FILM REVIEW: FURIOUS 7 (2015)

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Dominic Toretto: I used to say I live my life a quarter mile at a time and I think that’s why we were brothers – because you did too. No matter where you are, whether it’s a quarter mile away or half way across the world. The most important thing in life will always be the people in this room, right here, right now. Salute mi familia. You’ll always be with me. And you’ll always be my brother.

Director: James Wan

Starring: Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson, Ludacris, Nathalie Emmanuel, Jordana Brewster, Jason Statham, Kurt Russell and Dwayne Johnson

Synopsis: After the death of a close ally, Dominic Toretto, brings his gang back together to seek revenge and also go on a worldwide mission to help the government get their hands on a new form of GPS tracking equipment that can trace anyone in the world.

Unfortunately franchise fatigue and tragic behind the scenes events weigh heavy on the seventh instalment of the Fast and Furious saga. It has been said again and again but it is quite the feat to have a b level action film from 2001 with no stars or credibility to go on to become a billion dollar franchise over ten years later. After the original The Fast and the Furious (2001) was a surprise hit and made street car racing popular the studio quickly went on to develop a sequel with the partnership of Vin Diesel’s stoic bad boy car racer, Dominic Toretto, and Paul Walker’s good boy charming undercover cop, Brian O’Conner to recapture the magic of the original. However Diesel didn’t want to be a part of it (believing he’d have a stronger career in more dramatic roles) so the studio went ahead and replaced him with Tyrese Gibson’s bad boy, Roman, who was essentially a more charming version of Toretto in 2003’s 2 Fast 2 Furious (great title). Then in 2006 Universal released The Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift, which essentially strayed away from the buddy cop genre conventions of the previous two and went with a new story revolving around a troubled youth who has to move to Japan and discovers car racing and drifting. The film was the least successful of the franchise but did introduce Sung Kan’s Han who would become a series regular. The film also ended with a surprise cameo from Vin Diesel tying the film to the franchise. Perhaps the most important asset the third film brought was the introduction of director Justin Lin who would go on to re-establish the franchise for the better. In 2009, Lin brought the original four back together with the reunion of Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Jordana Brewster and Michelle Rodriguez. It was a fun reunion and was a huge success at the box office showing that the franchise could live on. In 2011, Lin directed the best in the series with Fast Five, taking the gang on a wild heist and introducing Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson’s Hobbs a federal Marshall on the hunt for Toretto. Johnson brought swagger and charm to the role of Hobb’s and Lin brought breathtaking action sequences to new heights and the series was now a phenomenon. In 2013, Lin made his final bow with Fast Six, which was another action masterpiece with incredible set pieces. However Lin decided to leave the franchise when Universal wanted to rush production and have Furious Seven released a year later. James Wan, successful from horror hits such as Saw, Insidious and The Conjuring was brought in to complete the film. Wan a talented director wanted to explore an action film and things were on the way however only months into production, Paul Walker tragically passed away in a car crash. The film appeared to be over however with time away and further negotiations, Diesel and crew decided to complete the film as a tribute to Walker. With CGI, Walker’s brothers as stand ins and existing footage they were going to complete the scenes of Brian and also send him off with a farewell from the team/franchise.

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With Walker’s death changing everything the film suffers on two levels. One it is hard to watch Walker drive into death defying situations without feeling uncomfortable knowing he died in reality doing the same sort of thing. Also his later scenes feel clunky with him speaking on the phone filmed from his back or fighting Tony Jaa in the dark to obscure his face it shows that despite their noble efforts the filmmakers still couldn’t hide the fact that Brian was no longer played by Walker. Also the films narrative switches to accommodate his characters departure from the franchise. Although in previous films Brian partnered with Torreto’s sister, Mia (played by Jordana Brewster) and even had a child with her. Now he decides to leave the gang and live with her far away. The final scenes are an emotional tribute to Walker and Brian however after further thought his character could have had a stronger exit.

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Now for the rest of the film the gang is on two missions. One is to fight Jason Statham’s new character of Dereck Shaw, brother of Owen Shaw from Fast Six that was put into a coma by Torreto. As Torreto and his gang fight Shaw they meet a new ally in Kurt Russell’s Mr Nobody, a shady government agent who gets Torreto’s crew to work for him to find a GPS tracker which can find anyone in the world. Despite some great action scenes the films multiple plots are hard to keep track of and at 137 minutes of exploding cars, helicopters, city streets it all becomes a bit too much. Lin was better equipped at handling action scenes in FF 3 – 6 with slower panning and longer edits. Unfortunately Wan films his action in quick cuts and it is hard to keep up with the space of the characters, cars, helicopters, etc in most of the action scenes. Wan shows some impressive camera angles in the first fist fight between Johnson and Statham however as the film moves on to car chases and explosions Wan suffers under the pressure to top the last films action creativity.

