“What will he find out there, doctor?”
That’s what the conservative ape scientist Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans) tells compassionate ape “veterinarian” Dr. Zira (Kim Hunter) at the end of the original Planet of the Apes, as misanthropic astronaut George Taylor (Charlton Heston) sets out into the Forbidden Zone of this topsy-turvy planet— where intelligent, talking apes are the dominant species and humans are dumb beasts—in order to find out what really happened to his species. Unless you were living under a rock for the last 50 years, you know exactly what he will find.
But why does Zaius call this literally earth-shattering revelation Taylor’s destiny, and not his past, which is technically the case? The answer for that lies within Zaius’s role in the ape society. Unlike all other apes, Zaius knows the history of the painful and complex relationship between apes and humans. He knows how humans’ natural attraction to war, persecution, prejudice and cruelty sealed their eventual doom, and is (perhaps vainly) attempting to keep that “intellectual virus” from spreading to his beloved apes. He knows that once an intelligent human like Taylor has a chance to restart yet another attempt at civilization for his species, the same ugliness and destruction that comes with his inner nature will certainly plague his descendants. Therefore, he knows that Taylor will find both his past and his future on that beach.
Today, the Planet of the Apes franchise is still going strong. The timeless appeal of these films stems from the fact that they explore high-concept themes, like the inherent viciousness and frailty of human nature, with brutal clarity, told with a refreshing lack of condescension and philosophical hand-holding. By presenting a fable world where what we now consider to be animals are dominating humankind, they hold a mirror to our ugliness, arrogance and, just maybe, our chance for redemption.
Every installment and reiteration of the franchise contains a handful of characters who struggle to go against their basest urges and strive to bring compassion and peace to their kind. Yes, these films never forget to cultivate the value of hope for a peaceful world, but they’re never naïve enough to attempt to sell the audience on the idea that it’s an easy feat—as evidenced by the unfortunately yet appropriately bleak endings found in most of them.
As much as every Apes film tackles the similar themes and plotlines, not all of them are created equal. The series is split into various sections: First, there are the five original films made between 1968 and 1973. Then there’s the weird Tim Burton one we’re contractually obligated to mention. Finally, we have the terrific new reboot series, starting in 2011, which might find ways to keep going long past War for the Planet of the Apes, a logical conclusion to a new trilogy.
Still, in an attempt at solidarity, let’s rank all nine feature films in the franchise, from the worst to the best:
9. Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973)
By the time the fifth and final entry in the original series went into production, 20th Century Fox had already made the decision to move the franchise into television, as evidenced by the short-lived 1975 TV series. Therefore, the suits unceremoniously slashed the budget of Battle enough to turn it into a glorified TV movie. This doesn’t seem to have sat well with director J. Lee Thompson, who had previously created the most kinetic and daring entry in the series yet with 1972’s Conquest for the Planet of the Apes, and who appears to be on autopilot here as he blandly puts together a mish-mash of plot points and themes already explored in great detail during previous films.
The story revolves around benevolent and strong ape leader Caesar’s (Roddy McDowall) struggles to achieve peace between apes and humans after the revolution in which apes took over the world, a premise mostly used to create a more kid-friendly version of the first Planet of the Apes. That’s not a coincidence, since the studio explicitly demanded a lighter touch after being irked by the impressively brutal ending of the series’ fourth installment, a demand which led to a misguided attempt of rewriting the perfectly structured time loop that episodes 1-4 create in favor of an awkward coda where the apes’ and humans’ destinies are retconned.
Perhaps that’s why I skip this one whenever I do my occasional Apes marathon. (Side note: Try watching the first four in the order of 3, 4, 1 and then 2 to get the chronologically linear experience). Not only does it throw a monkey wrench (pun totally intended) into the whole operation, but it’s also fairly inconsequential.
8. Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970)
If the concept of the “straight-to-video sequel” were around in 1970, Ted Post’s Beneath the Planet of the Apes would have defined it. In this first sequel to the original film, the producers couldn’t get star Charlton Heston, who had a fairly miserable time filming the first one since he was forced to work while suffering from pneumonia, to commit to a lead role, able to only secure a glorified cameo. Insert the poor man’s Taylor, the bland vanilla astronaut Brent (James Franciscus), who crashes on the “mysterious ape planet” in search of Taylor. Franciscus is certainly the Troy McClure of the Apes franchise.
The first half of Beneath is basically a rushed and clunky remake of the first film, as Brent goes through the same motions of discovering this nightmare world and figuring out a way to escape it. Hence, the terrific build-up of suspense and the effective gradual reveal of the story’s mysteries are casually brushed over. Brent treats the revelation of a planet ruled by intelligent apes with the same reaction one would give to finding out that a load of white laundry is ruined by a colored sock.
The second half serves up a glorious sludge of schlocky B-movie craziness, as Brent and Taylor are captured by a cult of telekinetic radioactive humans who worship an atomic bomb. It’s a concept that could have fit the series’ allegorical roots, but it’s mainly used as a cheap sci-fi ploy to have these mutated humans make people fight each other using their minds. It could have fit a campier project, but instead comes across as glaringly atonal within the franchise’s mainly levelheaded and grounded pedigree. The final two minutes showcase one of the most WTF endings of any major studio release at the time, and it might be worth watching it just for that, but the 90 minutes that precedes it are pretty dreadful.
7. Planet of the Apes (2001)
This much-maligned “re-imagining” isn’t the abomination that many claim it to be, but it’s also completely pointless and has somehow dated worse than its 1968 counterpart. Technically competent, but lacking any artistic drive to exist, Tim Burton’s remake bears none of his trademark whimsical-gothic style as he rushed through this project like the gun-for-hire that he was. In one of his first leading roles, Mark Wahlberg looks downright uncomfortable playing the iconic Charlton Heston part, and the film’s attempt at being truthful to Pierre Boulle’s original novel by moving the setting to an actual alien planet completely backfires. The less said about that ridiculous ending, the better.
6. Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971)
After Beneath made a lot of money at the box-office, a sequel was inevitable. But how do you conceive a new chapter in a series where the previous installment blew up the friggin’ world? The answer for director Don Taylor and writer Paul Dehn (who also penned Beneath) came in the form of a time travel plot, as our beloved Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) and Zira, the compassionate “animal scientists” who helped Taylor and Brent on their journeys in the first two films, escape future Earth using Taylor’s spaceship, go through the same time portal as Taylor and end up in then-contemporary USA.
The premise is more than a bit forced, but it allows for a fairly intriguing spin on the original’s main conflict, since the intelligent apes are now being scrutinized as abominations within a world ruled by humans. The film also deftly creates a time loop, a self-fulfilling prophecy wherein the time travel of the apes, motivated by Taylor’s interference into the ape future, is what catalyzes the whole ape uprising in the first place. Not to mention that the story conveniently allowed the production to severely slash budget, since only three cast members had to be turned into apes.
What begins as a fairly innocuous sitcom, in which the two apes enjoy a fish-out-of-water existence while they acclimate themselves to human civilization, becomes something darker. This is still a Planet of the Apes film, so it shouldn’t be surprising that the growing paranoia amongst people who look at the two friendly apes as the harbingers of their species’ doom leads to one of the most tragic finales found in a series that’s never short of them.
5. Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972)
Easily the best sequel in the original series, J. Lee Thompson’s Conquest (written again by Paul Dehn) doubles down on the honest and unflinching parallels the franchise draws between this made-up sci-fi universe and humanity’s very real history with slavery, discrimination and tyranny. Taking place in the far-away future of 1991, where highly trained apes are forced into manual labor and service jobs, Conquest tells the inspiring and shockingly violent story of Caesar (Roddy McDowall), Cornelius and Zira’s offspring, fighting against his oppressive human masters in order to kick-start the ape revolution.
