DVD
Planet of the Apes
Ultimate Collector's Edition

Starring: Roddy McDowall, Charlton Heston, Ron Harper, James Naughton, Mark Wahlberg and Tim Roth
20th Century Fox
RRP: 149.99
3087401000
Certificate: 15
Available 03 April 2006


After travelling for centuries in suspended animation, a group of astronauts crash land on a mysterious planet. Searching for signs of life, they find themselves in a bizarre upside-down world in which talking simians rule and humans are treated like animals. Taylor and his crewmates will not be the last unlucky astronauts to find themselves trapped on the Planet of the Apes...

As Taylor (Charlton Heston) might have put it: They finally, really did it... The maniacs! They brought out a box set of all six Planet of the Apes movies and both television series, after releasing most of them individually and in a previous box set of the first five movies. God damn you, 20th Century Fox! God damn you all to hell!

OK, so the above paragraph is largely recycled from the introduction to my review of 2004's two-disc 35th-anniversary edition of Planet of the Apes, but since Fox has previously released most of the material in this novelty ape-head box set, that seems only fair. However, if you don't already own all the Apes movies on DVD, then this individually numbered limited-edition digistack is well worth adding to your collection, particularly the first film.

In the absence of a cinematic re-release, the stunning cinematography of the original Planet of the Apes, under the supervision of director Franklin J Schaffner, is best viewed on as large a television screen as possible, while the 5.1 soundtrack does justice to Jerry Goldsmith's innovative and memorable musical score. Listen out for instrumentation that mimics the sounds of the apes themselves.

John Chambers' special makeup effects, which won an honorary Oscar, have also stood the test of time across the entire initial movie series. Having to get by without the benefits of modern gimmicks such as animatronics or CGI, Chambers created inventive chimp, gorilla and orang-utan masks that allowed the actors a high degree of expression and performance.

If the first movie has a weakness, it is the hammy acting of its main star, but then I suppose this was necessary in order to divert the audience's attention from the scene-stealing apes. Heston truly chews the scenery as he yells out such borderline comical exclamations as: "It's a madhouse!" and "You cut out his brain, you bloody baboon!" But can we imagine any other actor pulling off that unforgettable line: "Get your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!"

Heston is ably supported by Roddy McDowall as Cornelius, Kim Hunter as Zira and Maurice Evans as Dr Zaius, all under heavy ape makeup. Linda Harrison, as the mute human savage Nova, manages to convey a range of emotions and intentions without ever uttering a word.

The script, by Michael Wilson and Rod Serling, based on the novel by Pierre Boulle, is rich with biting and satirical commentary on racism, animal rights and vivisection.

And talking of commentaries, this film has three of them. In the first audio commentary, Goldsmith discusses his incidental music. The second is cobbled together from interviews with makeup artist Chambers and actors McDowall, Hunter and Natalie Trundy. Rather annoyingly, there are lengthy gaps in the second commentary, which makes you wonder why more interview material, perhaps from other personnel, could not have been spliced in as well. There is also a dense and insightful text commentary by Eric Greene, author of Planet of the Apes as American Myth, which whizzes by so quickly that you might need to pause the movie in order to catch all the details.

The first sequel, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, is less coherent than its predecessor, but still has enough wit and charm to carry off its rather silly premise. Questions that the discerning viewer might raise include: where did the mutant humans get the latex for their masks from and, more importantly, why wear them at all? Also, the original movie was set in 3978, according to the chronometer in Taylor's spaceship, so why does Brent's (James Franciscus) chronometer read 3955? I theorise, since Escape from the Planet of the Apes agrees with the date given here, that Taylor's chronometer was inaccurate.

Despite its silliness, Beneath has a special place in my affections, because the true faces of those human mutants scared me to death as a child.

Heston returned in a reduced role as Taylor on the understanding that he would get killed off at the end of the film. And what better way to ensure that you can't come back than by blowing up the entire planet?

But how do you continue a successful movie franchise if you've destroyed its whole world? The answer is Escape from the Planet of the Apes, a truly charming reversal of the premise of the original movie.

