The Planet of the Apes series occupies a strange position in the popular consciousness. Not quite as well known as your Star Wars or your Aliens, it has still managed to spawn eight films (more than the Alien franchise), with a ninth on the way. Partly this is due to Hollywood’s modus operandi: if something makes money, make more. But I think there is more to it than that. The Apes films have (almost) consistently explored varied and weighty themes, ranging from war, pacifism and nuclear proliferation, through religion and science and their tumultuous relationship, to race, slavery, civil rights, and yes, even animal rights. But still there’s something more. What I believe has kept the series lodged in popular culture for almost fifty years is its rampant misanthropy. The Planet of the Apes films have very little good to say about human society; after all, it’s our own damn fault the apes took over in the first place. Then again, the films often don’t have much good to say about ape society either, portraying them as just as violent and short-sighted as we humans. I suppose the series isn’t so much misanthropic as extremely asocial. Whatever it is, the series’ deep-seated cynicism speaks to something in us. It is a warning, to be sure, but I think it is also a statement that humanity’s downfall is not only inevitable, but desirable. And apparently people like that.
In commemoration of the release of War for the Planet of the Apes, the ninth in this series chronicling mankind’s much needed destruction, here is That Film Site’s ranking of every Planet of the Apes film.
- Planet of the Apes (2001)
This is a film that was ahead of its time. Back in the halcyon days of 2001, the seemingly endless cycle of remakes that entirely miss the point of their progenitors hadn’t quite started. And there was Tim Burton, remaking Planet of the Apes and entirely missing the point of its progenitor. If I was feeling generous I could attribute the misguided departures from the 1968 original to Burton’s insistence that this is a “reimagining” and not a remake. But Burton’s Planet of the Apes doesn’t make me feel generous. Bored and frustrated, yes, but not generous. It looks fantastic, with Rick Baker’s ape makeup stealing the show much as John Chambers’ did back in ‘68. But that’s really the only good thing to say about this film. There is a lot of talk about “human rights” and slavery (especially from Helena Bonham Carter, whose slightly more human-looking Ari teeters on the edge of the uncanny valley), but it’s just lip service, a surface theme that Burton can’t be bothered to explore fully. Things are made worse by the occasional cringe-inducing references to the original (“Get your stinking hand off me, you damn dirty human!”). And then there’s that ending. Several cast and crew members have tried to explain it, but they’re grasping at straws. It looks impressive, but it just doesn’t make sense. Kind of like the whole film.
- Battle for the Planet of the Apes
Despite making money at the box office, 20th Century Fox continued to slash the budgets for the original Apes sequels, and the final entry in the series is by far the cheapest. Taking place some time after Caesar’s simian uprising, apes and humans are living together in a settlement that comprises of some shabby huts in the forest. When the irradiated humans from the nearby blasted city attack, the battle is woefully underwhelming (and inexplicably involves a school bus). Caesar and belligerent gorilla Aldo’s final fight is just the two actors up a tree. Battle still ranks higher than the Burton debacle, however, because it at least carries on the series’ penchant for dealing with weighty issues. Here it’s coexistence and the cycle of violence. Aldo is chomping at the bit to treat humans as badly as they treated apes, despite Caesar’s repeated protests that apes must prove they’re better than all that. The orangutan in charge of the settlement’s armoury is a pacifist – the ape who least wants the job, and therefore the best gatekeeper. The series’ trademark cynicism also rears its head. When Caesar and Aldo begin their perfunctory duel, Austin Stoker’s MacDonald remarks, “I guess you could say they just joined the human race.” Still, it would be another 41 years before these ideas received lavish budget they deserved.
