Thursday, March 20, 2008

Apes Week Day 4: The only thing that counts in the end is power

Despite the highlights I discussed in previous posts, Beneath the Planet of the Apes has some serious weaknesses, and they all come from a failure of talent to meet the script's ambitions. One of the strengths of Planet of the Apes is that the creators clearly know their limitations and strengths: the ape make-up works best in moderation, special effects are kept to a minimum, and the outstanding sets are used to maximum advantage. Take, for example, the spaceship crash: the crash is shot subjectively, so that it appears that the audience is in the ship itself, and this is an effective technique that saves the cost and potential embarrassment of filming a difficult effects shot for the crash.

Unlike Planet's Franklin Schaffner, Beneath's Ted Post seems to lack the creativity to solve some of the script's more difficult visual problems, which exceed the technology available in 1970. Early in the film, the crowd scenes at General Ursus's rally demonstrate some bad creative choices. The apes who are not main characters look fake, with clearly low quality ape masks instead of the elabotate ape make-up. Planet, significantly, contains no crowd scenes like this.

This scene would be much more effective with fewer long and medium shots, especially fewer crowd reaction shots, and more closeups of those apes with the good make-up. We only need to hear the crowd cheering--we don't need to see it.

But I have to say, James Gregory sells the hell out of his performance as Ursus. As a kid, one of my favorite shows was Barney Miller, and I always enjoyed Gregory's cynical, sarcastic depiction of Inspector Luger. And, of course, his performance as the McCarthyesque senator in The Manchurian Candidate is not far from Ursus.

Other effects, like the Underdwellers' illusions and the matte paintings used to show the underground destruction of New York City, try to accomplish too much with too little, while the Statue of Liberty shot at the end of Planet, using a combination of miniatures and a matte painting, is just perfect in its simplicity. Even James Franciscus seems like a cheaper, smaller version of Heston, though I have to say he really sells the Underdwellers' psychic attacks in a way that can best be described as Shatneresque.

One place where they do get it right, though, is in the Underdwellers' make-up. When they pull their masks off to reveal their true faces, the effect is horrifying, largely because the make-up doesn't go too far over the top. Their hideous, but still recognizably human.

Paul Dehn, who wrote the screenplays for Beneath, Escape, and Conquest--and is given story credit on Battle--clearly learned from the excesses of Beneath and scaled things back for the next two movies. He also seems to have learned that one of the strengths of the first movie was its humor, and Escape takes on a satirical tone that's also in keeping with the Pierre Boulle novel.

Perhaps the humor goes a bit too far in this movie, as there is little action, but that humor is balanced out by a very dark ending. Escape's greatest strength, though, is the ideological shift it brings to the series. As commentor jon k noted in an earlier post:
One thing I find interesting about the movie series is how it starts off with the apes being the antagonists/bad guys (for the most part, Cornelius and Zira aside), but by the third one and beyond, they're the protagonists, and we're rooting for them! I particularly remember as a child watching "Conquest" on TV with my younger brothers and sisters, and we were cheering the apes to victory in their revolution!
The series takes us from prohuman to antihuman, and from anti-ape to pro-ape in a way that's quite remarkable and subversive, and Escape from the Planet of the Apes provides the hinge point on which that shift occurs.


Conquest of the Planet of the Apes continues the economical approach that Dehn establishes in the script for Escape, even though Conquest requires many crowded, ape-filled scenes, especially once the revolution starts. Veteran director J. Lee Thompson, who had made the original Cape Fear and The Guns of Navarone, makes the smart choice to film the revolution scenes at night in order to de-emphasize the ape-crowds' sizes, and he takes full advantage of a single Los Angeles location that looks sufficiently like a city of the future circa 1972.

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes is probably my second favorite of the series, following the original. I like how the implications of the ape-servant economy play out--there are benefits, like tipping waiters with raisins, but there is also a downside, including high unemployment for non-ape labor. The government, however, seems to be wholly focused on managing this ape-servant economy, which seems to make it a pretty inefficient system. And Roddy McDowell's performance, while good in two earlier movies, becomes outstanding as Caesar in this film. I feel strongly that McDowell was robbed by not being nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for this film. In fact, his performances throughout the entire franchise contribute significantly to its success.

I'll have more on Conquest in a later post. I also want to point out that the site I recently linked to--Rich Handley's Hasslein Curve: A Planet of the Apes Timeline--has undergone a change. The timeline is no longer on the site, and Rich has posted an announcement for a book version forthcoming this summer from Timeline Books. I found the web version of the timeline to be an informative, thoroughly researched, and very interesting resource, so I will definitely be getting that book when it comes out.

And here's a funny review from I Against Comics of the Power Records comic adaptation of Beneath the Planet of the Apes, including some interesting speculation on who the artist might be. I always thought it was either Nestor Redondo or Alfredo Alcala, though I'm less inclined to believe it's Alcala after comparing this to his Marvel adaptation of the same movie.

2 comments:

Joel Bryan said...

Hey- Thanks for the link and the nice comment about my review! I'm really enjoying all the Apes stuff here. I never get tired of those movies!

Awesome blog!

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