Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Nostalgia Nugget: Trauma of the Planet of the Apes

Fair Warning: This little trip down memory lane is filled with SPOILERS to the entire Planet of the Apes series from the 1970s. If you want to avoid SPOILERS then avoid this blog until you’ve seen all the movies. Anyone left? Ok, lets go.

Ah the VHS face of
childhood trauma!
My grandmother and grandfather were fans of science fiction and action movies. They lived with us for a few years when I was young and I remember spending afternoons watching old episodes of Star Trek (the original series, this was before Next Generation). My grandmother actually got into Robotech, and wanted to see if Rick Hunter ended up with Lin or Lisa. These are the same grandparents that too me to see Ghostbusters and Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. So when the complete box set of all the Planetof the Apes films came out on VHS, it was a big event in our house. I’d never seen them before, but I was told they were sci-fi, just like Star Wars or Battle Beyond the Stars. How awesome was that? Because they had apes too, and every kid loves monkeys and gorillas. King Kong rules!

Little did I know the horrors that awaited me.

Let me be clear here. I’m a child of the 1980s. One of the reasons Robotech blew my mind as a kid was because main characters DIED! Actions had consequences. During war people got killed – innocent people. Sure stuff like that happened in Star Wars, but it was a very clean antiseptic violence. To me, Robotech was grim and gritty. Because what else was on TV at the time for kids my age: He-man, Inspector Gadget, Gummi Bears and The Smurfs. Sure you had the afterschool specials, but I always loved fantasy and sci-fi. I wanted weird and wild aliens, incredible adventures, not a bunch of annoying kids I tried to avoid at school talking about their problems.

So we sat down and watched the Planet of the Apes movies. And dear sweet Zeus – I had never seen anything like them before. These apes were serious, they were badass, and they were treating humans like animals. Yeah, they were cool looking and wielding guns, but I just wasn’t ready for the dark side here – especially the ending. It confused me, and when I asked my grandmother what it meant, she explained World War III destroyed everything. Well, that was too damn real. I mean this was the middle of the Reagan years, when we were all about to be blown away like War Games or invaded like Red Dawn. So that freaked me out.

But that was just the beginning of the terror.

So yeah, this isn't ape hell or anything, right?
Up next was Beneath the Planet of the Apes. Not only did this film feature radioactive mutants, but there was a giant ape statue crying blood, there was a huge nuclear bomb being sung too, and oh yeah the EARTH EXPLODES! To paraphrase the kid from The Princess Bride, “Jesus Grandpa, why the hell are you showing this stuff?”

"Mamma!" had me crying for my mother too!
Um... ok, that was vivid. But at least Escape from the Planet of Apes was filled with lighthearted fun antics with Cornelius and Zira interacting with wacky 70s people. Oh the hilarity. I always liked Cornelius and Zira, and it was fun to see them wander around the world of what looked like the old 1970s television series SWAT. Lots of laughs and then… they both get good and murdered. Up close footage, no cut always - just brutal death of two sweet and funny apes. Then to top off the light hearted romp, you get a close up of their baby getting shot repeatedly. The movie ends with a baby chimp saying “Mamma” - nightmare fuel right there. Not even a marathon of The Smurfs could save me now.

And here I was afraid the Russians were going to
bomb us off the planet. I should have been afraid of
the zoo.
And that’s a good thing because Conquest of the Planet of the Apes was up next. At this point I was pretty much done with the series. But for some reason I kept watching. I don’t remember if I was told things got better, or if they just assumed I liked watching all this grim death and destruction. Who knows? All I know is there is the guy from Fantasy Island (and Wrath of Khan too, which I loved). He was being nice to Caesar, and showing him this bizarre world. Then Khan is hauled to a secret lab and Caesar is sold into slavery. Khan falls out a window and dies (but I didn’t follow that at the time. I kept waiting for him to come back. I mean, this is Khan! Falling out a window couldn’t hurt him.) Caesar is treated like less than dirt, and then rises up. The ending is all fire, and violence and apes beating the living crap out of people while everything burns. HOLY SHIT! It was the end of the freakin’ world!

But don’t worry, there’s still Battle for the Planet of the Apes to endure. I don’t remember much about my impressions of this one. It was probably less traumatic then the previous films. I do remember the mutants in their bus as they cross the desert and the bizarre ending with the statue of Caesar crying. But that brought back memories of the giant lawgiver statue crying blood and I spiraled into a deep despair from which I never recovered. Even now I’m typing this from the fetal position in a small padded room chanting “Ape shall never kill ape” over and over again.

So yeah, nothing horrifying about this image...
Ok, so I exaggerate. But to be honest, after that initial viewing of those movies I didn’t revisit them for decades. Seriously. It was probably because I remembered them as being this endless circle of despair and horror from my childhood. Even though clear memories of story and characters faded over time, some of these images remained very vivid to me. So whenever someone motioned Planet of the Apes I instantly remembered Charlton Heston being tormented, the fallen Statue of Liberty, statues weeping blood, people singing to a bomb, Cornelius and Zira dead on the deck of a rusting ship, a baby chimp crying for his mother, apes killing people with flaming buildings all around them, and oh yeah… THE EARTH EXPLODING! Why the hell would I want to watch those movies again?