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With a confusing plot and action scenes with jarring quick cuts unfortunately Furious Seven ends up being one of the least enjoyable in the franchise. The film isn’t terrible with a moving tribute to Walker and a few enjoyable action scenes. It is disappointing as the previous entries have set the bar extremely high. Only Dwayne Johnson’s Hobbs saves the film with a bit of humour but he is also taken out far too quickly in the opening scenes of the film.

Rating: 2 Stars

Ranking of the Fast and Furious Franchise.

1. Fast Five (2011)
2. Fast Six (2013)
3. The Fast and the Furious (2001)
4. Fast & Furious (2004)
5. Furious Seven (2015)
6. 2 Fast 2 Furious (2003)
7. The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006)

REVIEW: DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2014)

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Koba: Caesar weak!
Caesar: Koba weaker.

Director: Matt Reeves

Starring: Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Toby Kebbell, Keri Russell, Kodi Smit-McPhee and Gary Oldman

Synopsis: In a dystopian future where genetically advanced Apes now rule the earth, Ape leader Caesar struggles with keeping the peace when a band of human survivors seek shelter and help from the apes.

The last entry into the Planet of the Apes series (for now) which is a direct sequel to 2011’s reboot Rise of the Planet of the Apes, as we follow the aftermath of the events from that film. Mankind has fallen due to the virus which Will Rodman (James Franco) developed in Rise. This film is set ten years after the events of Rise and is essentially a remake of 1973’s Battle for the Planet of the Apes (which is a direct sequel to 1972’s Conquest of the Planet of the Apes which was also remade into 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Make sense??) However whether you are a fan of the series or if this is your first ape film to see you will definitely be impressed with this epic tale filled with parallels to Shakespeare’s classic Julius Caesar, as well as modern news headlines including threatening viruses, terrorism, politics, global warming, fear of technology all wrapped up in a sci-fi cgi heavy blockbuster.

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Andy Serkis reprises his role of Caesar from Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Caesar now leads his ape community with his right hand man Koba (played by Toby Kebbell) and Maurice (played by Karin Konoval). In the opening sequence he leads his army into an attack on some deer. This sequence is breathtaking as the camera and sound follow Caesar and his apes into the forest. No dialogue only subtitles showing their communication highlight the sounds of the forest and its slow build-up of suspense and foreboding. The cgi is once again top knotch the geniuses at Weta have again sculpted living, breathing apes with actors portraying them through performance capture technology. Andy Serkis has already become a master in this medium with his iconic performance as Gollum in the Lord of the Rings series however who truly shines in this instalment is Toby Kebbell as the tortured Koba who hates all humans and begins to disagree with his leaders outlook. It is an iconic performance and is easily the best villain of 2014.

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After the opening deer chase a group of humans lead by Malcolm (played by Jason Clarke) cross paths with the apes and seek help in order to bring back electric power to their small community of survivors. Caesar begins to remember the human who helped him as a child and helps out the group of humans in an effort to work and live together in peace. However with all great stories the search for peace isn’t easy and with man and animals nature peace can only exist in short bursts of time. Soon Koba plots to get rid of the humans despite his leaders frame of mind. What ensues is an action packed final battle between the humans and apes.

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This film is brilliant, strong plot, characters, set design, special effects, sound design/soundtrack and direction. It is not an ordinary blockbuster and although previous ape entries have been parallels to our current time this one really gets all the beats right. This is very high on the list of best films of 2014 and also very high on the list of Planet of the Apes films. Strong recommend.

Rating: 4.5 Stars

REVIEW: RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2011)

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Maurice: Hurt bad?
Caesar: You know sign?
Maurice: Circus orangutan.
Maurice: Careful. Humans don’t like smart ape.

Director: Rupert Wyatt

Synopsis: A scientist testing a new drug to cure alzheimer’s uses apes as test subjects. The drug works and one ape named Caesar begins to grow more intelligent…

After 2001’s reboot directed by Tim Burton bombed critically and financially ten years later Fox decided to do another reboot. Only this time they moved away from remaking Planet of the Apes (1968) and made a hybrid prequel/remake of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972). The one thing that differentiated it from the franchise (and had fanboys quite worried) was the fact that all of the apes would be completely CGI and not men in costumes. Although the one thing everyone praised in Burton’s reboot was the amazing costume design. This film opens in the jungle and provides a far more serious and compelling opening far removed from what we have seen in the past films. Thanks to the geniuses at Weta Digital we have amazing looking apes who look more like they are from a David Attenborough documentary than a Halloween party. The apes look and move exactly as real apes do and this opening is brilliant in showing not only this new universe but also the new tone this film/franchise will go in.

