Earlier this week, I wrote about one of the worst movies ever made, Congo. It’s actually just a single example of the many terrible movies involving apes and monkeys, which form a whole subcategory in the worst movies of all time canon. The group includes titles where actors wear gorilla suits as well as those where real chimps, orangutans or other primates are trained to play sports, drive cars, wear costumes of their own or provide comic relief in some other fashion. Thank goodness we have something like Rise of the Planet of the Apes and now its sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, to make us forget about the crap that’s come before it.
Yet there has also been a lot of great ape movies ahead of this rebooted Planet of the Apes series. Most of them are documentaries, but there are a number of fiction films and dramas based on true stories that ought to be recognized, to keep them in the spotlight while leaving stuff like Congo, Ed, Buddy, Link, Dunston Checks In and so many more in the shadows where they belong.
Of course, as this week’s big movie is a sequel to a reboot, it’s recommended that you also look back at the originals. At least the first Planet of the Apes and second sequel Escape From the Planet of the Apes and definitely not Tim Burton’s 2001 remake. Also, obviously Rise (obviously, right, but I went to see Dawn with someone who didn’t even know Rise existed and thought we were seeing a sequel to Burton’s movie). And let’s not forget the three short films that are meant to be watched between Rise and Dawn. Go take a look if you didn’t already.
Unlike most of our Movies to Watch posts, this one shouldn’t have many spoilers for the focal film. But it’s recommended that you see Dawn of the Planet of the Apes before reading further anyway.
Island of the Apes (2014)
This short VICE documentary is actually an official companion piece to Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, presented via Motherboard just as the Dawn prequel shorts were. It’s also being branded online under the names “The Real Planet of the Apes” and “The Lab Apes of Liberia,” but the name above is what shows up in the opening credits. Like Dawn, it involves a meeting of man and chimp in the latter’s secluded residence. The locals apparently mistakingly refer to it as “Monkey Island,” though chimps are of course not monkeys. The island is in the middle of the Farmington River south of Monrovia and was the site of a hepatitis research lab for decades, even through the Liberian civil wars.
Watch it here:
Gorillas in the Mist (1988)
Michael Apted, who is well known for his sociological study of humans through his Up documentaries, helmed this biopic of Dian Fossey (not to be confused with Jane Goodall — though she humorously gets that all the time). Sigourney Weaver plays the zoologist, who studied gorillas in the mountains of Rwanda, and she received an Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe win for the performance. Similar to the efforts in Liberia, Fossey’s own (much less cruel) research was hindered by military conflicts, but another kind of violent situation was far worse: her clash with local poachers. It was definitely more powerful when I was a kid, and the apes sure looked a lot more real back then too. But as far as these kinds of movies go these days, it’s a near masterpiece. Also recommended along with this drama are a National Geographic doc narrated by Weaver titled The Lost Film of Dian Fossey (watch that here), a Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom episode on Fossey (watch it here) and a more recent BBC special starring the actress called Gorillas Revisited, where she returns to the mountains to interact with the apes today (watch that here).
This acclaimed new documentary takes us to the same area where Fossey conducted her research and befriended gorillas last century, Africa’s Virunga National Park. Civil wars have continued to rip the Congo and Rwanda apart since Fossey’s death in 1985 and gorillas continue to be murdered, too. Add to that some new efforts by an international energy corporation to exploit resources in the region and multiple characters on different sides of the various environmental issues at play and it all builds to a narrative climax that our own Daniel Walber described, in his review for Nonfics, as feeling “more like a late-season episode of Game of Thrones than a sober documentary.”
Virunga has no official release date yet, but it will screen at the Traverse City Film Festival later this month.
Koko: A Talking Gorilla (1978)
Before becoming an Oscar-nominated director known for dramas like Reversal of Fortune and Single White Female, Barbet Schroeder made a couple of the best documentaries of the 1970s with General Idi Amin Dada and this film about a gorilla who became famous for learning a form of sign language and the scientist/trainer who taught it to her. Koko also could comprehend spoken English, but she’s never spoken it — mainly because gorilla vocal chords don’t allow for that. As far as I recall, no gorillas speak vocally either.
Every Which Way But Loose (1978)
A very different ape movie classic was released the same year as Koko. It nearly fits with a lot of the awful movies that exploit the animals for comedy, but it’s hard not to love Clyde the orangutan, who is played by Manis the orangutan starring opposite Clint Eastwood. Especially if you were turned onto him by Nick Frost’s impersonation in Shaun of the Dead. In Dawn, when the villainous bonobo Koba acts all goofy as a ruse to get his hands on a gun, that’s total Clyde behavior. Sadly, movies like this aren’t that great if you care deeply for the animals and their rights. While Manis wasn’t able to return for the sequel, Any Which Way You Can, because he was too old (yet not too old for Cannonball Run II I guess), his replacement was abused during production and died as a result of apparently stealing some donuts from catering.
