Two years after the first Apes film devastated audiences with its twist-ending, another ship crash lands on the planet and we get another attempt at serious sci-fi mixed with social commentary. In this case, a new human astronaut played by James Franciscus tries to figure out what happened to Taylor and Nova after they rode off into the Forbidden Zone. He comes across a bizarre cult which worships a nuclear bomb. Naturally, a confrontation between these telepathic mutants and apes ensues, with our previous hero Charleton Heston setting off the admired A-bomb. Thus, the entire franchise was flash-fried, that is, until the next installment.
In the kind of movie move that only makes sense in cinema, three of the main monkeys from the first Apes films—Cornelius and Zira, and their pal Dr. Milo—manage to “escape” the destruction of Beneath and soon find themselves floating in the waters off Los Angeles. Once placed in a zoo, their abilities are eventually uncovered, resulting in the kind of comical handwringing that would come to dominate the post-modern sci-fi movement. Naturally, once the humans learn their fate, they decide that our time traveling visitors must be destroyed. It all leads to one of the most memorable endings in the entire series.
This impressive reboot did so many things right that we can forgive its one major flaw (the forced relationship between leads James Franco and Freida Pinto). A scientist creates an Alzheimer’s drug which makes its test subjects—in this case, apes—more like humans. Thus we have the birth of future hero Caesar, his education at the hands of his human friend, and the final act when our now intelligent simian rebels against his brutal ‘masters.’ While lacking the subtle shading that would come with the sequel, this still remains a stellar expression of man’s desire to play God and the nature-altering consequences of doing so.
Just like The Empire Strikes Back, this brilliant amalgamation of Rise‘s raison d’etra and the future of the franchise delivers both devastating future shock as well as smart human/animal byplay. After a disease decimates most of the planet, the last remnants of civilization struggle to survive. In the meantime, the apes have begun their own ‘society’ and are seeking ways to protect themselves from the hand of man. Naturally, when these worlds collide, there will be no winner. While some may feel manipulated by the movie’s “us vs. them” ideals, the overall effect is a masterful combination of science fiction and serious filmmaking.
Any list which doesn’t place this film at the very top is dealing with a fool’s perception of purpose. Without the original, without Charlton Heston’s amazing performance, the quotable dialogue, and that ending (a final shot which still sends shivers up the spine some 46 years later), we wouldn’t be praising Andy Serkis or Matt Reeves. No, what the first Apes effort did so fabulously is create a totally foreign world, make us believe in its mythology, and then pull the rug out from under us just as we thought we had things figured out. It’s a certified classis, a status the two new reboots have yet to truly earn.