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After the jungle sequence opening we are introduced to Will Rodman (played earnestly by James Franco) who is a scientist experimenting with cures for alzheimers. We quickly learn that Will has a personal stake in this as his father is suffering from the illness (played heartbreakingly by John Lithgow). Will has a lab full of chimps who have been given a serum that increases their intelligence and gives them the IQ of humans. After a presentation goes wrong the experiment is called off and the chimps are all euthanized except for one baby chimp which Will takes into his own care. As weeks go by Will discovers this chimp has the AZL serum in his blood passed down from his mother and shows signs of increased intelligence far superior than any regular ape. The ape also befriends Wills dad, Charles and he names him Caesar based on his love of Shakespeare. The famous Shakespeare play Julius Caesar definitely has parallels to this story.

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As years go by Will begins dating comely Vet Caroline (played by Frieda Pinto) and Caesar grows claustrophobia as an ape with no jungle to explore. He watches outside the attic window at children playing and becomes depressed in his current predicament. Will begins to take him on trips to their local sanctuary where Caesar is able to climb trees and swing from the vines. These sequences are breathtaking and show the scope of the quality of Weta’s special effects. As with every Planet of the Apes film things soon begin to go wrong not only for Caesar but also for Will and Charles who begins to slide further into madness. Caesar ends up in a zoo owned by the nefarious John Landon (played with moustache twirling glee by Brian Cox) and his son Dodge Landon (played by Harry Potter villain Tom Felton). Here Caesar meets Maurice and Rocket and many other apes and begins to find a place among his primates. He soon becomes King due to his advanced intellect. Unfortunately Caesar also learns the evil of men and becomes distrustful of Will and sees his fellow apes as his equals. He rallies them together to rise up from their cages and take over the city. The action and special effects filled sequences that follow are truly breathtaking especially the action on San Francisco’s Golden Gate bridge.

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The film is ultimately a tragedy and shows the problems with our modern society between different classes, ethnicities and groups of people. Also the cost of trying to advance science and technology to play God. The film is an allegory for many issues in today’s society and unlike the older Apes films it doesn’t hit you over the head with the obvious subtext. Instead it provides an action filled and at times heartbreaking story of man and ape who lose their way.

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One more thing I need to praise in this film and that is Andy Serkis motion captured performance. After playing Gollum and King Kong in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and King Kong, Serkis has made body acting an art form. He is brilliant in this role and brings the ape Caesar to heartbreaking life. You follow his journey and side with his character more so than any human performer. Serkis’ Caesar has become one the greatest CGI characters in the past five years. He is truly a revelation and lifts this film from enjoyable to fantastic.

Rating: 4 Stars

REVIEW: BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES (1973)

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The Lawgiver: In the beginning God created beast and man so that both might live in friendship and share dominion over a world of peace. But in the fullness of time evil men betrayed God’s trust and in disobedience to His holy word waged bloody wars, not only against their own kind, but against the apes, whom they reduced to slavery. Then God in his wrath sent the world a saviour, miraculously born of two apes who descended on Earth from Earth’s own future and man was afraid for both parent apes possessed the power of speech.

Director: J. Lee Thompson

Cast: Roddy McDowall, Claude Akins, Natalie Trundy, Austin Stoker

Synopsis: As Cornelius struggles to keep life peaceful between ape and man, a reckless militant gorilla named Aldo pushes war between the remaining humans on earth and the apes.

Review:

A rather underwhelming final chapter to the Planet of the Apes series which began with 1968’s brilliant original starring Charlton Heston. This seventies based series has a complicated history both on and behind the screens. However all of the apes films were popular box office draws for Fox Studios during the seventies, with all of the films directed at families and sci-fi aficionados. The series popularised smart science fiction with social commentary, interesting characters and jaw-dropping twists in each film. Battle for the Planet of the Apes unfortunately ends the series with a whimper. The plot revolves around Cornelius ruling a peaceful society where apes are the superior species and man helps out with laborious chores wearing scrappy torn clothes. Some humans allowed in Cornelius’s close quarters give insight to Cornelius regarding the ethics of society. The film overall looks a lot cheaper than previous entries, with costumes looking at an all-time low with the many apes wondering around the screen. The lighting is often bright and most of the scenes take place during sunny days which doesn’t do favours for the appearance of the apes. Militant gorilla Aldo looks the worst in a clearly plastic mask that doesn’t quite move right when he speaks. Cornelius fares better in his ape costume however also struggles with speech and emotion, unlike previous films where he looked quite good.

