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'Dawn of Planet of the Apes' is one of franchise's best (Videos)

Friday - 7/11/2014, 9:38am  ET

APES.jpg
Apes defend their redwood home in "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes." (AP)

Clash of Civilizations

WTOP Film Critic Jason Fraley talks "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes."

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WASHINGTON -- Few science fiction franchises have been as successful, and as deeply thought provoking, as "The Planet of the Apes."

The 1968 original offered one of the great twist endings of all time, as astronaut George Taylor (Charlton Heston) saw a collapsed Statue of Liberty on the beach. The image brought him to his knees, as he realized he hadn't crash-landed on a faraway planet ruled by apes, but had instead spent the entire movie on future Earth, long after mankind had destroyed itself.

Hollywood's latest reboot series shows exactly how this happened, starting with the critically acclaimed and commercially successful "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" (2011) and now continuing with "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes," in theaters Friday.

Ladies and gentlemen, it's my pleasure to report that this franchise is in great hands. "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" rivals "X-Men: Days of Future Past" for the title of best summer blockbuster of the year, proving quality films can be made from franchise sequels.

We'll get to the review in a second, but like anything in life, you don't know where you're going, unless you know where you've been. Below is a refresher on the franchise's 10 installments. You probably don't have time to watch all of them, but you should at least watch the 1968 original and the 2011 reboot, though the latest installment works on its own as a standalone piece of riveting entertainment.

"The Planet of the Apes" (1968)

Two years before winning Best Picture for "Patton" (1970), Franklin J. Schaffner directed one of the great sci-fi flicks of all time with an adaptation of Pierre Boulle's novel "Planet of the Apes." The original remains the most important in the entire series with a powerful lead performance by Charlton Heston, memorable support by Roddy McDowall and Kim Hunter as chimpanzees Cornelius and Zira, groundbreaking prosthetics by John Chambers, a legendary score by Jerry Goldsmith voted No. 18 all-time by the American Film Institute, and a stellar screenplay by Rod Serling ("The Twilight Zone") and Michael Wilson ("Lawrence of Arabia," "Bridge on the River Kwai," "A Place in the Sun"). The writers not only offer the killer Statue of Liberty twist, they also offer the American Film Institute's No. 66 Movie Quote of All Time: "Get your stinkin' paws off me, you damn dirty ape!" Undisputed classic.

"Beneath the Planet of the Apes" (1970)

After the smash success of the original, producer Arthur P. Jacobs proved the material could work as a franchise by producing four sequels, starting with "Beneath the Planet of the Apes." Directed by Ted Post ("Hang 'Em High," "Magnum Force") and written by Paul Dehn ("Goldfinger," "Murder on the Orient Express"), the film follows a new lead, James Franciscus, who goes looking for Heston and discovers an underground city of mutated humans. Kim Hunter, Maurice Evans and Linda Harrison all returned from the original, while David Watson replaced Roddy McDowall as Cornelius.

"Escape from the Planet of the Apes" (1971)

After the mixed reaction to "Beneath the Planet of the Apes," fans of the original were glad to see Roddy McDowall return as Cornelius for the third installment, "Escape from the Planet of the Apes." Here, he and Zira (Kim Hunter) use Taylor's spacecraft to travel back in time to when the world was still run by humans. They discover answers to key questions regarding mankind's demise and the rise of the apes in their place. More importantly, this was the film that introduced Caesar as a baby.

"Conquest of the Planet of the Apes" (1972)

Directed by J. Lee Thompson, who earned an Oscar nomination for "The Guns of Navarone" (1961), "Conquest of the Planet of the Apes" is the most similar in plot to "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" (2011). Here, Roddy McDowall no longer plays Cornelius, but rather plays his son Caesar. The story is set in 1991, as humans have trained apes to perform household tasks and now use them as slave labor. After the death of his human foster father, Caesar leads a revolution to free the apes by teaching them to fight. It's safe to say that McDowall's Caesar laid the groundwork for Andy Serkis.

"Battle for the Planet of the Apes" (1973)

The fifth installment by producer Arthur P. Jacobs was billed as the final chapter. "Battle for the Planet of the Apes" was set in 2670 A.D. as Caesar (Roddy McDowall) tries to broker peace between the apes and humans, a similar plot to the latest film, "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" (2014). With narration by John Huston, "Battle" was featured in "Argo" (2012), as Ben Affleck watches it on TV and gets the idea to recruit "Apes" artist John Chambers to stage a fake sci-fi film in Iran.

TV's "Planet of the Apes" (1974)

In the franchise's first foray into television, the live-action "Planet of the Apes" TV series aired for 14 episodes on CBS in 1974. The series starred Roddy McDowall, Ron Harper, James Naughton, Mark Lenard, Booth Colman, John Hoyt and Jacqueline Scott.

TV's "Return to the Planet of the Apes" (1975)

A year after the live-action CBS series, NBC introduced a short-lived animated series called "Return to the Planet of the Apes." The show lasted just 13 episodes, but later aired in re- runs on the Sci Fi Channel. When this show left the air, the franchise was put on the shelf for another 26 years.

