Planet of the Apes: The prequel trilogy that defines the decade.
I might be going crazy, but I feel like maybe the Planet of the Apes prequel trilogy is the trilogy that defines the last decade. Firstly, they’re consistently good; each film builds on and expands the world of the last. It has a clear narrative that runs through all three, unfolding in an interesting and unexpected way, maintaining an engagement and a clear arc that moves forward with each movie telling both its own standalone tale and a part of the wider story.
If we were to say that a good trilogy is one that works both as a whole and as individual narratives, then the Planet of the Apes prequel trilogy ticks those boxes easily. I’m not going to claim that it’s my favorite modern trilogy, I’m not sure that it is, but there’s an argument to be made that it’s one of the most consistent. Not one of the films within it sticks out as obviously bad or lesser than the others and if I’m being totally honest when pushed to pick the one I prefer I struggle to decide. They all have aspects that I thoroughly enjoy, and so I kind of like them all in equal measure.
Of course, it’s not enough to point to the quality of the films as evidence of their decade-defining brilliant. So, let’s take a look at what one might consider a good story to include if it were to take up that mantle.
Firstly, and I think it’d be silly not to point this out, politics. What are the politics of the last decade? Well, divisive, racist, nationalist populism runs rampant across the globe (and yes, America’s recent ousting of a certain orange tantrum monster could very well be the nail in that coffin, but even so, it’s impossible not to acknowledge the impact this has had). There are some who might argue that this hateful political discourse is something of a last gasp for out-of-touch regressives, desperately trying to claw back some semblance of their old lives in a world that has moved on and left them behind.
If we take that idea as fact, then there is definitely an element of the Planet of the Apes prequel trilogy that deals directly with this face. Arguably every human character in the franchise struggles with their own irrelevance in a world that has grown beyond them. Some characters deal with this better than others, of course, but it’s hard to deny that this concept isn’t there. In many ways it’s an inability to accept one’s outdatedness that leads to the bulk of the drama across the three films, at least in one way or another, with a new world of ape-kind just on the horizon, most of the human characters – certainly the villains – are determined to make one final last-ditch effort to save themselves and bring the world back to how they believe it should be.
And within this growing populism that we find us dealing within the real world lay racism, a subject the Planet of the Apes has never shied away from tackling. The prequel films are no different in the sense, maintaining the series’ penchant for grandiose metaphors and allegorical storytelling. Interestingly, however, the prequel trilogy makes much use of its obvious parallels with real-world issues to drive home the divisiveness that this kind of hatred can bring upon a people. All three films see a resentment growing among the apes toward humans, but they themselves become broken and divided in their approach to them.
Likewise, the human characters find themselves often on the same path, with some arguing that togetherness is the way forward while others claiming that destruction and war is the right course of action. This sort of exploration is nothing new for the series, but it does take on a special significance when viewed through a more modern lens, and the prequel films make no attempts to hide the politics from the viewer.
I could, also, make note of the virus aspect, but that seems so on-the-nose (and would also have been a total accident in terms of the filmmaking intent) that it’s almost not worth it.
There is an element of this regressive thinking that draws from nostalgia. We live in a nostalgic time, and one only needs to look at the box office to see this. Star Wars is back, the biggest franchise on the planet is born from old comic book characters, and every movie from the 70s and 80s seems to be getting its own reboot, reimagining, retelling, spin-off, belated sequel, prequel, or remake. Of course, amongst that sits the Planet of the Apes prequels, themselves a sort of reboot of the franchise that ran initially from the late 60s through to the mid-70s.
It’s worth noting, however, that while the films do often make callbacks to the earlier movies’ more iconic moments, so too does it emphasize its own original story. These movies aren’t simply a retelling of what came before but rather a new, relevant tale built upon the foundations. In a way, the whole trilogy works as a sort of meta-take on cinema as it exists today. An existing property made new, reworked, and transformed into a modern piece of fiction. One might even say that with the prequel trilogy the Planet of the Apes franchise got “woke”, although that would be nonsense since the originals were already “woke” to begin with.
Finally, we have the technology. Perhaps one of the key factors in this growing reliance on nostalgia, and in the regressive sensibilities of many across the globe, is the alarming rate at which technology has evolved and become so interlinked with our daily lives. While the Planet of the Apes prequels may at first not seem to deal all that much with this kind of thing in terms of narrative, it’s what’s on the screen and not the story where it really counts.
An absolute masterclass in motion-capture technology and a stunningly realized celebration of CGI, the Planet of the Apes prequel trilogy features some of the most awe-inspiring and impressive visual effects ever committed to film. And no, this isn’t hyperbole, have you fucking seen Andy Serkis in these movies? It’s absolutely incredible, and the fact that they so often don’t get discussed when discussions around modern visual effects take place is, I think, more a testament to just how brilliant they are than it is anything to do with their failure.
We don’t think of the Planet of the Apes prequels as being bombastic, CGI-laden blockbusters because the visual effects are utilized so perfectly and so brilliantly within the narrative, and they are so expertly executed that we almost don’t notice. We may know that’s not a real ape on the screen, but it doesn’t take long before we forget that fact and are fully immersed in the world.
I’ve been rewatching these films recently for my podcast and I am just continuously blown away by them. They may not be the most original or the most impressive films of our time, but they certainly do seem to be the ones that capture so much of the last ten years. The first entry, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, was released in 2011, the third was released in 2017. Over the last decade, they have been a consistent source of quality, in terms of story, in terms of acting, and in terms of visuals. That we don’t talk about them more is a little weird. I think, in years to come when we look back at this last decade and try to describe just what it was like, you’d be hard-pressed to find a trilogy of films that so perfectly capture the mood, the feel, the look, and the abilities that were on display throughout.