Filed in: Featured, Makeup, Visual FX

Rise Of A Film Franchise

August 15, 2011 07:30 | By

Rise of The Planet of The Apes opened Aug. 5 to great reviews.

In the annals of film franchises, especially in the science-fiction, fantasy and horror genres, there is nary a worthy sequel deserving of the original film. Certainly films that are of one piece, such as the Lord of the Rings movies, are considered in a different light than, say, the Jaws, Superman or Aliens films, which were each created separately as a unique venture. In fact, in those three latter instances, while the original film was something of a genre masterpiece, the second film retained the action elements and little else from the original while the succeeding sequels devolved into poorer storytelling, poorer ideas and poorer use of the fantastical elements which made the original so thrilling.

In the case of Planet of the Apes, the first 1968 film was an undoubted icon, a science-fiction parable for the ages with groundbreaking elements in everything from score to settings, designs, visual effects, and John Chambers’ Oscar-winning special makeup effects, not to mention the shocking ending which has stood up for the 40+ years which had audiences of all walks, not just genre fans, spellbound. And surely enough, the second Apes film, Beneath the Planet of the Apes two years later, followed many of the successes of the first with cloned casting, makeup, stunts, settings and cinematography. Without an ending revelation to match the original, the filmmakers instead conjured a bizarre finale that came from nowhere and nearly derailed the movie. Escape from The Planet of the Apes followed a year later and was set in modern day Los Angeles, a surefire signpost that the flimmakers were either running out of money for the sequels, or wanted the third film quick and cheap. The fourth film, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, in 1972, redeemed the franchise by delving into the ascent of ape domination over mankind, set in a city of the future, actually the newly built Century City, just northeast of the 20th Century Fox Studios lot. Franchise mainstay Roddy McDowall brilliantly conceived his Caesar character in that film after appearing in the first and third films as Cornelius, one of the chimpanzees most sympathetic to humans (in Conquest he played Cornelius’ son). Alas, the final film in the original run, Battle for The Planet of the Apes in 1973 served its main purpose of ushering in the television series in 1974, which, not surprisingly, also starred McDowall as a new character, Galen. But after just 14 episodes, and a similarly short-lived cartoon series in 1975, the entire Apes franchise came to a close. Films and TV lay dormant for 25 years. Should it have been left alone?

Surely, if there is a franchise to be mined, the likelihood of a comeback has been high since the rise of corporate-dominated media, especially under the banner of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. Produced in 2000 for 20th Century Fox, Tim Burton‘s Planet of the Apes was a misconstrued project on many levels. A massive undertaking, its script, originated by William Broyles and re-written by Lawrence Conner and Mark Rosenthal (who also wrote numerous sequels and remakes in the 1980s and 1990s), poked fun at the series, not the best idea for the fans who had kept it going in the absence of new media. Characters in Rick Baker‘s complex makeups were augmented with awkward stunts and bizarre dialogue. Huge sets were not extended with visual effects. And the confounding ending angered audiences. This was not the Apes of your childhood. A Burton-helmed sequel or additional project never materialized.

Cut to ten years later when the Apes had new life thanks to producer Peter Chernin, who had once run Fox, and his unlikely deal to create a new Apes film. Thoughtfully, the Burton wreck was disregarded and the filmmakers started from scratch, which was a good thing. Instead of a pointless sequel or remake, the filmmakers delved into the past of the legend of the Apes, backing up to how mankind’s descent coincided with the rise of a sentient ape society. British director Rupert Wyatt was brought in on the strength of an independent crime film, and the decision was made to realize the ape characters with new visual effects techniques pioneered on the Peter Jackson films, the Lord of the Rings trilogy and King Kong (2005), and further honed on Avatar. Weta Digital in New Zealand had mastered the art of converting human performance into computer-based animation, using capture techniques for both bodily movements and nuanced facial expressions. This was not the clumsy computer-animation of many failed sci-fi films, but a revolution in translating the head-to-toe visual material delivered by real actors into polished computer-generated images. This Apes film had hope.

Wyatt and his team, many of them veterans of the Jackson films, have delivered a project that stands on its own as an accomplished piece of genre cinema, simultaneously filling the role of an Apes film worthy of the original. Screenwriters Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver have clearly used the lore of the original Apes films but have injected their own take on the demise of the human race which strangely parallels the rise of the great apes, namely chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans. The filmmakers have infused this story with requisite amount of surprises, suspense, action, but most of all cinematic ideas which harken back to 1968 without ever pandering to the original slate of movies. The Caesar who rises in this Apes film bears a resemblance in name only to the Caesar of the original films, with his origins being reinvented and repurposed. The many other verbal and visual references to the first films are scattered throughout this film, but what does it say about a new movie when the fun reminders of years past are merely incidental? Thus, in many ways a prequel, this Apes movie works on its own terms as a complete idea. Not content with just filling the role as another aspect of the franchise, this film offers new characters and situations, which provide reasoning for Caesar’s call to leadership and teases the future of other possible films with an ending that runs right through the end credits. The many superior scenes that have been brought to life here represent the best type of genre filmmaking and storytelling.

To divulge further plot details would serve to ruin the treats of Rise of the Planet of the Apes for viewers. Whether one is a previous Apes fans or not, this new film is bound to enthrall genre fans new and old and reinvigorate the world of Apes for a new generation. Should Wyatt, Weta, and the team return for more, the promises that this film suggests are likely to be fulfilled. With a Wizard of Oz film in the works at Disney, other such classic 20th century franchises might have new life again with the technologies available to filmmakers which till now were previously unthinkable.