Monday, January 26, 2009

BOOK REVIEW: Timeline of the Planet of the Apes: The Definitive Unauthorized Chronology

Before Blu-Ray or HD, before DVD, before VHS, before - even - fandom as mainstream and acknowledged pop-culture phenomenon, the five-film cycle of Planet of the Apes film accomplished something utterly remarkable.

Today, following The Matrix (1999) and its sequels, not to mention Star Wars (1977) and its prequels/sequels, we might be tempted diminish that accomplishment or take it for granted.

But we shouldn't.

The Apes films - commencing in the late 1960s - forged a five movement saga, an interrelated epic sequence of films that, if watched "as a piece," formed a whole universe; a tale that loops around itself, connects, and turns beginning into end; end into new beginning.

The substance of this saga, of this unique "loop." stems from a concept called -- in the terminology of the films themselves -- a "Hasslein Curve," a fictional (so far...) theory about a spacecraft approaching light speed and the ensuing time dilation.

This theory permits a space craft (or crafts...) from the year 1972 to voyage to Earth in the year 3979 AD (or 3955). Said curve also permits the same ship -- this time populated by talking apes -- to make the reverse trip.

In Planet of the Apes then, a trip to the future...creates the past. And a trip to the past...makes the future. And in between those book-end space/time journeys is a pitched battle for dominion on Earth. A war for supremacy between man, simian and mutant.

Directed by Franklin Schaffner, Planet of the Apes (1968) as a standalone is my candidate for best science fiction film of all time (followed closely by 2001: A Space Odyssey). But taken together with its four sequels, Apes represents something perhaps even a greater: a complete "alternate" history/perspective of man's future. Some of the sequels are authentically great (Conquest of the Planet of the Apes), some are good enough to pass muster (Escape from the Planet of the Apes), some are flawed but remain intriguing (Beneath and Battle...). Yet each installment is necessary viewing in any attempt to understand the larger cycle. Each entry is more than the sum of its parts.

So here comes intrepid author Rich Handley, a skillful writer who first discovered the Apes movies as I did in my youth: on the 4:30 pm Movie, Channel 7, out of NYC in the mid 1970s. You can tell from a reading of Handley's foreword and introduction that the detailed alternate future history presented by the Apes franchise has consumed him since he first starting watching the movies.

I get it.

The gaps. The inconsistencies. The brilliant connections. The subtle reflections. The unique repetitions. Handley has worked out this obsession (an obsession, I share...) in his exhaustive new book, Timeline of the Planet of the Apes: a meticulous chronology of all the events featured in the Apes franchise.

And Handley hasn't limited himself to the films, either. On the contrary, the author has incorporated a wide array of filmic and literary sources and compiled all of them into one, amazing, gigantor timeline. You'll find here references to the movies, the live action series, the cartoon series, and comic stories both published and unpublished.

Even the derided Tim Burton re-imagination of 2001 is included. And Handley accounts for everything, down to the minutest detail, including the invention of the Internet and the ascent of bloggers in the early 1990s of the Apes universe. He doesn't miss a fact, a nuance, a connection, or even an inconsistency. When an inconsistency does arise (and there are plenty in the Apes universe), Handley does a good job of reconciling facts as he can, and explaining why he has selected the answer he has.

Now, some fans may quibble with just how (remarkably...) inclusive Handley's timeline is. The Burton film's events stick out like a sore thumb, because Mark Wahlberg's astronaut, Leo, would have had to grow up after a nuclear war and also following the ape rebellion, and that doesn't smell very plausible to me (which Handley himself, points out.)

But the principle of inclusion also means we get the benefit of Marvel's brilliant comic series, "Terror on the Planet of the Apes," so there's little cause for complaint. I grew up on those beloved Marvel comics, and the adventures of Jason, Alexander and Brutus (and the Gorilloids...) are as "real" to me as anything in the films or various TV series.

Lavishly illustrated with literally hundreds of instances of poster art, promotional materials and comic-book covers (not to mention DVD and VHS box art), Timeline of the Apes is 300-pages long (small-type) and packed from cover-to-cover with fascinating data -- concrete and insightfully extrapolated -- on the World of the Apes. The chronology itself is divided into twelve sub-headings. First is Pre-History of the Apes (Before 1972), which starts at One Billion BC (!) and then takes the reader from the origin of Genesis (1445 BC) to Darwin's writings (Origin of the Species and The Descent of Man in 1859 and 1871, respectively).