Here the time-travelling Cornelius and Zira are the astronauts stranded in a strange land when they touch down in 1970s America. The clash of ape and contemporary human cultures provides humour that is similar to that of the subsequent Star Trek VI: The Voyage Home. By the end of the movie, though, matters have taken a more serious turn as bigotry and xenophobia rear their ugly heads to poignant and dramatic effect.

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes has a very different feel to its immediate predecessor. A dark allegory about race riots, this film is both brutal and bloody, and is the most adult of the Apes movies. Unfortunately, despite its strong central theme, the notions of the pet plague and the resultant ape training are never entirely convincing, and this sadly undermines an otherwise promising project. Conquest also looks and feels dated, but it manages to just about conquer its shortcomings.

Battle for the Planet of the Apes begins to set the scene for the development of the mutant human society seen in Beneath and sows the seeds for the reverse human/ape racism that we encountered in the first film. There's also the neat idea of a never-ending time loop in which Taylor arrives in the future, Earth is destroyed, Cornelius and Zira are propelled back to Taylor's time and start up the process of the rise of the apes all over again.

Unfortunately, due to budget restrictions, this is a meagre offering that looks more like a TV movie than a big-screen epic. For some reason, the mutants aren't even able to play back live-action clips from Escape (due to rights issues, perhaps?) - instead, static frames accompany the dialogue. There are more chronology concerns for the series as the mutants' records indicate that Cornelius and Zira came from 3950 rather than 3955 (but this can be attributed to a damaged recording). And Caesar's (Roddy McDowall) famous battle cry, "Fight like apes!" is spoiled by his lower-jaw ape appliance starting to fall off, revealing his own mouth underneath.

The saga could have accommodated one more instalment, showing the final descent of man and the ascent of ape culture, but it was not to be. However, we do get an element of this in the 1974 television series, which seems to be set in a transitional period during which humans are subjugated by apes but haven't yet become mute savages.

Confusingly, the opening episode, Escape from Tomorrow, contains dialogue that suggests the television series is set ten years after the first movie. Chief Councillor Zaius (Booth Colman) mentions astronauts arriving on the planet a decade ago. However, if that is so, then this must be some alternate future in which the Earth was not destroyed and in which humans never lost the power of speech (or rapidly regained it by following Taylor's example).

More likely, Zaius is referring to different spacemen. After all, the first two movies and both television series have each shown separate astronaut crews arriving on the planet, so who is to say that there cannot have been more of them? Alternatively, perhaps Zaius is aware of and concerned about the future arrival of Taylor, thanks to records dating back from Cornelius and Zira's time in the 1970s, but he speaks of astronauts in the recent past because he knows that the whole and complex truth would be less likely to be believed. The year shown on the ship's chronometer in this instance, 3085, indicates that we are about 900 years before the events of the first two movies and that Chief Councillor Zaius is a different character to the Dr Zaius seen in those movies, quite possibly an ancestor of his.

This time the astronauts in question are Alan Virdon (Ron Harper) and Peter Burke (James Naughton). Unlike the self-centred characters of Taylor, from the first two movies, and Leo Davidson (Mark Wahlberg), in Tim Burton's 2001 "re-imagining", Virdon and Burke are very likable characters, which means that you care about what happens to them from episode to episode. It's a shame this series got cancelled after 14 episodes and we never found out whether or not they managed to find a way back to their own time.

Harper and Naughton are ably supported by Roddy McDowall as yet another chimpanzee, Galen (presumably an ancestor of Cornelius or a descendent of Caesar). In many episodes the regulars are hounded by Spock's dad himself, Mark Lenard, who is splendidly villainous as the gorilla General Urko.

Despite the lack of a movie-sized budget, the Planet of the Apes television show manages to appear fairly glossy. The production values are aided by the crafty use of stock materials from the movies, such as the spacecraft prop and shots of Ape City, both used in Escape from Tomorrow. For the most part, the ape masks look as good as they did in the movies, though occasionally - especially during location scenes - Galen's mouth stays open as his lower jaw hangs down, and the chimp Dr Zoran's (David Sheiner) mouth isn't very mobile in the episode The Cure.

