Best & Worst: Planet of the Apes

In many cases, when you hear the term “science fiction,” images of space travel and aliens pop into your mind. In terms of film, Star Wars, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the Alien franchise are typical go-tos. There’s one franchise that’s still around today that’s sometimes forgotten though. The original Planet of the Apes is one of the most iconic science fiction films of all time and, this Friday, a brand new installment to the series will be released in War for the Planet of the Apes.

While the 1968 film is a classic, it’s rarely the first sci-fi film remembered. The genre is often incorrectly defined by space travel and interplanetary discovery. Science fiction is actually based on scientific or technological advances along with social and/or environmental changes. The Apes series certainly fits into that definition. As you sift through the eight films in the series, there are some massive tonal shifts at times with drama, comedy, and action being added. Yet, there’s no doubt that every installment fits into the genre.

French author Pierre Boulle’s 1963 novel jump started the franchise which resulted in four sequels to the 1968 original, two television shows, a reboot in 2001, and another reboot in 2011 that has spawned two sequels of its own. With War for the Planet of the Apes just days away, it’s time to rank the current films in the series. Our rankings will be for the films only and will not include the television shows.

8. Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970)

Who would’ve thought that the hardest film to pick would be the worst one? Beneath the Planet of the Apes is the first direct sequel to the original film. It stars James Franciscus as Brent, a lone surviving astronaut sent to track down the previous film’s protagonist, George Taylor (Charlton Heston), on what he believes to be another planet. Here, he meets Taylor’s companion from the previous film, a mute woman named Nova (Linda Harrison), who’s wearing his dog tags. Brent and Nova travel to Ape City and team up with two chimpanzees who assisted Taylor in the original film, Cornelius (David Watson) and Zira (Kim Hunter). Eventually, Brent and Nova discover telepathic humans who live underground and worship an atomic bomb. Meanwhile, an army of apes, led by Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans) and General Ursus (James Gregory) plan to infiltrate the Forbidden Zone.

The first half of Beneath pretty much follows the footsteps of its predecessor while the second half goes somewhat insane. The telepathic human storyline is just bizarre and even the unique underground dystopia can’t distract from it. Brent is a poor man’s Taylor and, while he’s not horrible, you simply wish that Charlton Heston was the main character once again. He does play a big role in the film but he’s not in it nearly enough. Another notable name missing from this movie is Roddy McDowall as Cornelius. McDowall would become more important to the franchise following Beneath but it still would’ve been nice for him to reprise his role in this sequel. This isn’t a horrible film but it’s definitely one of the weaker, if not weakest installments.

7. Planet of the Apes (2001)

You knew that this one had to be low on the list. This was said to be a reboot/re-imagining before those terms were popular. Astronaut Leo Davidson (Mark Wahlberg) goes rogue when his chimpanzee, Pericles, gets lost in an electromagnetic storm. Leo goes after him without permission and ends up on a planet inhabited by anthropomorphic apes. After being imprisoned, he befriends Ari (Helena Bonham Carter), a chimpanzee who’s compassionate towards humans. She helps him and a group of other humans escape and they seek to find Leo’s supposed rendezvous point with his crew.

This is another installment that’s absolute insanity. It’s so over-the-top and cringeworthy to watch at times. The villainous chimpanzee, Thade (Tim Roth), is a psychopath who’s always screeching and leaping all over the place. The wire stunts are used to unbelievable excess in this film and, frankly, you’ll never have to see another wire stunt again if you watch this. It also rips off a bunch of classic quotes from the 1968 movie and even Charlton Heston and Linda Harrison have cameos as Thade’s father and a woman in a cart respectively. In addition to the aforementioned cast members, Michael Clarke Duncan, Paul Giamatti, and Kris Kristofferson also star.

The Planet of the Apes remake had been stuck in developmental hell since the late 1980’s with names such as Chris Columbus, James Cameron, and Peter Jackson attached to it at one time or another. Eventual director Tim Burton wasn’t given much leeway as there was constant studio involvement and release date shakeups. Along with a confusing ambiguous ending, this remake has long been lambasted by fans. Though, the makeup effects by Rick Baker are top notch and easily the best thing about the entire movie.

6. Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971)

The second sequel in the original Apes series sees Cornelius (Roddy McDowall), Zira (Hunter), and the expendable Dr. Milo (Sal Mineo) pull a reverse-Taylor and escape from their time period following the events of Beneath the Planet of the Apes. They arrive on a beach in 1973 and shock the world. They’re taken to the Los Angeles Zoo to be examined when they reveal themselves to be intelligent and able to speak. They befriend Dr. Lewis Dixon (Bradford Dillman) and Stevie Branton (Natalie Trundy) while becoming celebrities on Earth. Citing the time traveling apes as the eventual downfall of mankind, Dr. Hasslein (Eric Braeden), extracts information from Zira, who is also pregnant. A commission rules that they can’t allow the apes to reproduce and they become fugitives.

Surprisingly, this is quite a well regarded sequel in the franchise even though it’s nothing like the others. The circumstances are similar to Taylor’s in the first film but, initially, Escape feels more like a spoof film. As it continues, it becomes similar to its predecessors when Dr. Hasslein establishes himself as a villain. Cornelius goes through a fit of rage at how the commission views the apes and things take a dark turn towards the end. Yet, the uneven pacing and tone of the movie really set it back. Time travel was really the only way to keep the series going and, however unlikely, it worked for this movie. While not a horrible sequel, Escape from the Planet of the Apes is far from the best.

5. Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973)

The two sequels following Escape from the Planet of the Apes are somewhat separate from the previous three movies. They actually document the downfall of man that’s relayed from Cornelius and Zira in Escape and feature their son, Caesar (Roddy McDowall). Following the events of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, the human population has dwindled and apes reign supreme in a post-apocalyptic future. Caesar tries to establish a society where apes and men may eventually live together in peace. Though, for the time being, humans living among the apes are not quite equal. Caesar and two others travel to the annihilated city for audio and video of Caesar’s parents and provoke a group of mutated humans to come out of hiding and fight back. General Aldo (Claude Akins), a human-hating gorilla, also locks himself in a power struggle with Caesar.

It’s obvious that the recent reboots follow the events of Conquest and Battle as opposed to the original film. Caesar is a captivating protagonist and Roddy McDowall was a welcome return. The events of Battle are certainly an important part to the story but this sequel seems somewhat lackluster. General Aldo is a total buffoon and it’s hard to buy a legitimate power struggle between him and Caesar. In Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, this story arc was executed much better. The “ape shall never kill ape” mantra is also on display in both films. The humans have a ton of weapons that they should easily be able to wipe the apes out with. It’s fair to wonder why they didn’t attempt an uprising earlier. Battle for the Planet of the Apes is decent but it’s an uninspired ending to the original series.

4. Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972)

The film that introduces the character of Caesar is also one of the best. The story is set 18 years after Escape despite the characters saying 20 years have passed. Cats and dogs have become extinct and apes take their place as pets as well as slaves. They perform menial jobs for humans and are often mistreated. Armando (Ricardo Montalban), the circus promoter from the end of Escape, has kept Cornelius and Zira’s speaking son, Caesar, safe over the years. After a trip to the city, Caesar sees the mistreatment of his species and lashes out. Caesar hides among his own kind and is conditioned for slave labor. He’s put to work by the governor’s aide, MacDonald (Hari Rhodes) who’s sympathetic towards apes. After revealing himself to MacDonald, Caesar leads an uprising of apes against humans.

While being the fourth film in the franchise, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes does a great job reinventing the series. The tone is much darker than its predecessor, Escape, and the police state setting is perfect to spark a revolt. The final scene with Caesar’s speech to the apes and MacDonald is fantastic. It may be one of the best scenes in the entire franchise. The film is not perfect by any means as Caesar’s recruiting process requires only a nod towards other apes. When Conquest is at its best, though, it’s an excellent sequel. You can definitely understand why it was used as a launching point for the eventual Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

3. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

While the franchise has strayed into the action genre more, it’s easily at the top of its game. Both Rise and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes are stellar action films. The cast, effects, and stories are great in both movies. Like BattleDawn of the Planet of the Apes shows Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his brethren ten years after revolting against their mistreatment by humans in Rise. After encountering a man in the woods nearby their colony, the apes relay a warning to the human survivors in the remains of San Francisco. Caesar doesn’t want to go to war but they will fight for their territory. The human leader of a small group of survivors, Malcolm (Jason Clarke), asks permission to repair a generator in ape territory and develops a bond with Caesar. Meanwhile, Koba (Toby Kebbell) doesn’t sympathize with humans and defies Caesar.

