Movies: Aping the success of a sci-fi classic
Early reviews of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes are suggesting it might just be the standout summer movie of 2014. The film, which opens here next Thursday, is a sequel to the excellent 2011 reboot Rise of the Planet of the Apes and part of a fitful movie, TV and comic franchise that began way back in 1968.
The classic original starred Charlton Heston as an astronaut who crash lands on a futuristic Earth in which apes have become the dominant species and mankind has been relegated to mumbling savagery. The new films are prequels that return to the present day to discover what went so horribly wrong.
In Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a young chimpanzee called Caesar whose intelligence has been enhanced by human drug experiments leads an uprising against the humans in San Francisco, unleashing a deadly virus in the process. And Dawn of the Planet of the Apes involves a simmering rivalry between Caesar's apes and a band of human survivors that soon leads to open war.
Made for a modest $90m (€66m), Rise of the Planet of the Apes was the surprise hit of summer 2011, earning almost $500m (€368m) at the box office, and the new film seems set for similar success. This is not the first time the franchise has been revived: in 2001 Tim Burton released a lavish remake of the 1968 film, starring Mark Wahlberg, Tim Roth and Helena Bonham Carter. It was handsome but dull and made the fatal mistake of taking all this nonsense too seriously.
The new films have a sense of humour, and they need it, because Planet of the Apes is one of the more bizarre and unlikely movie series – a hokey franchise based on a frankly bonkers French sci-fi novel that only happened because of the star power of Charlton Heston.
Heston died in 2008 and to younger audiences will mainly be remembered as the gun-toting public face of the National Rifle Association – and the butt of a rather nasty Michael Moore set-up in his film Bowling for Columbine.
But in his youth Heston was a liberal rather than a right-winger, a passionate activist who played a key role in the struggle for civil rights. He was also one of Hollywood's most charismatic leading men, and the star of epics such as Ben-Hur, The Ten Commandments and El Cid.
By 1967, his film career had reached a minor impasse. The great age of the epic, the genre with which he was indelibly associated, had come to an end because studios could no longer afford to make them. He was 45, going bald and desperately needed to reinvent himself.
He was not initially impressed when producer Arthur P Jacobs sent him a copy of Pierre Boulle's novel, Planet of the Apes. But though he didn't enjoy reading it, he soon realised the cinematic potential of the dystopian story. Jacobs had bought the film rights to the novel before Boulle had even finished it and carted the idea around the studios for several years before Richard Zanuck at 20th Century Fox decided to back it.
Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling was hired to write a script and produced dozens of complex and ambitious drafts. A lot of his ideas made it to the final picture, including Planet of the Apes' celebrated ending in which Heston's character, George Taylor, stumbles across the half-buried Statue of Liberty on a beach and realises that this nightmarish alien planet is actually Earth.
But Serling's scripts also included a technologically advanced ape society that would have necessitated expensive sets and special effects, so producers Jacobs and Zanuck opted for a more primitive world instead.
In this time before CGI, the problem of the apes themselves was brilliantly solved by make-up maestro John Chambers, who visited Los Angeles Zoo for days on end, studying the expressions of chimps and gorillas before employing techniques he had used on disfigured veterans during the Second World War to create subtle and stunningly lifelike ape masks. They were hell to wear, apparently, and Kim Hunter used to take a Valium each morning before she put hers on.
The movie was filmed largely on location against the splendid backdrops of the Colorado River and the Grand Canyon, and for Heston in particular it proved a tough shoot. Half-naked in the blazing Arizona sun for much of the shoot, he had to run through poison ivy bushes and had rubber rocks and other missiles thrown at him. He also came down with the flu.
A film about talking monkeys that cost a then exorbitant $6m to make was a huge risk for Fox, and Heston's presence was vital to its success. He certainly gave his all during the shoot, as we've seen, but he also had a big influence on the final film. The producers toyed with four possible endings, and it was Heston who insisted they go with the Statue of Liberty sequence.
Planet of the Apes was well received by the critics, and became one of the most financially successful films of 1968. John Chambers received an honorary Oscar for his work, and Heston had reinvented himself as an action hero.
Four sequels were knocked out between 1970 and 1973, but none were a patch on the first. Heston distanced himself from the franchise after making a brief appearance in Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970), and it was Roddy McDowall who became most associated with the series.
Basically, the idea was flogged to death in comics, toys and video games. But to the man who'd created it all, Pierre Boulle, the success of the franchise remained a mystery. So far as he was concerned, Planet of the Apes was the worst book he'd ever written, and he couldn't understand how it had been expanded into five films and God knows what else.
But daft as it was, Boulle's story managed to tap into deep and primordial human fears. And as anyone who's ever been to Dublin Zoo and stared into the eyes of a mountain gorilla will know, there's something about the close links between ourselves and the great apes that both fascinates and unsettles us.