Many would argue that life in captivity in a zoo isn’t much better for an orangutan. The intriguing idea behind this documentary from the French verite filmmaker Nicolas Philibert is that it’s all shots of the 40-year-old title ape and her son from the perspective of visitors to the small zoo of Jardin des Plantes in Paris. We watch the orangutans in their close quarters while hearing the humans, who are also staring at them, talk about what they think. If only documentaries could tell us what the apes think of the people, like a Hollywood movie can.
Max, Mon Amour (1986)
If there’s anything the new Planet of the Apes movies are lacking, it’s romance between human and chimp. Given all the women who became close — though maybe not that close — to apes in real life, it’s only reasonable that someone would make a fictional movie about a married woman who takes a chimpanzee lover. That someone would be cult Japanese director Nagisa Oshima (Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence), working with screenwriter, Jean-Claude Carriere, of Bunuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and That Obscure Object of Desire, as well as the similarly taboo-breaking Jonathan Glazer film Birth. And of course Charlotte Rampling is the human star, because of course she would be in a movie like this. As if the plot wasn’t enough to make it a great guilty pleasure, it’s also so awesomely ’80s.
Available on DVD
Project Nim (2011)
The best film of its year, this perfectly produced documentary by James Marsh (Man On Wire) tracks the story of Nim Chimpsky, another famous signing ape and one who seemed like he could have been the inspiration for Oshima’s movie given the relationship he had with his adopted family (seriously there’s almost a love triangle thing going on). Given that it came out the same year as Rise of the Planet of the Apes, together they were a perfect double feature. Both involve smart chimps who are brought into a normal home environment and treated like a family member only to later be turned over to a horrible life in a home more akin to a kennel. There was also parallels about experimentation on apes. Surprisingly, Nim never started a revolution and took over the planet from us despicable humans.
Project X (1987)
Not to be confused with the recent teen movie of the same name, this drama starring Matthew Broderick and Helen Hunt was even more obviously inspired by the Nim Chimpsky story. Here the signing ape is named Virgil and he doesn’t live in his teacher’s home. He does, however, similarly wind up involved in government experiments. He and other chimps are forced to perform flight simulations while being radiated in order to learn about nuclear bomb effects on pilots. Then, here’s where it becomes the link between Nim and Rise: the chimps revolt and ultimately go off into the woods and presumably begin the dawn of a new ape civilization. As in Dawn, the apes here are voiced by human actors, because real chimps don’t make emotional sounds the way they do in the movie.
The best documentary of all those about apes is Frederick Wiseman‘s Primate. The filmmaker took his observational eye and camera down to Atlanta to record the activity of the Yerkes Primate Research Center and present it as he saw it. We watch both apes and scientists and the title, of course, refers to the humans on screen, as well as the animals locked in the cages. As usual, Wiseman presents no overt commentary on what’s going on, and some animal rights activists might wish he did here, but the film has enough disturbing scenes that we in the audience are able to accept that what we’re seeing is wrong — regardless of whether the director agrees or not. Or, maybe we accept that it’s fine.
King Kong (1933)
This one may seem too famous to be among all these obscure docs and less celebrated fiction films, but even if it doesn’t do a great job depicting a realistic gorilla — no matter the size — it’s still an exciting and magical movie involving the most notable ape character of all time. And I fear that many young people are just watching the dumb Peter Jackson remake instead of the classic original. Also, Dawn has a climactic scene that I’m certain is a nod to the iconic one in King Kong, as it has all the ape characters up atop a tower high above the city — there San Francisco rather than New York. There’s a totally different kind of scope to it because those apes aren’t giants, and the conflict is very different (in King Kong there’s yet another romantic situation with a woman and an ape), but technically the setting is the same.
Bye Bye Monkey (1978)
Our third ape movie from 1978 is one that surprisingly isn’t more well-known. Also known as Ciao Maschio, it won a Grand Jury prize at Cannes, is directed by Marco Ferreri (The Big Feast), has a main cast consisting of Marcello Mastroianni, Gerard Depardieu, James Coco and Geraldine Fitzgerald and it’s, uh, sort of a sequel of sorts to the 1976 King Kong. Mastroianni’s character is just strolling along and arrives upon the dead giant ape, who has just been left sprawled out on the ground in front of the Twin Towers, and then finds a baby chimpanzee, presumably Kong’s son. Depardieu takes the chimp as his new little buddy. That’s maybe not the most bizarre thing about this movie, either. It just has to be seen to be believed.
Available on DVD