Apart from being an exceptionally smart ape, due to his genes, Caesar is also a born leader who was destined to lead the apes, which injects themes of unavoidable evolution and fate into the mix. The budget for each successive Apes film was always lower than its predecessor, and the ambitious large-scale concept of Conquest obviously needed more dough. However, Thompson uses the low budget to his advantage as he creates a claustrophobic and fascistic USA with the clever use of a single location and a close-up-heavy docudrama style, perhaps not so incidentally creating images that resemble real-life footage of the then-recent civil rights struggle. If you can, get your hands on the unrated version, which excises a shoddily executed, optimistic ending the studio originally pushed on the filmmakers.
Having learned their lesson from the 2001 misfire, the suits at Fox come to the decision that doing another remake of the original 1968 film wasn’t in the cards. The solution? Rupert Wyatt’s loose remake of Conquest, an origin story that chronicles Caesar’s (Andy Serkis; where the hell is his Oscar already?) rise to power amongst apes who’ve had their fill of subjugation and cruelty from humans. It all leads to a spectacular action set-piece climax that spans downtown San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge.
Instead of using the time travel plot to explain Caesar’s superior intelligence, the writers come up with a convenient virus that kills two birds with one stone: Turning apes into super-smart beings, while killing off most of the human species. The human story is the weakest part of this reboot, including James Franco’s sleepy-eyed performance as the scientist who takes care of Caesar while working on perfecting the medicine that will one day mutate into the deadly virus is a low point. But such dullness is balanced well by the strong and empathetic mo-cap performances of the actors portraying the apes.
If the original Apes series were fables that used a sci-fi premise to investigate universal lessons about humanity as a whole, the new reboot franchise leans heavier on a tone of individualistic mythology. Dawn, the superior sequel to Rise, solidifies Caesar as a messianic figure who will eventually lead his beloved apes into the promised land. Director Matt Reeves, taking over the series from Wyatt, proves to be the perfect fit to propel the franchise into the future, with a gritty style and a fresh handle on blockbuster genre filmmaking.
Dawn also successfully pulls an Aliens, as the sequel switches genres. This time we’re in full-blown post-apocalyptic sci-fi/action territory, experiencing the tense conflict between the apes and the remaining humans. As usual with the series, a few compassionate and logical figures on both sides strive for unlikely peace, but the base nature of human fear and hatred is a tough beast to wrestle. Dawn takes an undercooked premise set forth by Battle, as Caesar comes to grips with the fact that apes are also imbued with the same level of cruelty as humans. The main villain of this installment is Koba (Chris Gordon), an ape whose painful past of being experimented on understandably breeds in him an inherent mistrust of humans. This leads to a violent defiance of Caesar, shaking the idealistic leader’s faith in his own kind’s ability to transcend human nature.
Matt Reeves goes all out with the epic finale of this trilogy—War ends in a way that perfectly caps off these three films, not that it should stop the studio from going forward with a second trilogy—as he deftly mixes various genres: War movie, prison escape, revenge flick, even a theological crisis-of-faith drama. I swear, there are moments in War that reminded me of Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, as Caesar battles with his inner demons, striving to pick between his personal needs and the well-being of his kind. This is a grand, enthralling, endlessly exciting blockbuster spectacle, to be sure, but it’s also an emotionally and philosophically complex ride that’s heart-wrenching, beautiful and blighted—sometimes all at the same time.
1. Planet of the Apes (1968)
The one that started it all is still the epitome of the Planet of the Apes experience. Co-written by Twilight Zone co-creator Rod Serling, the sci-fi fable structure of the novel’s adaptation fits Serling’s sensibilities so impeccably that the original Planet of the Apes might be the closest we’ll ever get to a single-story, feature-length Twilight Zone movie. The film’s expertly unraveled mystery about this strange land where apes dominate people goes hand-in-hand with an in-depth examination of such themes as animal cruelty, racism, tribalism and war, creating a kind of balanced synergy between pure genre excitement and level-headed morality tale.
Director Franklin J. Shaffner takes his time gradually acclimating the audience, along with the lost astronaut Taylor, into this insane yet surprisingly familiar world. Even though popular culture makes sure that every single story beat of this classic is ingrained in our minds, it’s still a blast to follow Taylor as he discovers how far this rabbit hole goes—until we reach that depressing, yet inevitable, climax.