January 28, 2020 Making Apes: The Artists Who Changed Film (Documentary Review)
Some films live and die on their looks. Some would argue 2009’s Avatar had a ho-hum plot, yet it became the highest-earning film at the world box office for a decade due to its new CGI trickery. Then there was 1977’s Star Wars which was sold on its snazzy character and spaceship designs rather than its straightforward hero story. Even 1941’s Citizen Kane, the go-to example of The Greatest Film Ever Made for the oldest of old-school film nerds, was more ground-breaking in its close-ups, riggings, matte paintings, etc., at the time.
Then there is the 1968 Planet of the Apes film. Its drama, quotes and twist ending were catchy enough to be referenced anywhere and everywhere. That is putting aside its four sequels, TV series, cartoon series, comics run, the 2001 remake, and the rebooted prequels from 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes to 2017’s War for the Planet of the Apes. Oh, and the original French book La Planète des Singes (or Monkey Planet) from 1963. Author Pierre Boulle sits alongside Ian Fleming (James Bond novels) and David Morrell (First Blood 1972) on the list of creators whose creations went beyond their control.
However, would the first film have caught on if, while retaining Director Franklin J Schaffner, Screenwriters Michael Wilson and Rod Serling, and all the lead actors from Charlton Heston onwards, it had cheaper makeup designs? It may have still become a cult classic, but it is hard to imagine it becoming a cultural phenomenon if the apes looked more like Ro-Man from the infamous 1953 flick Robot Monster. Which is where Making Apes: The Artists Who Changed Film comes in and it is set for release on VOD and Digital HD on Tuesday, January 28th via Gravitas Ventures.
A new documentary, Writer/Director William Conlin (The Inn Crowd series, AnimalZone series) examines how Thomas R. Burman (Invasion of the Body Snatchers 1978, Scrooged 1988), John Chambers (Planet of the Apes 1968, Blade Runner 1982) and their team created the designs for the 1968 film and changed Hollywood as a result. Conlin not only interviews Burman and the original team but the people they inspired, from Guillermo Del Toro (Hellboy 2004, Pan’s Labyrinth 2006) to Rick Baker (Men in Black 1997, Wolfman 2010) and more.
Not that it begins and ends with Planet of the Apes. The film starts off with a quick look at the makeup legends of yesteryear like Lon Chaney Sr. and Jack P. Pierce, along with cinematic makeup design, in general, up to the mid-1960s. Emphasis on ‘quick’ as it does not last too long- just long enough to set the scene as Chambers and Burman’s influences, trends at the time, etc. But then it delves right into the making of Planet of the Apes, with some curious design choices.
The documentary’s look is largely a straightforward talking-heads deal; appropriate stills and film clips cut between interviews with the likes of Baker, Del Toro, Leonard Maltin, etc. But there are also segments with actors as key figures- like Kevin Derkash playing Rod Serling- narrating their recollections of Apes over a scene of them working. Narration as performance is not an alien concept, yet it feels a little uncanny here.
Still, it helps mix things up beyond the typical formula. The film even has interviewees talking with each other, the off-screen director acting as a third party as, say, Burman talks about the design process to Del Toro. It keeps the film visually interesting without distracting from its subject matter, which has quirks of its own.
What seems like an hour and a half on latex prosthetics reveals layers of complication. It was not enough to make a prosthetic ape mask- Chambers and Burman had to make one that would allow the actors to emote through, rather than being a Halloween mask. Not only that, but Chambers did it by picking out team members who largely had not worked in prosthetics before. Then there was making enough of them for the entire cast without most of them falling apart in the kiln, and the trouble of wearing them.
The film does a good job detailing the struggle behind the scenes alongside the relief of it paying off. It adds blood to what could have been a dry subject matter, giving the audience a strong idea what the work was like, what Chambers was like as a person, and how striking the film was at the time of release. However, it has some issues.
Its biggest issue would be the pacing- it feels too quick. This is not a problem in the early goings, but eventually it finishes discussing Planet of the Apes, the makeup, the sequels and the TV series before the one-hour mark. There is little discussion on the work behind the follow-ups beyond quick facts and fan reactions. Even Chambers’ involvement in the CIA’s Argo project is dealt with in a few minutes. It almost finds its feet again after the one-hour mark, but interesting points like Burman’s work with Stan Winston and his falling-out (and reuniting) with Chambers are only brought up instead of discussed.
Ultimately, Making Apes: The Artists Who Changed Film starts off strong before its vision wavers. It tries to be part-makeup history, part general overview of the Planet of the Apes series, and it does not manage to make the two elements stick together the whole way. If it had stayed focused on the 1968 film, or on Chambers and Burman’s overall work with Planet of the Apes as a lead-in, it would have been a stronger picture. Instead, Making Apes: The Artists Who Changed Film has a solid 40-45 minutes, then it falls apart into a mess of trivia that the audience has to sift through to find gold. Thus, for these reasons, Cryptic Rock gives this film 3.5 out of 5 stars.