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The plot is quite basic and the title is quite misleading as one would expect the apes in an all out war with humans eventually creating the Planet of the Apes that we saw in the original. Instead the plot deals with Cornelius struggling with power and going on a search for his parents lost tapes that they filmed in the previous Escape from the Planet of the Apes. Militant gorilla Aldo causes most of the drama as he dislikes humans mixing with apes and wishes for them all to be destroyed. This leads to an inevitable battle between the apes with unsurprising results.

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Director J. Lee Thompson has lost the innovation he displayed in the previous film, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, which was quite dark and violent in tone. In this film he shoots mostly in the light and creates dull action set pieces that look phony and outdated even for the seventies. Perhaps the worst entry in the entire Planet of the Apes franchise. I would give this a miss and move on to the recent reboots instead.

Rating: 1 Star

*Check out reviews for other films in this series below or follow the links.

REVIEW: CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (1972)

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MacDonald: Caesar… Caesar! This is not how it was meant to be.
Caesar: In your view or mine?
MacDonald: Violence prolongs hate, hate prolongs violence. By what right are you spilling blood?
Caesar: By the slave’s right to punish his persecutor.
MacDonald: I, a decedent of slaves am asking you to show humanity.
Caesar: But, I was not born human.
MacDonald: I know. The child of the evolved apes.
Caesar: Whose children shall rule the earth.
MacDonald: For better or for worse?
Caesar: Do you think it could be worse?
MacDonald: Do you think this riot will win freedom for all your people? By tomorrow…
Caesar: By tomorrow it will be too late. Why a tiny, mindless insect like the emperor moth can communicate with another over a distance of 80 miles…
MacDonald: An emperor ape might do slightly better?
Caesar: Slightly? What you have seen here today, apes on the 5 continents will be imitating tomorrow.
MacDonald: With knives against guns? With kerosene cans against flamethrowers?
Caesar: Where there is fire, there is smoke. And in that smoke, from this day forward, my people will crouch and conspire and plot and plan for the inevitable day of Man’s downfall – the day when he finally and self-destructively turns his weapons against his own kind. The day of the writing in the sky, when your cities lie buried under radioactive rubble! When the sea is a dead sea, and the land is a wasteland out of which I will lead my people from their captivity! And we will build our own cities in which there will be no place for humans except to serve our ends! And we shall found our own armies, our own religion, our own dynasty! And that day is upon you… now!

Director: J. Lee Thompson

Cast: Roddy McDowall, Don Murray, Ricardo Montalban

Synopsis: In a futuristic world that has embraced ape slavery, Caesar, the son of the late simians Cornelius and Zira, surfaces after almost twenty years of hiding out from the authorities, and prepares for a slave revolt against humanity.

Review:

The film begins in a grim looking 1991, with now grown ape, Caesar, discussing the plight of the apes with his owner/mentor Armando (Ricardo Montalban). We discover that since the dogs and cats have been wiped out by a deadly virus, apes have become groomed to replace them as home pets. However as time went on the apes became used as slaves rather than pets. They are used to clean the house, prepare dinner, etc. Eventually they became used for more menial jobs such as janitors, waiters and cleaners. The parallels to the plight of minorities in America are quite heavy handed in these scenes.

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Caesar however who was born from Cornelius and Zira in the previous film has advanced skills and knowledge and has already evolved to a more humanoid ape similar to his parents who were from the future. Caesar eventually has to mix with the common apes and instead of obeying the humans he starts an uprising and gets the apes to fight back and escape their grim current predicament.

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Conquest of the Planet of the Apes is a much more thrilling adventure, darker in tone that the previous film, Escape from the Planet of the Apes. Caesar’s uprising is both shockingly violent and dark considering the film was produced for families. However this helps the film rise above previous instalments and stand on its own as both a prequel and sequel to the original Planet of the Apes. Roddy McDowall excels as Caesar and his impassioned speech in the closing act is perhaps the best scene in the entire franchise.

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With sharp direction from J. Lee Thompson and a thrilling score from Tom Scott, Conquest delivers everything you love about this franchise, social commentary, brilliant action set pieces and many twists and turns.

Rating: 3.5 Stars

REVIEW: ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES (1971)

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“Wedded” – Angry priest after discovering future apes got married.

Director: Don Taylor

Cast: Roddy McDowall, Kim Hunter, Bradford Dillman

Synopsis: After crash landing on earth, Zira, Cornelius and Dr Milo discover a planet ruled by humans.

