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With ‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,’ a franchise keeps evolving

‘Planet of the Apes” is not only one of film history’s few franchises to span four decades, but it’s also among the most enduring. All eight “Apes” films still feel relevant. After the first in this cautionary, man-versus-ape, time-bending science-fiction series was launched, in 1968, four more films were released in the 1970s. After a long silence, a remake arrived in 2001. Then, a decade later, the widely praised franchise reboot “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” was released.

Now “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” which opens Friday, continues the story of a smart-drugged chimpanzee named Caesar who leads an insurrection against his human captors just as a virus begins wiping out the human race. In this second installment, set 10 years later, Caesar’s nation of genetically evolved apes take on the human survivors of the pandemic. “It’s an ape world,” director Matt Reeves has said, “and we explore whether apes and humans can figure out a way to live together without violence.”

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“Planet of the Apes” has always embodied the era’s most haunting questions and fears about social change, what makes us human, and whether our future might descend into some twisted, primal — and primate-filled — past. How has the series evolved from Roddy McDowall struggling to speak through latex prosthetics to Andy Serkis’s astonishing motion-captured digital performance as Caesar? Here’s a look at the great-ape franchise’s greatest hits — and monkey business too.

ORIGINAL SERIES

20th Century Fox

PLANET OF THE APES (1968), directed by Franklin J. Schaffner

The series begins with misanthropic Taylor (Charlton Heston), who along with his shipmates has crash-landed on a distant desert planet after traveling through time to the year 3878. Before long, they’re captured by apes, whose Wild West-meets-“The Flintstones” society is divided into three simian classes: orangutans (aristocracy), gorillas (military), and chimpanzees (intellectuals). Humans are enslaved. Two of the chimps, Zira (Kim Hunter) and Cornelius (McDowall), befriend Taylor and help him and mute human Nova (Linda Harrison) escape. The trippy tribal score, composed by Jerry Goldsmith, and the surprise-laden script (co-written by Rod “The Twilight Zone” Serling) keep viewers unsettled until the bitter post-apocalyptic shock ending of a famous female figure up to its armpits in the sand. Many of the franchise’s major themes — critiques of religion and war; class and race prejudice; are we doomed to repeat the past? — are introduced here.

Best lines: “Take your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!” “It’s a mad house! A mad house!,” and “You maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell!” all delivered by Heston at his scenery-chewing best.

Most blatant appeal to the counterculture viewer: Taylor’s advice to a young chimp, “Never trust anybody over 30.”

Most absurd scene: Three orangutans at Taylor’s tribunal mimicking the “Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil” gestures.

Most chilling moments: After Taylor challenges Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans), “Doctor, would an ape make a human doll that talks?” the doll utters “Ma-ma. Ma-ma.” Equally creepy: when Taylor kisses Zira.

BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES (1970), directed by Ted Post

Time-traveling astronaut Brent is played by Heston look-alike James Franciscus, who also studied at the “Damn You!” School of Acting. After hooking up with Nova, Brent follows Taylor’s trail into an ancient, subterranean New York. He finds ruins of subway tunnels and Radio City Music Hall and also a cult of mutated, telepathic survivors worshiping a doomsday bomb. Meanwhile, back in Ape City, warmongering gorillas invade the mutant city. Reluctant to play Taylor again, Heston agreed upon the condition that his character get offed. The disquieting presence of nuclear annihilation almost makes up for Heston’s scant screen time.

Most scathing political critique: St. Patrick’s Cathedral filled with believers who chant, among other prayers, “Glory be to the Bomb, and to the Holy Fallout.”

Funniest line: Spoken by Zira as she tends Brent’s wound: “Just relax. . . . I’m a trained vet.”

Riskiest move: The nihilistic, world-gets-nuked ending.

ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES (1971), directed by Don Taylor

CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (1972), directed by J. Lee Thompson

BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES (1973), directed by J. Lee Thompson

Churned out at a rate of one per year, this trio decreases in quality, and production values, as the series progresses. “Escape” centers on Cornelius and Zira, who have used Taylor’s spaceship to travel by means of a time warp to 1973 Earth. First lauded as talking-ape celebrities, soon they’re seen as a threat and hunted down, but not before circus owner Ricardo Montalbán has sequestered their newborn chimp. “Conquest” is set 18 years later, in 1991, when the baby becomes the adult Caesar (also portrayed by Roddy McDowall). Society, ruled by a fascist state, uses apes as slave-pets. Caesar leads a bloody “gorilla war,” recalling the violent unrest of the Vietnam and civil rights era. “Battle” jumps to 2003, when Caesar-led apes and humans again live in semi-peace, until human survivors from another apocalypse raid Ape City. These films overtly raise pressing issues such as race relations and inequality, and critique the rising consumer and celebrity culture. But the writing and plotting become increasingly dreadful.

Coolest innovation “in the future”:
In 1991, telephones are cordless.

Biggest unresolved time-travel paradox: Caesar leads the uprising in 1991, thereby creating the planet of the apes, and the circumstances by which his parents, Cornelius and Zira, are intelligent in 3878, as well as his own birth, in 1973.

Best lines: From “Escape”: the “Ma-ma” uttered by the infant Caesar. From “Battle”: the crowd of apes chanting “Ape had killed ape! Ape had killed ape!”

Most racially charged exchange: From “Conquest”: MacDonald, a sympathetic human (and also a black

man): “How do you propose to gain this freedom?” Caesar: “You above everyone else should understand. We cannot be free until we have power.”

REMAKE

20th Century Fox

PLANET OF THE APES (2001), directed by Tim Burton

Captain, there’s not much positive to report from the surface of this planet. Mark Wahlberg is unconvincing as the time-traveling space explorer Leo, who slips through an electromagnetic wormhole to a world circa 5021. Inhabitants include nasty ape General Thade (Tim Roth) and kind chimp Ari (Helena Bonham Carter). Leo gets caught up in the conflict. The prosthetic effects, by Rick Baker, are outstanding, as is the score by Danny Elfman. The rest is a confusing, parallel-universe nightmare. Damn you, Tim Burton.

Best (or worst) references to original series: Charlton Heston as Thade’s father, his face hidden in ape makeup, utters, “Damn them! Damn them all to hell!” There’s also a “take your stinking hands” line barked by a gorilla, and a cameo by Linda Harrison.

Most groan-worthy moment: Leo ends up back on Earth, where the Lincoln Memorial is now a monument to General Thade.

REBOOT SERIES

20TH CENTURY FOX via AP

RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2011), directed by Rupert Wyatt

The series now shifts its concerns from time travel and social commentary about race and nuclear war to address animal rights, medical research, and the threat of viruses. Caesar (there’s that name again) is the son of a female chimp injected with an experimental Alzheimer’s cure. Scientist Will (James Franco) adopts him, but things go south as Caesar matures, busts his pals free from a primate shelter, and leads an ape revolt. The biggest credibility lapse of the original series — that apes should be super-athletic, but weren’t — is now handily fixed by digital effects. Caesar and his freedom fighters can leap and swing convincingly. Much more impressive than McDowall’s stooped-over monkey shuffle.

Most poignant moment: Caesar showing Will’s father (John Lithgow), who suffers from Alzheimer’s, how to correctly hold his utensils to eat.

Best reference to original series:
Early on, Caesar plays with a Statue of Liberty puzzle.

Worst references to original series:
A primate shelter worker chants “It’s a madhouse!” and yells at Caesar “Take your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!”

.   .   .

Back in 1972, the totalitarian governor in “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes” lamented that “There’s still an ape curled up inside of every man.” “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” and a final film slated for 2016 will keep grappling with existential questions about our species’ true nature. Where did we come from? Must we be brutes? Or can we find compassion for our fellow man and ape?

To be sure, our ethics and special effects have evolved since the 1960s and ’70s. It will be interesting to see how primitive today’s films might seem in three or four decades, as we head into the future. Which, as “Planet of the Apes” suggests, may as well be our past.

Ethan Gilsdorf can be reached at ethan
@ethangilsdorf.com.
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