The quality of the presentation is fairly good, though the opening and closing of each act are prone to dirt and scratches on the film. The soundtrack is slightly out of synch during the opening act of The Tyrant.

The main reason for owning this box set (unless you really want an eerily realistic ape head staring at you from the shelf) is the 1975 animated series Return to the Planet of the Apes, which has never before been released on DVD.

Never mind Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes - this is the first "re-imagining" of the Apes franchise. Return comes closer to the technologically advanced apes of Pierre Boulle's original novel than any other screen version. It also draws inspiration from the first two movies (the lagoon site of the spaceship's splashdown, the character names of Cornelius, Zira, Zaius, Nova and Brent, and underground-dwelling mutant humans) and the live-action television series (the name General Urko and the fact that more than one of the astronauts survive).

This is certainly not the same planet that we have seen in previous productions, unless this is some alternate post-Battle version of the world, which was not destroyed in 3955 (the date given here is 3979) and in which the apes possess technology that is roughly equivalent to that of 20th-century humans. I suppose if the latter were true, then Nova (voiced by Claudette Nevins) and Urko (Henry Corden) could be descendents of the characters we have seen before. The Homo sapiens of this world are referred to as humanoids rather than humans.

Unfortunately, in other respects this series is less inspired. The production values are relatively poor, with reuse of backgrounds and lack of movement rendering the action dull and slow. The plots are further hampered by long sequences of repetitive actions or views with no dialogue. The train escape in the episode The Unearthly Prophecy and the balloon flight in Terror on Ice Mountain are notable offenders, both of which allow the viewer ample time to take a quick toilet break without having to pause the DVD!

The voice work is also rather monotonous and unemotional, particularly in the case of the human(oid) characters. In the actors' defence, they are seldom given good dialogue to work with - the astronauts (voiced by Nevins, Austin Stoker and Richard Blackburn) say, "What's going on?" quite a lot.

Even more disappointing is the quality of the transfers. The majority of the episodes are faded, unstable and covered in dirt and scratches. This is highlighted by the prints of River of Flames and Mission of Mercy, which are of almost pristine quality. When you consider the miracles that are currently being worked restoring old Doctor Who stories for DVD, Fox really should have tried to tidy up these episodes.

In its favour, Return to the Planet of the Apes offers a few moments of genuine wit and intelligence, such as when the apes discuss a movie called The Ape Father or the works of William Apespeare, and when an ancient parking meter announces, "TIME ELAPSED", echoing the fate of human civilisation as we know it. Also, unlike the animated Star Trek, or indeed most live-action shows at the time, there's a distinct running order to the series, with many episodes ending on a cliffhanger and/or building upon events from previous instalments. The final episode, Battle of the Titans, not only comes to a reasonable conclusion but is also a veritable continuity-fest.

Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes movie, though described as a "re-imagining" rather than merely a remake of the 1968 original, retains several notable elements. For example, the simian society seen here is a low-tech one akin to its late 1960s-early 70s counterpart, as opposed to the futuristic civilisation of Boulle's novel. The apes' favoured mode of transport is still horseback (incidentally, whereas the origins of the apes and the humans are explained, it is never revealed how horses came to be on the planet, which this time is not the Earth).

The 2001 movie also reprises certain iconic lines of dialogue from the 1968 film. In a couple of instances, the species of the speaker has been changed, and in one case the speaker is Charlton Heston himself, in a cameo appearance as the father of the villainous chimp General Thade (Tim Roth). Oh, the irony of the gun-loving Heston portraying a character who vehemently condemns such instruments of violence!

What differs significantly is the structure of the plot, which takes a major detour from that of the original film. Unlike Heston's astronaut, Mark Wahlberg's Davidson has no shipmates to fall by the wayside. He is a loner from the outset. The human slaves, including love interest Daena (Estella Warren), possess the power of speech, which enables them to function as characters, in ways that were simply not possible with the savages encountered by Taylor. Unfortunately, Davidson himself is a rather bland and unwilling hero compared to the defiant Taylor. The gorilla Attar's (Michael Clarke Duncan) change of heart is also rather abrupt.

