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Planet of the Apes

"Planet of the Apes, The Evolution" on DVD

Classic Series Receives Loving DVD Treatment

20th Century Fox has pulled out all the stops with its boxed set of the "Planet of the Apes" series. Each of the five films has received the THX digital mastering treatment - and it shows - and they've also thrown in a very interesting two hour documentary on a separate disc.

Alas, while the films are in widescreen, they haven't been "enhanced for 16x9 TV's," so owners of that type of set will have to zoom the picture out to fill their screen - at an unfortunate loss of resolution.

"Planet of the Apes - the Evolution" is a very nice set. Each of the movies looks terrific in all its widescreen glory and the audio is also good, though the surround quality and surround channels are all over the map.

According to the documentary, Fox severely cut the budget for each subsequent film, which is a shame. However, it's a testament to the producers and directors that they managed to pull off reasonably epic stories on virtually shoestring budgets.

The series is based on the book "Monkey Planet" by French author Pierre Boulle, though his book actually took place on a planet orbiting the star Betelgeuse.

"Planet of the Apes" (112 minutes) caused a stir on its release in 1968, and not only for its outstanding ape makeup and terrific twist ending. As did Star Trek, it used science fiction to not only spin a good yarn, but to make more than its share of social commentary. Starring Charlton Heston as astronaut Taylor, it opened the series with a look at a world turned upside down, yet one that had a lot of the same problems our world did at the time - but in reverse. The excellent cast also includes Roddy McDowall and Kim Hunter as the chimpanzees Cornelius and Zira, Maurice Evans as Dr. Zaius, and newcomer Linda Harrison, who's perfectly cast as the primitive human who gives Taylor a chance to show some humanity.

There's more than its share of silliness, too. For example, when the three astronauts are searching for life that can sustain them on their new home, they discover a solitary plant growing in the middle of nowhere. Overcome with joy, they come over to the plant and DIG IT UP in a kind of worshipful ceremony. Huh? Later, during Taylor's trial, the ape tribunal resorts to the famous "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil" pose. This, according to the documentary "Behind the Planet of the Apes" (the sixth disc) was added after director Franklin J. Shaffner asked his peers what they thought about it.

Bad advice.

Anyway, the movie's a legitimate science fiction classic and it's nice to see a movie that has something to say. Too bad its liberal dogma hasn't stood the test of time. The DVD is in 2.35:1 widescreen, Dolby Digital 5.1, though you won't notice a lot of surround. Disc quality is excellent, though Fox has chosen a new type of packaging that holds the disc very securely (good!) - so securely you have to nearly bend it in half to get it out (bad!). Extras include a photo gallery and trailers for all the movies.

"Beneath the Planet of the Apes" (1970 - 100 min) saw astronaut Brent (James Fransiscus) arrive at the ape planet, searching for Taylor. He finds Nova, Taylor's primitive main squeeze from the first film, and gets her to take him to Taylor.

Well, as it turns out, Taylor has disappeared, so she takes Brent back to ape city, where they get help from Cornelius and Zira (Kim Hunter, reprising her role) in getting away. With an army of apes on his heels, on a mission to discover what's going on in the forbidden zone, Brent retraces Taylor's journey of discovery, stumbling into a mostly subterranean New York City.

The Big Apple is now populated by a race of human mutants (played by Jeff Corey, Paul Richards, Natalie Trundy, Victor Buono) who have superior mental powers but, other than one nuclear weapon, no other armaments. When the apes attack, they decide to unleash their weapon - which turns out to be a doomsday device capable of destroying all life on Earth.

Taylor (Heston in what's effectively a large cameo), manages to detonate the bomb and "Beneath" ends on the happy note of the Earth being destroyed. The 2.35:1 widescreen DVD looks great. The audio, which is billed as Dolby Surround, is okay. Extras include a photo gallery and trailers.

With "Escape from the Planet of the Apes" (1971, 98 min) the series took a big step backward - and forward. This movie was where the budget cutting really started to show, but fortunately it was also a kind of rebirth of the concept and, while the first two movies stand well together, Escape is really the first movie in a trilogy about the rise of ape culture.

