The original Planet of the Apes franchise benefits greatly from nostalgia: The truth is, it’s mostly pretty weak, aside from the stellar first installment and some delightful camp moments peppered throughout. Battle for the Planet of the Apes is the clear nadir, a thoroughly disappointing conclusion to an arc that began with tremendous potential and quickly fell into mediocrity. The fifth film follows Caesar (Roddy McDowall) as he struggles to maintain a peaceful society where humans and apes live together. While all the sequels suffer from the problem of a foregone conclusion — we know how this story ends — the last one especially drags its feet toward the obvious.
There are some interesting ideas here, at least: Caesar and his wife Lisa (Natalie Trundy) discuss the necessity of violence, all while Caesar deals with an aggressive gorilla general, Aldo (Claude Akins), who demands a more militaristic response to humans. But the most recent film in the franchise, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, does a much, much better job with the same themes, making Battle look all the more embarrassing in comparison. Add to that some truly boring action sequences and an absurdly terrible final shot — a statue of Caesar crying a single tear — and you have the worst Apes film ever made.
Tim Burton’s 2001 Planet of the Apes remake — intended as a reboot to a new series of films that never materialized — is undoubtedly the most infamous of all Apes films. And with good reason! It’s really, really not good. The only reason it’s not at the bottom of this list is that it has just enough going for it, particularly some genuinely impressive visuals and a modicum of originality. Yes, it’s mostly just a rehash of the 1968 Planet of the Apes, but the film pulls from the source material, Pierre Boulle’s novel, enough to offer audiences something different.
Which is not to say it works. The basic story of astronaut Leo Davidson (Mark Wahlberg) crashing on a planet run by humanoid apes is familiar, as is his friendship with the one sympathetic ape, Ari (Helena Bonham Carter). The real problem with Burton’s Planet of the Apes is that it takes all of this way too seriously, getting mired in mind-numbing ape politics rather than focusing on Ari’s ludicrous wig. The highly criticized ending is actually a callback to the Boulle novel: It does make a sort of sense if you think about it for long enough, but a good twist should have people gasping, not scratching their heads.
When it comes to science fiction, some level of suspension of disbelief is required. But Conquest of the Planet of the Apes strains credibility to such an extent that it’s almost impossible to take seriously. Where to begin? How did a plague wipe out all the planet’s cats and dogs but not any other species? Would humans really go from keeping apes as pets to using them as slaves in 10 years? How is Caesar able to teach unevolved apes to use weapons and rebel against their oppressors? When Zira previewed the fall of mankind in Escape from the Planet of the Apes, it sounded reasonable — but not condensed into a decade or two.
All that aside, Conquest is just oddly paced — it races toward a rebellion that never amounts to much, other than a lot of loud noises. And yet, there is joy in watching Caesar and his fellow apes overtake the humans who have enslaved them. (Again, this is done much better in the new series, rendering Conquest and especially Battle even bigger wastes of time.) The best thing about Conquest is the original ending, in which Caesar orders the brutal killing of Governor Breck (Don Murray). The sanitized theatrical ending is a joke.
Why are people so hard on Beneath the Planet of the Apes? It’s certainly not good, but at least it has some moments of genuine insanity to enjoy. The first sequel to Planet of the Apes is mostly a retread, with astronaut Brent (James Franciscus) following in the footsteps of Taylor (Charlton Heston). The fact that we already know the planet is Earth takes away a lot of the thrill. Not to mention that we’ve seen Cornelius (David Watson) and Zira (Kim Hunter) conspire, and Nova (Linda Harrison) cower. Been there, done that — with higher production values.
But Beneath picks up when Brent and Nova travel underground to the ruins of New York, a post-apocalyptic city that’s almost cartoonishly rendered but still effectively creepy. There, they encounter a community of mutants who wear masks of their own faces, communicate telepathically, and worship a nuclear warhead. It’s overwhelmingly silly, but at least it’s different. And it’s all worth it for the film’s hilariously bleak conclusion, in which Brent and Nova are killed, and Taylor’s dying act is to detonate the bomb, destroying the planet and everyone on it. Good-bye, Earth. The end.