So yeah, I was a bit too young to really appreciate these movies when I first saw them. It wasn’t until fairly recently that I got around to watching Planet of the Apes again. It was all due to Jerry Goldsmith working on the score and many people claiming it one of his early triumphs. I wanted to hear it in the context of the film and so I forced myself to watch it again. I posted my thoughts on in a review, and kinda left it at that. Because in the back of my mind, I knew the other movies were out there waiting to pounce.

Old School Laserdisc covers! Gotta love em.
After reading John Kenneth Muir’s very interesting breakdown of the films in his book Science Fiction and Fantasy Films of the 1970s as well as watching Rise of the Planet of the Apes which a lot of reviewers compared to the 70s apes films, I figured it was time to dive back in and watch these. So I did a marathon viewing session over a week. They were actually pretty darn good movies. Some are better than others, sure. Yes, there was a bleak pessimism to the movies, but that fits the 1970s era of science fiction films. Overall it was interesting to see this franchise shift and adapt as it went along. Did I get over my childhood trauma? Well not sure about that. Escape from the Planet of the Apes is one hell of a sucker punch even when you know it is coming. But I have to say that I can see why some people (who were probably a bit older than me when they first saw them) love these films as much as they do. Some interesting ideas are explored and some interesting plots unfold. So I think I can look at the titles now without spiraling into an ape induced fugue state. That’s great news for me. Watching movies preserves mental health!

Now it’s time to watch Lost Highway again. 


  1. Great personal memories.

    I liked these films well enough, though none as much as the original. At 15 in the summer of '68, I had the smart-alecky nihilistic perspective of a teenager. Causality issues in the saga bothered me a little, but those are a feature of any story that includes backward time travel.

    Starting a couple years ago, chimps and gorillas have been included among the hominids by anthropologists. ("Hominins" is the current word for humans and their direct ancestors.) Are they anticipating a chimp Caesar?

    1. Yeah, I think if I had seen these at about age 15, I would have really liked them. But I was probably 9 or 10 at the time. I just wasn't used to that kind of storytelling. Completely blew me away. :) And yeah, some of the seams start to show in the scripts on all of these films. Facts seem to change from film to film, and there are just some odd choices made by the screenwriters. But at the very least the movies are interesting to watch and make you think.

      I didn't know about the reclassification. But it makes sense. I can't remember if it was a Doctor Who episode or if it was an independent sci-fi movie we were watching, but the alien kept calling the humans "Pink apes". It was kinda funny, and something we pretty much believe our cat uses when he thinks about us.

  2. Nightmare fuel--that made me laugh. I still enjoy the first two films of the franchise best, though I read not long ago that the second film doesn't have much to do with the continuity and, I know it had its problems, but can understand that assessment. But when I was younger returning to that crazy future world was something I enjoyed and loved getting to see the futuristic burned earth and the final reveal of the bomb worshiping mutants.

    The further sequels flew under my radar growing up for some reason, too busy or involved. I'm pretty sure if I had I'd known about them I would have gone to see them. My memory is bad, but I think I saw Beneath Planet otA by myself, but my brother might have been with me. It wasn't until much later that I caught the further sequels.

    Oddly, Escape was the one that was most well received by critics (so says Wiki)? But for me, it's the cheesiest one. Yes, it was fun to reverse the tables and see how the apes fared on Earth, and you're right, it's a long set up for the shock ending. Conquest was a bit more of the same, but I enjoyed Battle as it seemed like it was a return to form, and even had some mutants in it, yay! For some reason, when I was younger I liked them, and still do now. Guess there's a bit of Calvin (and Hobbs) in us all.

    At any rate, I've seen the first reboot, Rise, but not the newest addition, Dawn, and I'm wondering if they plan to include the mutants (of course, I hope they do--and they are more hideous that ever!). But yes, there's still a fascination there for the apes. The time travel stuff used to warp my mind when I was younger, ha, and still does at times. You had cool grandparents.

    1. Yeah, time travel is a tricky thing in most stories. It can end up opening up plot holes you never thought possible. And of course there will always be one internet reviewer (or more) who will call you on it. :)

      My grandparents were pretty cool! My grandmother was a huge Shatner fan. She love "T.J. Hooker" of all things! I also remember her loving 80s action films and Steven Segal movies. The only side effect was, she was convinced every neighborhood was filled with criminals just waiting to grab you. Whenever the sun got anywhere near the horizon, we had to come back inside. At the time, I really resented that. :)

  3. HA. Loved your relationship with the grandparents. Mine, who sadly passed away, was a huge ST:TOS fan and, like you, we watched many together. Very nice.

    And the way the world is in turmoil I wish we had a Ronald Reagan in charge right now. I know not popular to say but I'm done with these bananas. Have a great weekend Roman.

    1. Yeah all my early Star Trek related memories involve my grandparents and watching TOS in the afternoons, right before or after "The People's Court". I also vividly remember seeing "Star Trek III" with them, and being really happy that Spock was back, because he was my favorite character, and my Grandma telling me after the movie was over, "See he wasn't really dead." because I had been so disturbed by the end of "Wrath of Khan".