Part 2: "Genesis of the Lawgiver" (1972 - 1973) focuses on the launch of Taylor's (Charlton Heston) mission aboard ANSA spaceship Liberty 1, the time-dilation theories of scientist Otto Hasslein (Eric Braeden), and the return in November 1972 of Taylor's spaceship -- back from the future -- with three intelligent apes in the cockpit (Zira, Cornelius and Dr. Milo). Given everything that occurs in this span, the year from 1972-1973 (in this universe anyway...) may prove the most important -- and catastrophic -- in the long life of Planet Earth. The destinies of two races (man and ape) are decided right here.

Part 3: "Under Ape Management" (1974 - 1990) reveals a deadly plague's ascent in February of 1983, one that devastates Earth by killing all cats and dogs. A Pet Memorial is built, and soon mankind -- missing his furry friends -- begins to take apes as household pets. Before long, the apes become servants. Then, finally, slaves. In this chapter, Handley points out the interesting theory that the deadly plague was brought back by Zira and Cornelius a decade earlier...

Part 4: "The Beast, Man (1991-1992) details the Ape Revolution and the rise of Caesar, ape revolutionary.

On and on this continues, down the years, right up through Part 10: "The Beginning of the End" (3087 to 3977), which culminates with Taylor's detonation of the Alpha-Omega Bomb in ruined NYC, and the ensuing destruction of the Earth. Then, finally, there's Part 11: "Stranger on a Strange World" (After 3979), which is the chapter where most of the Burton-oriented material lands. What I found fascinating here was that some Apes authors (in comics and books) found a way to meaningfully (and relatively believably...) incorporate Thade and his universe into the canon universe of the earlier Apes productions. It never happened, but it could have happened. And somehow, that makes me appreciate Burton's film just a little bit more. Not much, but a bit. One of the things I so adamantly disliked about the Wahlberg movie was that it basically discarded the entire, interconnected universe of the original films for a standalone, relatively shallow separate universe. There was so much hubris in that decision to "reboot" a universe that was so beloved by so many.

Nothing is glossed over here. No fact is forgotten. Instead, through his exemplary attention to detail, Handley exposes the intriguing cleverness of the Apes narrative, as well as the subtleties of some inter-movie connections that you may have missed, or failed to examine closely.

Consider, for example, that the Planet of the Apes films begin with a chronometer registering the date of March 23, 2673 A.D. That chronometer is aboard Liberty 1, Taylor's spaceship. On that day, Taylor records a log entry about mankind. He wonders if man still makes war, still kills his brother for his brother's land. He wonders if man will ever change. He wonders if there's something better than man "out there."

Meanwhile, Battle for the Planet of the Apes -- the last film in the cycle -- ends on Earth in the year 2670 AD. This is approximately the same time Taylor is recording his thoughts. On Earth, ape and man are building the very future, Taylor is bound to discover, though here they have forged a tender, momentary peace. So Taylor is asking a question at the beginning of the film cycle as...ape and man live the answer at the end of the film cycle. So the Apes movies begin and end at almost exactly the same time period (2670 - 2673). Even though that beginning and end actually come five movies apart.

Timeline of the Planet of the Apes is an involving read. It's a labor of love and ultimately as involving and thought-provoking as the movies themselves. It's a perfect companion if you seek "the bigger picture" and the sweeping context of history in this bizarre, oft-revisited alternate world.

You can order the impressive Timeline of the Planet of the Apes here, from the cheekily-named Hasslein Books. I encourage all fans to -- by all means -- Go ape!

2 comments:

  1. Thanks so much, John, for your glowing review of my book. I can't tell you how much I appreciate reading such kind and enthusiastic words from someone who is obviously as fascinated (read: obsessed) by the mythos as I am. Long live The 4:30 Movie--may the faceless, spinning cameraman remain eternally faceless and spinning!

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  2. My sincere pleasure! The book is amazing. I'l treasure my copy. And when it's dog-eared from re-re-re-reading, I'll have to buy a second one!

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