Warning: The Spoilers will damn you all to hell.
Star Wars gets all the credit for being the first major science-fiction movie franchise, segueing off into a plastic avalanche of every product imaginable from the ubiquitous toys to clothing, house wares, books, hygiene products, food, and so on and so on. First appearing a decade before George Lucas’s juggernaut, Planet of the Apes wasn’t quite as over-commercialized as its successor (what is?), but kids could still get their paws on a plethora of Apey action figures, mugs and bowls, t-shirts, comics, puzzles, piggy banks, Ben Cooper Halloween costumes, and so on. They could also get a healthy dose of harsh reality by actually watching the movies. Forget Darth Vader’s traumatizing revelation in The Empire Strikes Back and even all the skin-charring nastiness and off-screen “youngling” killing of Revenge of the Sith. The Planet of the Apes series is by far the darkest, downright cruelest film franchise ever pitched at kids.
A spoiler warning is barely necessary for the first film, since the quintessentially Rod Serling “it was earth all along” twist is so widely known. Much as it does with “I am your father,” that familiarity dilutes the trauma of realizing that the very real threat of global nuclear annihilation actually came to be in this alternate reality. No, this is not handled in as disturbing a manner as Fail-Safe, a straight faced Dr. Strangelove, or the brutally graphic British mockumentary The War Game. Yet for those who manage to come to Planet of the Apes fresh, it remains a potent and disturbing reveal that makes anything in the Dark Knight movies positively merry in comparison.
Moving beyond the superior original film, Taylor’s discovery regarding his Earth’s fate is a mere hors d’oeuvre to the dismaying courses that follow. Taylor’s rocket-mates are all dispatched in somewhat gruesome ways in the first film, but all of our major characters are allowed to live on. Most wouldn’t survive Beneath the Planet of the Apes, though. One gets the sense that the filmmakers were desperate to kill the burgeoning series with a film that off-handedly slays all of the human characters in the final minutes of a rather dull and depressing picture. It also puts a final period on the entire affair by reenacting the bomb-detonation that apparently made Earth go ape in the first place when Charlton Heston’s Taylor uses his dying energy to explode a nuclear device worshipped by a cult of telepathic freaks. Heston, who really didn’t want to return even for one sequel, was probably the only person happy to see his character come to such a brutal and cynical end.
Fortunately, the two most likable apes manage to use a refurbished rocket to escape with pal Dr. Milo right before Earth goes boom. Some sort of time warp sends them back to early-seventies Earth for the third installment made necessary by the confounding commercial success of Beneath. Escape from the Planet of the Apes is a much less dull and desultory creature than its predecessor. Like such great sequels as Bride of Frankenstein and The Mummy’s Hand before it, Escape fully embraces the camp potential of its talking ape premise by having Zira and Cornelius interact with old-fashioned human society, dressing up in the height of 1971 fashion, guzzling wine, and being genuinely cute and charming. Dr. Milo, however, is quickly killed off by a gorilla. Our two favorite apes are allowed to live to have their various contemporary adventures and make a little ape they name after their slain comrade. Things go wrong when a drugged Zira spills her guts about the inevitable devolution and enslavement of humankind. She, her husband, and her darling offspring end up on the hit list of one Dr. Hasslein. In an attempt to thwart the end of his own species, Hasslein shoots Zira and even more horrifically, the ape we believe to be baby Milo. The revelation that Zira switched her super-intelligent child with an ordinary baby chimp at Ricardo Montalban’s circus may make another sequel possible, but—Jesus Christ!—we’ve still seen a cute baby chimp get plugged in a largely good-humored movie marketed towards kids. Oh, and Cornelius gets murdered too.The deaths are played coldly, and despite the outlandish nature of the creatures in question, realistically. The melodramatic acting and music of similar genre films provides an emotional buffer. The ending of Escape from the Planet of the Apes, in contrast, makes me feel really bad.
And so follows Conquest of the Planet of the Apes with its wicked fascists, racial politics, riots, slavery, suicide, torture, and bloody revolution (in fact the original cut of Conquest was so intense that the revolted reaction of a test audience caused it to be reedited) and Battle for the Planet of the Apes with its—ahh, who cares? Isn’t there already enough evidence for how cruel that planet is?