Planet of the Apes (1968) When I think of the Apes series – the classic batch, that is, not the newer models – the first film is the only entry I can study as something apart from the rest. While all five fit together as more or less a cohesive whole, the latter films building their increasingly convoluted mythology on the foundation created here, the original is the one that also works spectacularly as a standalone piece. On this umpteenth reviewing, Taylor’s character arc, from nihilist to defender of humanity, struck me as more vivid and, upon the famous final scene, more devastating. Beyond the blunt political allegory, we have the story of a man who finds the hope he long ago lost, only to have it kicked away. That’s crushing stuff, and Heston’s energy lends the picture a much needed personal center. As for the rest of the film, it remains one of my favorite films and one of science fiction cinema’s greatest triumphs.
Metropolis Giorgio Moroder version (1927/1984) My memories of Giorgio Moroder’s MTV-esque reworking of Metropolis are hazy – I don’t recall seeing the film as a kid (even though the mix of old school sci-fi and modern pop music would’ve been right up my alley at that age), and most of my awareness of it over the next couple decades was little more than a notion of it being a kitschy relic. Now, however, I’m kicking myself for not having given it a chance sooner. Sure, the source material has been better served though various restorations, but there’s something about Moroder’s mash-up (from before the term was invented) that fascinates. It is, no doubt, a kitschy relic after all; you can’t have a movie with this much Bonnie Tyler and Jon Anderson without it becoming absurd (delightfully so, I might add). But the film’s frantic vision pushes us beyond Reagan-era cheese. By whittling Lang’s film down to its barest core (mostly by necessity, as at that point much of the movie’s cut material had not yet been found, but also by choice, as Moroder dumps the interstitials and uses subtitles instead, using a swifter pace to get to the story’s main beats more quickly), Moroder creates a fever dream which amplifies Lang’s visuals into something even more otherworldly than before. (The selective color tinting and creative use of still photos also enhances this effect.) The result is a strange chunk of post-disco insanity, a bold experiment remixing various artforms into something fresh and exciting.
Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970) Seventy percent embarrassing mess, thirty percent loony awesome. This first effort to expand the Apes universe spends too much time thinking inside the box: we get another square-jawed astronaut and an expanded look at the apes’ city and government, but neither is inspired. Meanwhile, the greater focus on the apes’ war culture as a commentary on Vietnam feels like it was tossed in halfheartedly out of some sort of “well, we need a metaphor, I guess” obligation (c’mon, the hippie ape protesters? the movie’s not even trying). But somewhere between the jumbled plot and the lowered production values (the masks on those ape extras, jeesh) we get a good chunk of balls-out weirdness. The film’s intentionally uneven editing in the early scenes draws us into the “where’s Taylor?” mystery and sets a solid off-putting tone; a tour through the underground New York ruins creates a certain eeriness; the very idea of cave dwelling, bomb-worshiping psychic mutants is bonkers in the best way. And, of course, there’s the bleakness of the whole damn thing, an anti-war screed that pits two violence-loving cultures against each other and denies them any redemption, refuses them any outcome but death. The fourth film gets heat for being too dark, but Beneath – especially its final minutes – out-dours them all. (Rated G! Bring the kids!)
Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971) It’s the idea that saved the franchise: rather than plow through yet another human-meets-apes yarn, Escape flips the concept by bringing the apes to our world. Sure, it’s an idea born entirely of necessity (the lower budget meant a limit on sets and makeup; the finale to Beneath put the mythology in a corner), but hot damn, does it ever work. We finally get a film that’s all about Zira and Cornelius, who’ve deserved center stage from the moment we met them. The early scenes are a total joy, especially with Kim Hunter letting her character shine. (The bit with Zira and the psychologist’s test never fails to win me over. Hunter’s perfect here, as she is throughout, delivering what’s arguably the best performance of the whole franchise.) Later, as the humans’ paranoia increases, we’re tossed into a brilliant, sharp thriller that doesn’t let the film’s position as the series’ most hopeful entry prevent it from shocking. As with the original Apes, Escape ranks among my favorite sci-fi flicks.
Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted (2012) Not sure why I went in expecting to enjoy Madagascar 3, considering my documented distaste for the first two films. Was it the mysterious presence of Noah Baumbach’s name in the credits? The admittedly clever teaser poster? A hope for less Sacha Baron Cohen and more penguins? Circus Afro? (It was Circus Afro, wasn’t it.) And yes, Europe’s Most Wanted is the best Madagascar movie, but that’s faint praise of the “Kardashian with the fewest abortions” variety. The bulk of the film is a total mess and appears to be the result of the filmmakers’ inability to pick a storyline, lazily mashing three options (“the animals go to Europe” vs. “the animals get chased by animal control” vs. “the animals join a circus”) together, often without bothering with logic or even interest. There’s not so much a plot as a checklist of mandatory kid flick story beats: somebody learns a lesson, somebody gets upset that somebody else fibbed, somebody overcomes a fear, somebody makes new friends, etc. There is no connecting fiber to link any of this; some of these points arrive with no workable set-up – they just happen, and to hell with making it work – and others arrive in full contradiction of what happened in previous scenes. But, out of nowhere, the film drops on us a truly spectacular sequence, a neon-lit circus montage that’s a marvel of abstract animation and visual delights reminiscent of the “pink elephants” sequence in Dumbo, only amped to an nth degree with 3D CG animation and Katy Perry music blasting at full volume. Never mind that some of these gorgeous abstractions are later lessened by a half-assed repeat later on; for a handful of minutes, Madagascar 3 becomes a legitimately great movie. There are some other solid moments sprinkled throughout – a nice character touch here, some funny voice work there, and, yes, one really good penguin joke – but it doesn’t last, and soon we’re back to crummy DreamWorks Animation filler fare, the kind I hope will be as easily forgotten as the first two films.