It is no secret that the original film's shock ending, which itself deviated from Boulle's novel, has been replaced by a new twist. Though outrageous and apparently nonsensical, there are clues throughout the film that offer possible explanations for that final scene.

Production values have, of course, improved considerably since the '60s and '70s. No disrespect to Chambers' pioneering work, but Rick Baker has built upon these foundations admirably to allow the ape actors a fuller range of facial expression. Baker also ensures that each mask is unique and individual (as described in one of the behind-the-scenes features). To add to the effectiveness of the actors' transformations, they were also coached on how to reproduce realistic simian movements (which is the subject of a further, though slightly over-long, documentary).

Recent changes to our understanding of primate behaviour also influence the characterisation. Now we know that chimps are capable of great cruelty, hence the villainy of Thade, while gorillas, though formidable, are essentially peaceful creatures, hence the honourable Krull (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa).

Given the challenges posed by their roles, the primate performers are given greater opportunities to impress than the supposed leading man Wahlberg. Of the apes, Roth's Thade, Helena Bonham Carter's sympathetic human-rights campaigning chimp Ari, and Paul Giamatti's comical orang-utan Limbo are particularly impressive.

However, possibly the most remarkable transformation of all is that of Tim Burton. This film possesses surprisingly few of the offbeat qualities and none of the Gothic traits that are usually exhibited in his work. Despite the occasional quirky moment, such as the title sequence, an organ grinder with a human "monkey", Ari writing with her feet, and Limbo hanging upside down, this is probably the director's most mainstream movie to date. However, though it fails to eclipse the greatness of the original movie, it certainly isn't ape shit either!

The special features include two separate feature-length commentaries for Burton's Planet of the Apes by the (somewhat incoherent) director and the musician Danny Elfman. You can also watch the film in "enhanced viewing mode", which cues in additional behind-the-scenes footage at pertinent points, sometimes as inserts in the corner of the screen, sometimes by pausing the movie to play a full-frame featurette. I remain unconvinced about the usefulness of this mode, however. If you just want information, then you have to sit through sizeable chunks of the film to get to it. On the other hand, if you just want to enjoy the movie, you don't want the dialogue to be drowned out whenever an on-screen insert appears.

A further disc contains more than two hours of documentary footage about the most recent film - and that's not counting the various trailers and extended scenes, one of which adds a little heat to the "romance" between Ari and Leo. The interactive features include multi-angle views of the production of several key sequences, DVD-ROM features, and screen tests.

Yet another disc (previously released as part of the Planet of the Apes 35th-anniversary edition) offers various vintage promotional featurettes and trailers for the first five movies, plus behind-the-scenes looks at the making of Escape and Conquest. This disc also includes galleries of stills, concept drawings, movie posters (which are rather too small to fully appreciate) and merchandise.

The best feature of all is the two-hour documentary Behind the Planet of the Apes, even though it has previously been seen on television and was included in the five-movie box set and the 35th-anniversary special edition. Hosted by Roddy McDowall, this enlightening film takes us from the troubled genesis of the first movie, through its production, to the numerous sequels and television spin-offs. We learn some fascinating facts, such as the real social impact that the various ape makeups had on the interaction of the cast.

Some of the sources of the excerpts seen in Behind the Planet of the Apes are also presented in full on this disc. There is a ten-minute makeup test featuring Heston with Edward G Robinson as Dr Zaius, which was filmed in order to persuade reluctant backers that the movie would not look ridiculous. There are also 20 minutes of super-8 home movie material shot by McDowall, which includes an illuminating glimpse into the lengthy makeup process the actor had to undergo, plus a further 20 minutes of silent "dailies".

If you don't already own most of the stuff in this box set, then it's well worth getting your stinking paws on it! I give it a damn dirty...

Richard McGinlay

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