The best sequel in the original Apes series is also the most bizarre: Cornelius (Roddy McDowall), Zira (Kim Hunter), and Dr. Milo (Sal Mineo) travel back in time to Earth in 1973. Once there, the talking apes are treated like royalty — minus Dr. Milo, who has an unfortunate run-in with a gorilla — complete with a stay in the fabulous Beverly Wilshire Hotel and an extravagant shopping spree. After two films predicting a dark future for mankind and apes, Conquest delights in the absurdity of Zira taking a bubble bath and getting drunk on champagne. It’s not high art, but it’s fun.
The real power of Escape, however, is the turn it takes in the final act: The ending, in which Cornelius and Zira are gunned down along with a baby chimp, is shockingly depressing. The film appears frivolous and then catches viewers off-guard with serious questions about the existence of God, the ability to change the future, and slavery. Then it brutally murders the two apes we’ve come to love over the first three films. Escape is not a perfect movie, by any means — Mineo’s Dr. Milo, in particularly, is oddly superfluous — but it offers the right mix of high camp and heavy drama to make it a memorable installment.
2011’s Planet of the Apes reboot had a lot going against it, particularly the lingering bad taste left in everyone’s mouth by the previous attempt to relaunch the franchise. Who could have guessed that Rise of the Planet of the Apes would turn out to be one of the finest films in the series, offering a more realistic and ultimately moving take on how Caesar (Andy Serkis) led the uprising against mankind. The apes are the real stars here — sorry, James Franco and Freida Pinto — with Serkis’ brilliant motion-capture performance making Caesar more sympathetic than any of the human characters.
There are plenty of allusions to the original series (names like Bright Eyes and Caesar, the significance of the word “no”) but Rise is also an excellent introduction for new fans. It takes the themes of the classic Planet of the Apes and grounds them in science, giving viewers the most realistic (as realistic as talking apes can be) interpretation of the source material. Caesar’s self-discovery is stirring to watch, and the moment he first speaks is breathtaking: The chills it inspires are up there with Taylor’s discovery that the planet was Earth all along in the 1968 film.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes takes the great work done by Rise and expands on it: This is what a good sequel should do, and Dawn is more than up to the task. Caesar (Andy Serkis) is now the head of his own ape society, away from the human survivors of the simian flu that decimated a large portion of the world’s population. As in Battle for the Planet of the Apes, Caesar butts heads with the more warlike apes — in this case, Koba (Toby Kebbell), the scarred lab ape introduced in Rise, who questions Caesar’s loyalty to humans.
Once again, the humans (including Jason Clarke, Keri Russell, and Gary Oldman) are secondary to the apes: Caesar is joined by familiar allies Maurice (Karin Konoval) and Rocket (Terry Notary). The apes speak sparingly and communicate mostly by ASL, but they are richly drawn and perfectly portrayed. As always, the story is headed in the same direction we expect it to, but the audience is so invested in the characters here that knowing the inevitable outcome doesn’t make Dawn any less tense or affecting. Not since the first Planet of the Apes have the significant themes of the franchise been matched to an equally powerful film.
It doesn’t get any better than the original Planet of the Apes, an exciting, dynamic, and shocking sci-fi story that no subsequent Apes film has been able to match. Yes, the ending is now widely known: Astronaut George Taylor (Charlton Heston) has crash-landed on a future Earth, long after humans destroyed one another. But try to imagine the surprise of the ending if it weren’t part of our pop culture canon, and suddenly you can appreciate the iconic final shot of the Statue of Liberty, a moment that yanked the rug out from under its original audience’s feet.
Beyond that, Planet of the Apes is simply a stunning achievement. No one speaks for long stretches of time, but it’s never boring, relying on a gorgeous score and the anxiety of the unknown. Heston’s Taylor is one of the few human characters worth caring about in the series, and Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) and Zira (Kim Hunter) provide a warm, relatable counterpoint to the stodgy, manipulative Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans). It’s searing social commentary with a mind-blowing science fiction twist that feels like classic Twilight Zone, thanks largely to a script by Rod Serling, among others. In terms of its ranking within the franchise, it’s untouchable.