"Planet of the Apes" (2001)

Twenty-six years later, director Tim Burton dusted off the old franchise for a 2001 reboot, starring Mark Wahlberg ("Boogie Nights"), Tim Roth ("Pulp Fiction"), Helena Bonham Carter ("Fight Club"), Michael Clarke Duncan ("The Green Mile"), Paul Giamatti ("Sideways") and a cameo by Charlton Heston. The remake featured impressive costumes by Rick Baker ("An American Werewolf in London," Michael Jackson's "Thriller" video), Grammy-nominated music by composer Danny Elfman ("Batman," "Edward Scissorhands") and cinematography by Oscar-winner Philippe Rousselot ("A River Runs Through It"). However, the story garnered very mixed reviews with its far-fetched Lincoln Memorial twist, earning the infamous Razzie for "Worst Remake." The reboot attempt had failed.

"Rise of the Planet of the Apes" (2011)

After the lackluster reception of Tim Burton's "Planet of the Apes," 20th Century Fox shut down the franchise and decided to wait for another day. That day came ten years later with the new reboot "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," which was a hit both critically and commercially.

Director Rupert Wyatt ("The Escapist") explored the story's origins, as scientist Will Rodman (James Franco) tries saving his father (John Lithgow) from Alzheimer's in present day San Francisco. He develops the brain-regenerating chemical "Gyn-Sis" (a.k.a. Genesis) that's tested on monkeys, giving advanced intelligence to baby chimp Caesar. The role showed the continued talents of motion-capture guru Andy Serkis, who played Gollum in "The Lord of the Rings" and King Kong in the 2005 remake.

Serkis is utterly sympathetic as Caesar wages an ape revolution, freeing his fellow primates from zoo cages and saving others from scientific test labs, including the badly scarred Koba, who vows his revenge (this is important). The film climaxes as the apes charge across the Golden Gate Bridge, overcoming military firepower to safely form an ape colony among the giant redwood forest.

"Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" (2014)

Directed by Matt Reeves ("Let Me In"), the newest film picks up with the apes living peacefully in the redwood forest, which contains a coveted dam that could provide hydro-electric power for humans, who now stand on the verge of extinction due to a global virus.

As the humans venture into the forest, Caesar must prevent a clash of civilizations between his highly evolved ape species and the now endangered species of humans.

On the human side, Jason Clarke ("Zero Dark Thirty") trusts the apes, relating to Caesar as a father, while Gary Oldman ("The Dark Knight") wants them destroyed, screaming, "They're animals!" On the ape side, Caesar trusts the humans, due to his positive experience with Franco, while the vengeful Koba wants them annihilated, screaming, "Caesar love humans more than apes!"

The conflicting "hawk and dove" motivations -- on both sides of the fight -- provide a profound commentary on war and peace, even weaving in an Iraq War analogy with the coveted dam standing in for Iraqi oil fields. In this light, Caesar (Serkis) becomes a shining example of how world political leaders can lead with patience and understanding in a chaotic, morally complex time.

The deceptively profound film also hits themes of family, identity and animal cruelty. But perhaps the biggest thematic struggle is between "survival of the fittest" Darwinism and the dangers of playing God, with the Genesis chemical "Gyn-Sis" providing the missing link between apes and humans.

The thematic depth provides the perfect skeleton on which to hang the superficial splendor of visual effects. It's really quite remarkable how lifelike these motion-capture creatures have become.

Nitpickers may find flaw in a final battle that lasts a little long and leaves unanswered questions about the specifics of Clarke's fate, but make no mistake: this film is far better than the previous one.

The best comparison may be to Christopher Nolan's "Batman" reboot trilogy. "Batman Begins" (2005) was a strong origins story that hit the reset button on Tim Burton, whose stellar "Batman" (1989) grew stale in sequels. Likewise, "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" also hit the reset button on Burton, allowing us to forget his "Planet of the Apes" (2001) with a new origins story. Just as "The Dark Knight" (2008) topped "Batman Begins," "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" has now topped "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," leaving much anticipation for the third installment in 2016. Will it top "The Dark Knight Rises?"

In an age when Hollywood so often takes tired franchises and runs them into the ground, it's an absolute treat to see a film breathe new life into one of the best sci-fi franchises there ever was. After the Burton flop, the "Planet of the Apes" franchise was left for dead, locked into the cages of time, but "Rise" and "Dawn" have gloriously freed it. Rather than Heston collapsing in despair beneath a destroyed Statue of Liberty, audiences can stand and cheer this beautifully repaired franchise.

★ ★ ★ 1/2

The above rating is based on a 4-star scale. See where this film ranks in Jason's 2014 Movie Guide. Follow WTOP Film Critic Jason Fraley on Twitter @JFrayWTOP, read his blog The Film Spectrum, listen Friday mornings on 103.5 FM and see a full list of his stories on our "Fraley on Film" page.

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