Review:

After the shocking finale of Beneath the Planet of the Apes, this film had nowhere to go but the time travel route. With shades of Lost Season 5 and Austin Powers this film mixes smart sci-fi with inane comedy.

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The film opens with a spacecraft drifting in the sea. Soon we discover that Cornelius, Zira and (new ape?) Dr Milo have crash-landed on earth in the past, prior to the rise of the planet of the apes. Their destination is in fact the 1970s, with the retro funky soundtrack and comedic tone this franchise has found itself in a new direction, one vastly different to the two films preceding it. It is not for the better, nor the worst, merely an interesting side trip with two characters we have learnt to love over the past installments. From the opening scenes we can see that the ape costume design and make-up effects don’t translate as well in a modern setting away from the post-apocalyptic ape future. Also the apes find themselves in a predicament that is a stark contrast of how the characters were treated in the previous films.

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Zira and Cornelius discover that humans once ruled the earth and find themselves trapped in a zoo only to be tested on and researched. Although not as violently as Charlton Heston’s Taylor was in the original. Soon the two apes are welcomed into society and are the talk of the town as everyone wishes to get to know these two apes.

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Their welcome is soon turned to darker terrain as Dr Hasslein (Eric Braeden), fears for his planets future as Zira confesses how the ape war ended.

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This is smart sci-fi, only it’s mixed with silly humour and obnoxious characters that it can’t succeed as the previous films did. With its lack of action and twists, the film is enjoyable however after the last two entries it fails to rise above.

Rating: 2 Stars

REVIEW: BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES (1970)

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“In one of the countless billions of galaxies in the universe, lies a medium sized star, and one of its satellites, a green insignificant planet, is now dead” – Voiceover

Director: Ted Post

Cast: James Franciscus, Kim Hunter, Maurice Evans, Linda Harrison and Charlton Heston

Synopsis: Astronaut Brent crash lands on a planet populated by humanoid apes. As he searches for his lost friend Taylor he discovers a buried New York city and a group of telepathic super-humans who worship an atomic bomb.

Review:

Reading the above synopsis one can see how quickly this franchise went from curious to completely insane. After the shocking finale of the first film the producers were insistent on not only another shocking ending but also a shocking beginning as well. After several rewrites producers agreed on this story of apes waging war on humans, telepathic super-humans, religious satire and the most nihilistic ending ever put on film. This film drove the franchise into much more crazier territory even though the first film was already highly unusual and inventive.

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The film begins with a prologue recapping the events of the first films finale. Taylor and Nova then ride off into the Forbidden Zone, where they discover the earth crumbling around them. Taylor then disappears as Nova rides off for help. We are then introduced to the films new protagonist, Astronaut Brent. His ship has also crash landed and we discover he was on a rescue mission to find Taylor. Initially he goes through the same motions as Taylor went through in the first only without a crew to interact with. Things move faster for Brent as he discovers the apes and their attitudes towards humans. New ape General Ursus represents the evil militant leader archetype who hates man and wishes for war without completely understanding the situation. Dr Zaius, Zira and Cornelius also return and continue the same beats as the first film. After Zira and Cornelius help Brent the film then begins to follow its own path.

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Brent and Nova discover that New York has been covered by the Forbidden Zone. As Brent searches on he discovers a group of terrifying telepathic mutant humans who question Brent through telepathy and get him to try and kill Nova. Brent eventually discovers Taylor who is held captive and they wage war on the mutant beings while the apes also declare war and the film ends on a shocking note that in my opinion is a lot worse than the originals.

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This film is tight paced, gripping and filled with enough sci-fi satire to fill a book. Not only is the race theme satired again with the apes versus the humans but also religion gets satired this time as well with the super humans reciting a hymn and prayer to the atomic bomb.

Mendez: Glory be to the Bomb, and to the Holy Fallout. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be. World without end. Amen.

It is unsettling to watch these mutants pray over an atomic bomb and you have to wonder what was going on at this time for the producers, director and writer to come up with this stuff. Nevertheless it does make for an enjoyable sequel, with intense direction from Ted Post, a more epic scale and enjoyable twists. The only downside is the new protagonist Brent played by James Franciscus, who isn’t given much to do with his character but to wonder around in a loincloth and fight apes. Missing is Heston’s bitter Taylor from the original who not only had a great backstory and hero’s journey, but also an incredible performance from Charlton Heston. Franciscus can’t match Heston’s intensity and once Heston reappears you have no care for Brent or his closing scenes. The film could have easily been Taylor’s journey and it is this missing link that detracts from the films overall enjoyment.

Rating: 3 Stars