When sci-fi movies lean too heavily on a fantastic angle, they run the risk of burying story beneath cool visual effects and action sequences. That was an issue with 1968's Planet of the Apes. Despite its promising concept and classic status, it was a spectacle movie.
So in 2011, prior to the release of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, some audiences wondered if the movie would be a typical action blockbuster that had viewers shut their brains off for two hours and just follow the motions. Yet people went to watch it in droves, no doubt curious about what this new take on the old property had to offer. Having James Franco in the lead didn't hurt. People were curious to see what he'd do in a project that could have been too out there — even too ridiculous.
But the characters in Rise were interesting; the story was intriguing and, most importantly, relatable. Caesar and his clan weren't evil. They were just seen through the eyes of people who rejected and feared them. After the credits rolled, praise rang out for the movie.
Three years later, there was palpable excitement for the follow-up Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, evidenced by the movie's whopping $72.6 million domestic opening weekend. Audiences wanted to see the development of a story that had hooked them. They wanted to see more about the evolution of the apes and their takeover of the planet, and what was next for Caesar and his misunderstood clan.
There were still concerns. Would an emotional connection to the story persist as the franchise veered into heavier sci-fi territory, with monkeys posing heavy resistance for mankind and the war brewing on the horizon? As it turns out, yes. The film did have a gigantic war between humans and apes, but it moved into the planet of apes territory in a subtle way. It felt like a natural progression for the overarching plot.
By the end of the sequel, fans were fascinated and completely sold on the new take. As we've seen this year, the blockbuster landscape is no longer a secure place. Would-be tentpole hits aren't performing as expected, and in some cases are failing outright. But the new Planet of the Apes films have thrived. The two released so far have earned more than $1 billion globally. Such success seems improbable, but there's no great science behind it: The films gave audiences stories they could connect with.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes, with parallels to the real world and complex metaphors for tolerance and acceptance, showed audiences this new take on the franchise wasn't focused on turning a world taken over by talking apes into a typical popcorn flick. The apes were characters viewers could relate to, even love.
Now, seeing how this prequel trilogy leads up to the 1968 movie, both Rise and Dawn have planted the seeds for a bigger confrontation, but the transition to that stage has been a smooth and subtle one. Fans actually dread the day the monkeys completely lose their trust for humanity and go bananas on us.
That's not easy to do for a movie with talking apes. The franchise could have easily taken the path carved by its predecessor and shown us hyper-intelligent monkeys capturing humans and engaging in bloody fights. But it didn't do that.
These movies go for subtlety over spectacle, exploring the psychology behind the concept of the franchise and delving deep into the journey to get to the bleak situation presented in the 1968 movie. That trend continues in War for the Planet of the Apes, which will give audiences the sort of conclusion tentpole films rarely offer.