Ten years befor e Han Solo got his first poseable action figure, a very different sci-fi movie made shop tills sing. Released in 1968, Planet Of The Apes set a new benchmark for movie merchandising. Fox licensed everything from bubblegum trading cards to Cornelius water-pistols.
It spawned four sequels, two TV series, comic books, a nice-makeup- shame-about-the-ending Tim Burton remake (2001) and Rupert Wyatt’s new prequel/reboot (also included here, and reviewed in full on page 145).
It’s a franchise so unstoppable that not even Charlton Heston could destroy it in lame sequel/retread Beneath The Planet Of The Apes (1970) – despite detonating a nuclear bomb that kills (almost) everyone. What was it that made audiences go ape for the apes?
It may have lacked the epic, intergalactic sweep of Star Wars, but the Apes franchise outclassed it in terms of ideas. The original Planet Of The Apes plays as a veiled allegory of America’s civil rights struggle or a satire of white man’s hubris.
Escape From The Planet Of The Apes (1971) cleverly turns the original premise on its head with Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) and Zira (Kim Hunter) travelling back in time to ’70s Los Angeles. There they trigger events that lead to super-smart simians taking over the planet in last (and least) chapter Battle For The Planet Of The Apes (1973).
But it was Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes (1972), the third and best of the sequels, that decisively proved the franchise was more than just popcorn sci-fi. Its vision of a near-future California, where apes are made into household slaves and Caesar (McDowall again) leads an insurrection, daringly riffs on the 1965 Watts Riots.
As associate producer Mort Abrahams reveals in absorbing feature-length doc Behind The Planet Of The Apes, the filmmakers kept the movie’s secret to themselves. “Without ever saying it, we were doing a political film,” he admits. “At the time we were in Vietnam, the studio didn’t want political pictures.
” So they disguised the message – under fake primate fur. While Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes’ box-office kerching suggests the apes are still evolving, this is a satisfying story-so-far package. One that tackles big issues – racial politics, class war, religious fundamentalism, – with real zeal.