Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Battle for the Planet of the Apes

What I Knew Going In / What I Was Expecting

I've got practically no experience with the Planet of the Apes franchise.  I've only ever the Tim Burton version from 2001 and I barely remember anything about it besides the special effects being pretty good and the human actors being universally terrible.

I know the basic gist of it.  Well, I mean, yeah... it's in the title, sure.  But even beyond that, I get the basic point.  Apes became super intelligent once upon a time, rose up against humans, there was some kind of war, and then apes became the dominant species.  Later Charlton Heston somehow showed up in the future and I guess started leading a human rebellion of some sort.

That really just seems like a one-and-done premise.  I understand that the most recent movies in the franchise are prequels.  (Or maybe reboots implemented as prequels?)  That kinda makes sense... you see how the apes first became smart and how they took over.  But how do you get the half dozen movies (or however many there were) after Heston figures out he's on an Ape Planet?

It seems like it probably either gets really boring or really melodramatic.  Like in Part II, he joins a human resistance group and tries to fight against the ape army, and then in Part III he continues to fight them... but if they haven't won that war within a trilogy, who the hell could possibly care about Part IV?  What are you doing by then?  Developing new anti-ape technologies?  Do you just start focusing on in-fighting between your human rebels?  Is there some shitty love triangle?  Do they broker a peace treaty in Part III, and then Part IV is a gritty reboot where the treaty is ripped up and a new villain ape takes power?

My expectations are low.  I've done just enough research (i.e., read the words "final installment" in a plot summary and closed Firefox) to know that Battle for the Planet of the Apes is the last of the original run of movies.  Since it has "battle" in the title, I assume that whatever conflicts or alliances were seeded in the past movies will finally pay off now.

PS - I'm not a fan of primates.  Some people think monkeys and the like are inherently funny. I don't subscribe to that theory.

What the Movie's Actually About

Apparently this entire franchise takes place after a nuclear war that was meant to kill the apes.  We're given a quick refresher course on ape history, which includes a lot of footage of apes being processed in some kind of ape concentration camp / slave quarters.  Then we cut to present day in the post-apocalypse.

There's a peaceful forest town where apes and man live in terse harmony.  The apes, led by the kind and educated Caesar, attend classes taught by a human.  Caesar's son, Cornelius excels at his studies.  But the teacher is harangued by Aldo, a hot-head who hates humans and makes no secret of it.

One day, Caesar's assistant and best human friend, MacDonald, tells him that there's a video recording in the archives of a burned-out city (the "Forbidden City") left for him by his parents.  Who are his parents, why did they leave a message, how did MacDonald know about it, and why does any of it matter?  Damned if I know, but Caesar wants to go find it anyway.

So he gears up and investigates.  He finds the recording and starts to watch it, but then has to run away when some mutant humans led by the villain, Governor Kolp, come out of the debris and try to kill him.  Kolp declares war on the apes because what the hell else is he going to do with his spare time?

Caesar and Aldo butt heads about how to handle the humans from the Forbidden City, which eventually leads Aldo to plot a rebellion.  Through chance events, Aldo indirectly injures Cornelius, who is bedridden.

Aldo shoves all the humans in a pen, and then the city is attacked by Kolp.  The apes kill Kolp and his men, and then Aldo's going to slaughter all the other humans.  Then Caesar finds out that Aldo injured Cornelius, and Cornelius dies.  Caesar and Aldo fight, and Aldo dies.

Then Caesar releases the caged humans and promises to treat them as equals, and peace is finally attained.

What I Liked

The acting is a lot of fun.  I hesitate to call it "good," but it's of a uniform approach and has such conviction behind it that I can buy into the world easily.  Let's not mince words - everybody looks like an idiot in their ape costumes.  The only way a movie like this could even remotely work is if all the ape actors committed 100%, and they did.  So, chalk one up for Team Ape.

The set design is also great, particularly in the Forbidden City scenes.  It all adds up to a deeply immersive sense of atmosphere.  I have very little understanding of this universe, but it immediately felt "real" to me.  That's a great credit to the design team.

What I Didn't Like

Despite what I may have said above about immersion, the makeup is flat-out ridiculous.  I'm sure the prosthetics were groundbreaking at the time, but just like CGI from 1997, it looks embarrassing today.  Very little of the movie can be taken as seriously as it wants because every ape has a dumb overbite look as if they're still working on self-cognizance.

It's also kinda dull.  For a movie with "Battle" in its title, there's not a lot of action.  Not saying there has to be - but the first 40 minutes are this idyllic stroll through ape town, where there's not much going on besides the occasional heated word.

The story's so anemic at first that I couldn't even understand why I should have cared when Caesar first learned about the tapes from his parents.  They act like this reveal will change everything, but life is already pretty sweet... so who cares?  What exactly is the need for change?

The tension that does arise later seems to come out of the characters inherent ineptitude rather than any actual plot-driven conflict.  I guess that's one way to tell a story.  Just not a very interesting one.

Would I Recommend It?

I'm ambivalent.  It's mostly a snooze.  On the other hand, I kinda dug its energy.  It's also got that cool '70s aesthetic that everybody wishes they could replicate.  So if that sounds appealing and you don't mind a corny story, then sure, go nuts.

What I Think the Prequels Were About

My understanding is that this was the fifth one, and since they're only just now getting around to brokering peace between man and ape, I'm going to guess the series has a lot of padding.

Planet of the Apes - Charlton Heston is an astronaut who crash lands on what he believes to be an alien planet inhabited by super-intelligent apes, but then it turns out to be Earth. Since the whole thing was meant to just be an extra long Twilight Zone episode, there's not much plot.  It mostly involves Charlton Heston running away from his ape pursuers.

Planet of the Apes 2 - Heston is still on the run and joins a band of human freedom fighters who try to fight a rebellion against the apes. After much soul searching, he decides the humans aren't very nice and he doesn't want to be part of their gang.  He leaves just as they are swarmed by apes and killed.

Planet of the Apes 3, Which May or May Not Be Underground - This is the weird one that people try to pretend doesn't exist because it just gets more and more bizarre as it goes on.  It starts out with Heston still on the run, and then he finds a magical drug cave of some sort.  He goes exploring and finds the ruins of some major city - let's say New York - and runs into a bunch of mutants who live there.  As he goes deeper underground and learns more about their civilization, the story gets more surreal and nonsensical, and eventually you forget there's even any apes in it.  It has some 2001-styled ending that's left open to interpretation, and since Heston decided he didn't want to make any more Ape movies, nobody has any closure.

Planet of the Apes 4 - This one is a prequel and shows how the first super apes evolved. It ends with their uprising getting out of control, which leads to the war that bombed everything.  It's where all the archival footage used in Battle was taken from.

And since I haven't seen any of the latest reboots, either, my guess is they go like this:

Rise of the PotA - Caesar is the product of a genetic research project on apes, and he eventually organizes a rebellion and screams, "No more!" which leads a thousand geeks to say it over and over again for years to come.  It's a remake of Part 4 from the original series.

Dawn of the PotA - This is basically just a remake of Battle.

My Pitch for Another One

Pick up where the epilogue leaves off, 600 years after man and ape have learned to co-exist peacefully, and introduce super intelligent cow-people.

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