Wednesday 18 May 2022

All My Apes … Gone!

This blog post is supplemental to a series of blog posts examining past winners of the Best Dramatic Presentation Hugo Award. An introductory blog post is here.

For a $2.3-billion grossing science fiction franchise that has spawned nine movies, a popular toy line, a saturday morning cartoon, a prime-time drama, and some of the most enduring Simpsons gagsPlanet of the Apes has had shockingly little recognition at the biggest awards in the genre.
Though later movies would ape its style, the
original movie's cinematography stood out.
(Image via American Cinematographer)

To date, no entry in the entire franchise has been shortlisted for a single Hugo Award or Nebula Award. This seems odd since these awards have rarely shown reluctance to reward high-grossing dramatic presentations, and some of the Apes movies are genuinely quite excellent.

Pierre Boule’s novel, originally published in French in 1963 and translated into English by Xan Fielding later that same year, probably remains the high point of the Apes franchise. Enriched by a terrific narrative framing, it’s an almost poetic allegory about the horrors of how humans treat animals. Given that the author was already an Academy Award winner (for Bridge Over The River Kwai), and the fact that it received positive reviews in the press, it seems odd in retrospect that the book was overlooked by Hugo voters in 1964. We can only speculate that within fandom circles, it carried the stench of “mundane literature.”

The first movie — which was one of the top-grossing movies of 1968 — likewise seems a surprising omission from the Hugo Awards shortlist. It was nominated for two Academy Awards, on top of a special Oscar for makeup (which was not yet a category). It was a cultural phenomenon, moments of which continue to resonate in pop culture. Looking at it in retrospect, some of the pandering and broad comedy (“Don’t Trust Anyone Over 30,” for example), comes across as condescending for today’s audience. But the 1969 Hugo shortlist has one or two weaker entries (I.E. Yellow Submarine), so it’s worth asking why the movie was ignored.
As Camus has said, an ape begins by demanding
justice, and ends by wanting to wear a crown.
(Image via USA Today)

Sequels of diminishing quality (with the possible exception of Beneath the Planet of the Apes) are also easy to dismiss as Hugo contenders, as are both of the execrable television shows. But their existence and popularity in their day points to the enduring appeal of the original works in the series. It also points to how malleable and powerful a metaphor the Apes franchise is built around: a world dominated by Apes can be used as a tool to criticize animal testing, to examine the fatalism of Cold War military policy, to interrogate class struggles, and to comment on youth culture.

Although Tim Burton’s remake was a compellingly weird flop, recent movies directed by Rupert Wyatt and Matt Reeves (of The Batman fame) have been among the most thoughtful and nuanced action blockbusters of the past decade, and featured what may be Hugo-favourite Andy Serkis’ finest performances of all time. Despite their critical and commercial success, however, not one of them has earned a coveted spot on the Hugo or Bradbury Award ballots.

It’s interesting to speculate about why this might be. Does the failure of some early works in the franchise cast a long enough shadow to dismiss consideration for subsequent releases? Do Hugo voters get into the habit of sticking with one franchise over another when preparing their nominating ballots? Despite the franchise’s success and turn towards serious dramatic fare, do the jokes about the campiness of the original frame even the later works as unserious? Whatever the reason, it seems notable.

Few media franchises have, over the course of almost six decades, seen as much variability in quality as Planet of the Apes (sometimes varying wildly within the same film). Despite its success in the broader culture, this franchise seems to be unloved within fandom. Perhaps it’s worth reevaluating our relationship with it.


  1. I'm nostalgically fond of the first TV series (first from childhood, and then from the fun coverage by Continuum Drag). I've seen the first movie several times, and maybe 3 of the sequels? which have some memorable moments. I saw the reboot with Mark Wahlburg (eh), but none of the later ones -- I don't watch movies as much these days (I'd rather read or listen).

  2. I agree that Planet of the Apes has been shafted. The first one was great, the second was uneven but the third was terrific and the 4th and 5th were good too. I don't remember the tv series. But the Burton one was quite good with a funny Charleston Heston cameo and the sequels we're decent.