving relationship, he feels some compassion for and even solidarity with Caesar. Meanwhile, Caesar (by far the smartest of the apes, thanks to his lineage) has been discreetly training his fellows in disobedience—and assembling a stockpile of weapons.

This film goes further than the previous in condemning human attitudes towards animals. The abuse of Caesar is not worse than the abuse of his non-speaking brethren; the only difference is that Caesar is able to do something about it. While this literal reading challenges our treatment of animals, the film is even more an allegory on race relations. There is the obvious parallel—slavery—to which MacDonald refers explicitly. And when the apes eventually rebel—and what a rebellion it is—the battle is modeled on the Watts race riots of 1965.

The movie’s other central moral debate is that of means and ends: can a violent revolution be justified? When is the time for battle, and when for mercy? Conquest isn’t perfect, but it is dauntless in using the magic of science fiction to weave intricate moral experiments—yet never sacrifices its entertainment value. This might be my favorite of the original sequels.

Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973)

Definitely the worst Apes film, I hate to report. Some years after the events of Conquest, most humans have destroyed themselves in war with the apes (apparently the human strategy was to nuke their own cities). Caesar (McDowell, once more) is the benevolent dictator of a surviving colony of apes and humans. But there is tension: here the humans are second-class citizens and the aggressive gorillas can be oppressive. Is it fair to hold all humans accountable for the sins of others?

Certainly the best part of the film is a pair of scientist/philosopher orangutans, who discuss everything from time travel to pacifism. They raise difficult questions about violence, punishment, and disarmament. Unfortunately, most of the film ignores these questions. (Apparently the lack of social commentary was part of a conscious choice to be more family-friendly after the rather dark Conquest.) Conflict arises when Caesar goes back into the wasted city to find more about his parents, and along the way runs into the forerunners of Beneath’s weird radioactive human survivors. The humans decide to go to war with the apes, Caesar wants to make peace, Aldo, the hawkish head gorilla, tries to take power, and there’s a big messy battle. It’s all fairly boring, lacking both the adventurous spirit and the social consciousness of its predecessors.

Planet of the Apes (2001)

I actually haven’t seen this movie in thirteen years, so I probably can’t comment too much. As an eight-year-old, I remember loving it and being inspired enough to buy the video game. I have a far more vivid memory of the video game than I do of the movie, because it was awful.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

Rise is—very loosely—a remake of Conquest. Instead of being trained as skilled pets, the apes are used for experiments. Specifically, Will (James Franco) is trying to develop a cure for Alzheimer’s, and performs tests on a female chimpanzee. That chimp’s son, Caesar (played via motion capture by Andy Serkis—not, alas, Roddy McDowell), becomes incredibly intelligent as an unintended result of the drug. If you can accept this premise, the movie is remarkably realistic; it’s the Apes movie that requires the least suspension of disbelief. It could easily have become ridiculous, but it never did. Even when apes fight a human police force, the action is staged in such a way that the outcome makes sense. My hat is off to director Rupert Wyatt.

The heart of this movie is Caesar’s journey. He starts out more chimp-like, but living among humans. Here his non-human side is what gives him personality and creates intrigue—he doesn’t quite fit in, but your heart goes out to him. For the second half of the movie, he lives among apes. In these scenes Caesar uses his intelligence to gain the respect of the other apes. Serkis dominates the screen, and you feel as if you are watching the emergence of humanity—but you are also being prepared for its downfall. Like Conquest, Rise is a story of rebellion, and the moment in which this Caesar consciously chooses defiance is, I believe, one of the greatest moments in cinematic history.

Wow this movie makes me so excited.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

If Rise retells the story of Conquest (1972), Dawn can be traced back to Battle (1973). But oh my god it’s so much better.

The Apes films are all very much products of their time, so it is useful to examine what changes have been made after four decades. We can start by comparing how humans died off. In the 60s, it was due to the bomb—straightforward aggression that made sense in the context of that time. Today, in a post-Cold War (but still quite aggressive) world, it is due to a disease that spread as an unintended consequence of scientific progress. I hope it’s not too absurd a leap to relate this to climate change, the unintended consequence of industrialization.

This metaphor holds up when we look at the plot. A group of human survivors in San Francisco venture into the surrounding wilderness to reactivate a dam; that is to say, they’re looking for an energy source. However, it is impossible to reach that energy source without disturbing the non-human world—in this case, a society of apes. The humans and apes form a tense truce, and the truce turns out to be, well, unsustainable.

This is mainly the story of the apes: the (relatively) peaceful Caesar (Serkis again), the embittered bonobo Koba (Tony Kebbel), and Caesar’s son Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston), who must choose whose path he wants to follow. Koba steals all of the movie’s best scenes, his scars an ever-present reminder of the destruction wrought by “human work.”

But the humans add a valuable dimension, too. Just like the apes, some of them are nice, and some of them are not so nice. The actual content of the movie just might be the bleakest of the series (which is saying something), but in its assessment of human nature it’s more optimistic than the1967 original. It gives us something to hold onto.

What comes after the Dawn? The film leaves the door open for a sequel—in fact, it’s already scheduled to come out on June 29, 2016. For my part, I’ll be eagerly awaiting it. (I also am predicting here that the title will progress from Rise to Dawn to Day of the Planet of the Apes.) The Planet of the Apes is a sci-fi series that, even in its worst installments, has never flinched from holding humans up to the microscope, analyzing our relationship to the environment, to our fellow primates, and, perhaps most of all, to each other. Most of that analysis hasn’t been pretty, but it’s never felt unnecessary. The series has spent forty-seven years reminding us not to get too high and mighty, because at the end of the day, we’re nothing more than talking apes.