Cornelius (Roddy McDowall again) and Zira (Hunter), and Milo (Sal Mineo), arrive on "present day" Earth in Taylor's space ship. Forget the leap of logic required to accept that technologically immature apes can mount a salvage operation in a distant lake and rebuild a space ship when they haven't even learned the internal combustion engine, once you're past that "Escape's" story is a good one that's full of wonderful "human" commentary.

Basically, the two surviving apes (Milo dies early in the film) are treated about as badly as the humans are treated by the ape civilization in the first two films. Things really hit the fan when Zira announces she's pregnant, sparking a wave of political panic that she'll give birth to a talking ape who could be the forerunner of the civilization that supplants humanity.

It's a downbeat ending, with a hopeful epilog, but on the whole it may be the most satisfying of all the sequels.

The DVD is in 2.35:1 widescreen, with mono sound, and audio/video are very good. There are really no extras besides the trailers and a web link.

It's a good thing producer Arthur P. Jacobs decided to have Zira's kid live at the end of "Escape," because he (played once again by Roddy McDowall), is the central character of the final two films. In "Conquest of the Planet of the Apes' (1972, 88 min.), all the world's cats and dogs have been wiped out by some plague and humans have had apes take their place. Apes being capable of so much more than just scratching the furniture or leaving messes on the carpet, however, they're quickly trained to be a race of slave workers.

Caesar (McDowall), who has always been treated well in his sheltered existence in Armando's (Ricardo Montalban) circus, revolts at the mistreatment of his race, eventually freeing the slaves and beginning the revolution that will see apes replace men as the dominant life form on planet Earth.

This is "War and Peace" shot for $1.98 but, as with the final film, director J. Lee Thompson ("Guns of Navarone") makes the most of his budget. The DVD is in 2.35:1 widescreen, with Dolby Surround audio (though there isn't much surround). Audio and video quality are very good. Extras are limited to the trailers and a web link.

"Battle for the Planet of the Apes" (1973, 86 min) is probably the most hopeful of the series, but it's also the one in which it's obvious they're running out of steam. Caesar (McDowall) and his colony of apes are establishing themselves in what once was the California countryside, not too far from the remains of nuclear war-ravaged Los Angeles

On the advice of one of his human "advisors" (read "slave"), he takes a party of three to the city to see if he can discover any information about his dead parents in the city's archives. Unfortunately, the city's inhabited by the forerunners of the mutants from movie 2, and they don't cotton to the apes being around.

Caesar and his companions fight their way out of the city, but the mutant army follows them back home and all hell breaks loose. Fortunately for the apes, and the "non-mutant" humans, the apes prevail and a new age is begun in which ape and human live side by side as equals, which ties things up in a nice and politically correct way. It also ignores the time travel paradox that would see apes from a future return to Earth and change the past, thereby wiping out their future existence (and therefore making it impossible for them to have come back to the past in the first place), but what's a time travel paradox anyway?

The DVD is also in 2.35:1 widescreen, with Dolby Surround ("pidgin surround") and audio/video quality are fine. The trailers and web link are the only extras.

The main extra for the boxed set is the documentary, hosted by the ubiquitous Roddy McDowall, which is a two hour look at the entire series, the TV series it spawned, and the many other ape-related stuff that's happened since the first film. The longest look is taken at the first movie, which is appropriate, and the whole documentary is very interesting and well worth seeing. It details everything from the selling of the concept, preproduction, the makeup design, casting, etc. There's no mention of an upcoming remake of the first film, but the documentary may have been made before the decision to do it all again was made.

The DVD, being from a TV show, is presented in full frame and Dolby Surround. Audio/video quality are fine. Extras include the trailers and a TV commercial for "Behind the Planet of the Apes."

This is really the ultimate Planet of the Apes collection and, though the average person will probably only really want the first movie in his collection, it's nice to see the whole shebang offered in one collection. 20th Century Fox has done a nice job with this set.

It's too bad they insisted, 'way back when they were making the movies, on the monkey business of cutting back the budgets each time. It really shows.


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Updated May 13, 2006