Planet of the Apes: No one could have imagined it would be a franchise 45 years in the future

Planet of the Apes: No one could have imagined it would be a franchise 45 years in the future

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A fellow fanboy and I went through a geeky phase in the 1980s, idolising movie make-up artists, specifically those working in the horror sector. We worshipped hairy American blokes like Rick Baker (the prosthetic pioneer behind the transformation scene in An American Werewolf in London), Rob Bottin (The Thing) and Tom Savini (Friday the 13th).

We also had a lot of time for veteran Dick Smith, who made Linda Blair’s head spin round in The Exorcist. But if anyone was the Guv’nor, it was John Chambers, whose genius could be conveyed in just four words: Planet of the Apes.

Chambers, who made prosthetic limbs for war veterans and created Mr Spock’s ears for Star Trek, built on the work of Jack Dawn in The Wizard of Oz, whose Cowardly Lion was both heavily made up and able to show emotion.

The result convinced 20th Century Fox to gamble $5 million on a pretty bleak sci-fi allegory that other studios had already passed on. And the decision paid them back handsomely: Planet of the Apes ran to four sequels over the next five years.

While extras in the first film (in which Charlton Heston was the human) wore moulded head-masks, the principal simians (Roddy McDowall, near right, and Kim Hunter among them) were glued into latex that allowed them to speak, act with their eyes and crinkle their noses. 

Although it took long hours in the make-up chair, the effort was worth it and Chambers, who spent most of the production training up other artists, was given an Honorary Academy Award for “outstanding make-up achievement” in 1969. (The best make-up category wasn’t introduced until 1982 – just in time to honour Rick Baker for American Werewolf.)

I don’t think anyone involved in the original Planet of the Apes imagined it would still be a franchise 45 years in the future, by which time it would have been both “re-imagined” by Tim Burton and “rebooted” by Rupert Wyatt.

To date, the Planet of the Apes features have grossed $926 million worldwide – and that doesn’t take into account all the comics, games and toys. Its durability may lie in its compelling storyline, which loops across the first five movies: the original, Beneath..., Escape from..., Conquest of... and Battle for the Planet of the Apes. The notion of Earth decimated in an atomic war was all too real in the Cold War era, as were the racial and class issues allegorised by the dominant apes and their human slaves. But without those incredible make-up designs – which were continued through the 1974 TV series – it wouldn’t have worked.

Roddy McDowall, who appeared in four of the films and the TV show, enjoyed an acting career that spanned seven decades. And yet he will always be best known for roles in which his face was almost completely obscured. His modern-day avatar is surely Andy Serkis, the expressive British actor whose performance as Gollum in the Lord of the Rings saga and the title role of King Kong made him the go-to casting choice for the new Caesar in the reboot, Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Again, the actor is unseen – but I guess he’s used to that.

Rise, whose story is effectively a biotech-themed update of Conquest, was a critical and commercial hit under the directorship of Wyatt. Rather than the upright, eloquently chatty apes of the first wave of films, its non-human stars are entirely fist-dragging simian. Indeed, some way in, Caesar’s first word (“No!”) is one of the points upon which the story pivots. The apes are slaves of vivisection, and we know that won’t end well.

The motion-capture effects, created by New Zealand’s all-conquering Weta Digital, are the 21st-century equivalent of Chambers’s ground-breaking latex originals. Interestingly, for Burton’s technically impressive 2001 remake of the first film, CGI was rejected in favour of a radically upgraded version of Chambers’s prosthetics – created by none other than our old hero Rick Baker, who had his actors, including Helena Bonham Carter, in the chair for four and a half hours. 

With the painstaking digital wizardry of the reboot, there is no longer any barrier to our suspension of disbelief. The rebellious apes look real, and the keenly observed performances of Serkis and co – shot on set and location – give them stunning three-dimensional purchase.

The original Planet of the Apes cost $5.8 million in 1968; the eighth, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, in cinemas now, cost $120 million. Now that’s what I call evolution. 

Rise of the Planet of the Apes is on tonight at 9:00pm on Channel 4. 

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is in cinemas from Thursday 17 July. 

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