Will “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” Be the Best Even-Numbered Film in the Series?


Anyone wanna tell them “No”?

Today marked the premiere of the first full-length trailer for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the next entry in the apocalyptic series that’s so far been rebooted twice for theaters, this time with a bit more success. The new one comes from director Matt Reeves, who previously tinkered with disaster in Cloverfield; features MOCAP king Andy Serkis once again as Caesar, lord of the apes and probably their best public speaker; and includes human roles for the likes of The Gary Oldman, Fringe‘s Kirk Acevedo, and Jason Clarke, who was Zero Dark Thirty‘s friendly interrogator but seems much more stressed out here in this trailer than he was on the war front.

In a bit of lucky timing, this trailer lands not even a week after I finished watching the five original Apes movies for my very first time. I avoided them in my youth but picked up the Blu-ray set for a song at some point. I knew the original Planet was beloved, and I’m happy to side with the majority’s thumbs-up now, but I avoided reading reviews of the other four until I was finished. Curiously, a look-up of all seven existing films in the Rotten Tomatoes database yields the following Tomatometer ratings:

Planet of the Apes (1968); 89%. No argument from me. Granted, a bit of anti-religious satire in the apes’ loyalty to their version of the Word rankled my fur a little, but it’s not as heavy-handed as it could’ve been. The best part: now I know the complete context of decades’ worth of pop culture references, from the various bits in the Shocking Twist Ending™ to the “stinking paws” line to “It’s a madhouse! A madhouse!” to the entirety of that Simpsons episode with the catchy musical version. Now I get it. All of it. Such a relief.

Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970): 41%. The inevitably disappointing sequel with an imperfect Heston clone performing the same motions with inferior results, capped with a worst-case-scenario Cold War parable ending that would be fatally depressing if I hadn’t been so busy laughing at it.

Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971): 78%. Before JJ Abrams yanked Star Trek through a wrinkle in time, Roddy MacDowall and Kim Hunter pulled that trick first when their ape couple magically survives doomsday, time-travels back to the present, and accidentally becomes the very impetus for what makes their own existence possible. Beyond that bit of snarled time-travel logic, I kept marveling at how many times the characters kept making perfectly logical choices under their prevailing circumstances, instead of living out the idiot-plot clichés that weaken countless other sci-fi flicks from bygone days. Seriously, for the heroes and villains alike, it just kept happening: nearly everyone in the film had a brain and used it, even those whose motives clashed with those cheeky simian superstars. Sure, the ending is a heart-rending divergence from the lightness of the first hour, but that’s why it’s all the more tragic. I have no idea how much of a minority this makes me, but Escape is my favorite among the original five. (Call them the Primate Pentateuch, I guess.)

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972): 44%. That altered timeline continues, with half the movie devoted to showing us how apes are now mankind’s mistreated slaves. This goes on for about three hours of ape tasks, ape chores, ape abuse, ape learning experiments, condescension toward apes, and so on forever until every last audience member recognizes it for the ripped-from-the-headlines civil rights allegory that it is, and until everyone agrees to just get along with everyone else forever. Eventually there’s an ape apocalypse, one great scene with Hari Rhodes that succinctly nails the moral of the story, and — if you watched the “alternate ending” as I did — that disturbing climax in which MacDowall, now playing his own son, goes off the rails in a scenery-chewing psychotic episode meant to frighten the moviegoers until they either cry or march on Washington. The apparent underlying theme, that mankind is inherently evil and deserves to be oppressed, would explain why the theatrical ending softens the blow with a sliver of hopeful compromise by reversing one key death-by-lynch-mob scene. (Literally reversing, as one DVD featurette explains — the film runs forward, but then the same several frames of celluloid run backward and suddenly there’s mercy as the apes lift their weapons high instead of plunging them into human flesh.)

Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973): 38%. Once there was a time where studios slashed budgets for sequels instead of tripling them. It certainly shows here in the shoddy mask effects, claustrophobic settings, and very tiny armies. But there’s so much payoff for Apes geeks, assuming there was such a thing in the ’70s. The way is pointed toward a more optimistic future of coexistence, events slowly point toward the later films but hint at the possibility of a better alternate future, and someone sets us up the bomb that would be worshiped in Beneath. Claude Akins fits the role of a belligerent gorilla who never learned to read, MacDowall’s hyperintelligent eyes shoot nuances like daggers through his mask holes, and John Huston’s Lawgiver bookends everything with all the wisdom and gravitas the series deserved for its big wrap-up. Okay, so the underground humans and their ugly hats are goofy, but still.

Planet of the Apes (2001 reboot): 45%. And then came the least Tim Burton-y film of Tim Burton’s career. I’ve yet to summon the courage to revisit this one for my first time since I sat through the theatrical release, but my distant memories remain unpleasant and discouraging.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011 reboot): 82%. Streets ahead of what I expected, though I wish James Franco, Draco Malfoy, and the other humans could’ve held a candle to the vastly more expressive and three-dimensional CG apes, all paraded to victory by Andy Serkis in the splendid leading-ape role.

If we discard the low scores by the finicky judges on Battle, a surprising pattern emerges: the odd-numbered Apes films are the best ones. It’s a complete reversal of the Star Trek movie paradigm, where the even-numbered installments rule. I think this means the two series are now mortal enemies and should have a crossover movie someday where apes fight redshirts while Caesar and Captain Kirk try to subdue each other with male bluster and halting speeches.

Whether or not Dawn will fit that somewhat contrived pattern or transcend its destiny remains to be seen. We’ll discover the verdict for ourselves when it’s released here in the U.S. on July 11th. Until then, here’s the YouTube version of that new trailer I mentioned several hundred words ago. Enjoy!

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