Critic's Notebook: 'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes' Proves the Antidote to Summer Sequel-itis

20th Century Fox
"Dawn of the Planet of the Apes"

THR's chief film critic Todd McCarthy writes that Matt Reeves' film — released in a summer featuring a whopping 23 sequels — demonstrates how Hollywood's lackluster history of second acts can actually pay off.

This story first appeared in the July 25 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Has there ever been a summer of 23 sequels before? Doesn't Hollywood's ever-increasing devotion to remaking, rebooting and otherwise leeching off popular and once-fresh properties bespeak a prevailing corporate timidity and poverty of imagination? Do we really just want to see the same old characters enact variations on the same rituals time and time again?

Driven, more than ever, by economic imperatives to seek the sure thing, to establish franchises and brand names with theoretically endless variables (see Marvel), studios and filmmakers have become increasingly prone to repeating themselves in recent times. But where once the phenomenon of sequels almost automatically assured diminishing creative dividends, these days you never know. For every Little Fockers and Spy Kids: All the Time in the World in 4D, you also get an occasional Bourne Supremacy or Before Midnight.

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And then, once in a while, you might hit the jackpot: a double commercial and creative payoff, like July's sensation Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. In an April-through-August season jammed with sequels (including Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Rio 2, A Haunted House 2, Legends of Oz: Dorothy's Return, Wolf Creek 2, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Transformers: Age of Extinction, 22 Jump Street, X-Men: Days of Future Past, How to Train Your Dragon 2, Think Like a Man Too, The Purge: Anarchy, Planes: Fire & Rescue, Step Up: All In, The Expendables 3, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, Leprechaun: Origins), Matt Reeves' extension of a franchise that dates back 44 years, to when Charlton Heston discovered the Statue of Liberty's crown poking up from the beach, is a reminder that revisiting familiar territory occasionally inspires a filmmaker to dig deeper into it rather than just play in a shallow sandbox with the same old toys.

Sequel-itis is as old as Hollywood, with popular recurring characters -- Rin Tin Tin, Tarzan, Hopalong Cassidy, Nick and Nora Charles, Andy Hardy, Dr. Kildare, Ma and Pa Kettle, Sherlock Holmes, Francis the Talking Mule and many others -- popping up in feature after feature as long as public interest held. Formulaic by nature, such films rarely were distinguished artistically and in many ways prefigured television series in their predictability and cultural reassurance. One of the few sequels made during the 1930s and 1940s that represented an ambitious creative jump from its predecessor was James Whale's startling Bride of Frankenstein, and in 1945, Leo McCarey's The Bells of St. Mary's, a follow-up to his Oscar-winning Going My Way, became the most profitable film in the history of RKO Studios.

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But once TV began satisfying the nation's appetite for predictable pleasures in the 1950s, big-screen sequels largely went into eclipse.

In 1962, James Bond strode onto the scene and still is with us, as big as ever. However, these films arguably are not sequels but a series of films adapted, at least in the beginning, from distinct, narratively unrelated books -- and later, a series of reboots. Hairs also can be split about whether Sergio Leone's Westerns are sequels or not (characters played by the same actors have different names, for starters), just as they can regarding Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings and Hobbit entries (perhaps best regarded as two giant films) and the Harry Potter features, each of which was a literary adaptation in its own right.

With exceptions, such as Blake Edwards taking the Inspector Clouseau character from The Pink Panther and running with it in A Shot in the Dark, the 1960s and 1970s were dismal days for the sequel business. The blatant mercenary instinct was overwhelming, with no pretense to matching -- let alone surpassing -- the quality of the original films.

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Universal couldn't restrain itself from trying to milk the Jaws name for every last cent with otherwise meritless sequels, concluding with Jaws 3-D and Jaws: The Revenge. Audiences smelled Exorcist II: The Heretic a mile away, and quality was not a consideration on the follow-ups to originally respectable films such as Rocky, The Bad News Bears, The Poseidon Adventure, Ghostbusters, Arthur, Pee-Wee's Big Adventure and Beverly Hills Cop. And the less said about the ill-advised sequels to such great films as Psycho, The Last Picture Show and Chinatown, the better.

What shocked Hollywood into a new perception about the potential of sequels was The Godfather: Part II, which Francis Ford Coppola dared to make more ambitious than the first film. Once George Lucas, with the considerable aid of director Irvin Kershner, pulled off an equivalent deepening of Star Wars with The Empire Strikes Back, the door officially was opened to the notion of trying to improve on an already great thing, telling ever-more involved stories and infusing them with rich, new layers of thematic, sociological, mythical and political meaning.

In films such as Aliens, Dawn of the Dead, Terminator 2: Judgment Day and The Dark Knight, the creators' impulse was to take the ball and run with it, which took the onus off the term "sequel" and moved it to a realm where anything -- from great to awful -- is possible.

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It's telling that, with the first incarnation of the Planet of the Apes franchise -- which ran from 1968 to 1973 -- the budgets and the grosses decreased proportionately with each of the five films (as did, one might add, the ambition). For this new Apes reboot cycle, whose third entry already is in the works, the reverse looks to be the case.

It may sound sad that a movie about apes and humans battling each other is the best film a big Hollywood studio has served up since the beginning of April. But the excellence of Dawn is heartening proof that even within the narrow parameters of formula and franchise, enterprising filmmakers can still surprise us.