Like it was mentioned in our section on Battle for the Planet of the Apes, this film took elements of that one and knocked it out of the park. The hostility between Caesar and Koba is tense as is the final battle sequence. In this reboot series, Caesar is a tough, but fair, leader and will do anything to keep the apes strong. The apes are created through motion capture and CGI in the films but Andy Serkis is the best in the business in that regard. The human cast, including Clarke, Keri Russell, and Gary Oldman, isn’t especially interesting but they don’t harm the film either. Despite a slightly confusing title, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is an awesome sequel and one of the best Apes films in general.

2. Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

In all honesty, both Rise and Dawn could easily be swapped on this list. They’re pretty much on par with one another. Rise documents the upbringing of the chimpanzee, Caesar. Will Rodman (James Franco) is a scientist trying to find a cure for Alzheimer’s. He administers a test on a chimp named Bright Eyes (Terry Notary) and her intelligence increases. Though, she also goes on a rampage before being killed. After an order to euthanize the rest of the chimps, it’s discovered that Bright Eyes recently gave birth and the rampage was about protecting her baby, Caesar. Will takes the baby home after discovering he inherited his mother’s intelligence. Years later, Caesar injures a man while defending Will’s Alzheimer’s-stricken father, Charles (John Lithgow), and is imprisoned in a primate shelter. Following cruel treatment, Caesar leads a revolt.

The biggest thing separating Rise and Dawn are the human characters. Both Will and Charles are sympathetic characters and it’s easy to understand their issues. They each have a touching relationship with Caesar as well as each other but are unable to avoid the inevitable. This film also excels in truly defining the character of Caesar even though he only speaks one word. After seeing Rise, you understand why Caesar is the way that he is through the film and into the sequels. Rise of the Planet of the Apes is an absolutely brilliant reboot.

1. Planet of the Apes (1968)

Yep. It’s the original. A group of astronauts, led by George Taylor (Heston), crash land on a foreign planet after going through a time warp that brings them to the year 3978. They soon discover that humans have regressed into neanderthals and intelligent apes rule the planet. Taylor is captured after being shot in the throat and left unable to speak. Dr. Zira (Hunter) and her fiancé, Cornelius (McDowall), believe Taylor to be mimicking while trying to communicate with the apes. Eventually, his throat heals and he utters his first words to them in the classic line, “Get your stinking hands off me you damn, dirty apes!” The orangutan, Dr. Zaius (Evans), doesn’t believe Taylor’s story of how he got to the planet and threatens to lobotomize him. Cornelius and Zira free Taylor and head to the Forbidden Zone to search for answers to the formation of the apes’ society.

Like so many franchises, how could the first not be the best? This is especially true when the original is a science fiction classic. Surprisingly, the original Planet of the Apes still holds up considerably well even today. The makeup effects look great and the range of motion on them is astounding by 1968 standards. This film has been imitated and parodied countless times over its nearly 50 year existence. It also has one of the greatest twist endings ever put on film. To put it any lower on this list would be a discredit to popular culture in general. Planet of the Apes is an absolute classic and one of the most iconic science fiction franchises of all time. It may not have the flair of today’s films and may seem slightly dated but it’s still an experience that no one should miss out on.

That’s our list! Where will War for the Planet of the Apes fit in? If the two films before it are any indication, it should be near the top. Though, it’s nearly impossible that it could overtake the original. Either way, the Planet of the Apes series is very solid across the board. There aren’t many terribly low points with the exception of the first remake and Beneath the Planet of the Apes. Even Beneath wouldn’t be that low if it wasn’t for the horrible ending.

If you’ve never seen the Planet of the Apes films, do yourself a favor and check them out. There’s something for everyone if you’re a fan of classic or even contemporary filmmaking.

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