- Beneath the Planet of the Apes
The first of the original sequels was also the least ambitious, eschewing the inventiveness that would later define the series in favour of an almost complete retread of its predecessor. And so we have another human astronaut crash land on Earth-All-Along (James Franciscus, cast solely because of a slight resemblance to Charlton Heston). Franciscus’ Brent is captured by the apes, meets Zira and Cornelius (Kim Hunter returns, but Roddy McDowall is sadly absent, replaced by a competent but ultimately subpar David Watson), gets together with Nova, and learns that this isn’t another planet, but post-apocalyptic Earth. None of this has any real impact, partly because we’ve been through it before, partly because the budget has clearly been slashed. Brent discovers what planet he’s on when he stumbles into an old New York subway station – not quite as striking an image as a crumbled Statue of Liberty. Beneath is a largely dull affair. A bonkers underground mass, with the mutant congregation singing “All Things Bright and Beautiful” as their telepathic priests reveal themselves as anything but, isn’t quite enough to spice things up. The ending, however, with Charlton Heston returning to detonate the nuclear bomb that the mutants worship and destroying the Earth, is a spectacular finish to an unspectacular film, and directly leads into the fun that was to come.
- Conquest of the Planet of the Apes
Conquest would have ranked higher on this list, had 20th Century Fox provided the budget to realise its epic scope. In futuristic 1991, a plague has wiped out cats and dogs, and apes have replaced them as pets, then are used as a semi-skilled labour force. The film was supposedly popular with black audiences at the time, and it’s easy to see why; the apes are treated as slaves, with all the abuse that implies. Into this enters Caesar, son of Zira and Cornelius (more on that below), who leads a violent ape uprising that pushes the planet one step closer to the one Charlton Heston visits. The uprising itself is competently mounted by director J. Lee Thompson, but it is obvious Thompson is straining against the limited budget. Los Angeles’ Century City makes for a striking backdrop; a handful of actors in ape makeup clashing with some guys in riot gear does not make for a striking revolution. The saving grace is Roddy McDowall’s Caesar, a reluctant but shrewd leader fighting an internal conflict between his pacifist nature and his hatred for what humans have done to his kind. Conquest asks the question: can violence ever answer for violence? And, of course, are apes really any better than their human captors? As the Apes films are wont to do, Conquest doesn’t offer any clear cut answers. Still, as with Battle, it would be four decades until we got the spectacular ape uprising that was promised, but not delivered, here.
- Escape from the Planet of the Apes
In which the Apes sequels begin to get interesting. After blowing up the world at the end of Beneath, it seemed that there was nowhere for the series to go. But then producer Arthur P. Jacobs and screenwriter Paul Dehn decided to go, not forwards, but backwards. And so chimpanzees Zira and Cornelius travel back in time to the present day (present being the early ‘70s), and start what is essentially a self-contained time loop. Escape is (for the first two acts, at least) is a fish out of water comedy, as our simian protagonists become minor celebrities and are introduced to the idiosyncrasies of the modern human world. It’s an intriguing premise: instead of a human finding himself marooned in a strange world of talking apes, the apes find themselves marooned in a strange world of talking humans. Amid all the humour (of which there’s a lot; Zira’s reaction to a banana is priceless), Escape also finds time for the series’ unique brand of satire. The presidential hearings, called to determine whether the apes pose a threat to humanity, mirror Taylor’s kangaroo trial from the first film, with the humans turning out to be just as short-sighted and prejudiced as Dr. Zaius. Eric Braeden gives us a compelling villain in Dr. Hasslein, who is willing to force an abortion on Zira to save a human race that may not even be worth saving. As forced abortions would suggest, the laughs dry up in the third act. So too does Escape’s quality, as we move toward a threadbare climax aboard a moored tanker that echoes the later films’ restrictively cheap set pieces. Even so, Kim Hunter and Roddy McDowall hold the film together, with McDowall’s flustered husband making an interesting counterpoint to his subsequent tortured revolutionary (and how many actors get to play their own son?).
- Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
The second in this new Apes cycle never manages to match the crowd pleading pleasures of Rise. It is perhaps a tad overlong, and the bland human characters let the side down. Gary Oldman phones it in as a faintly villainous version of his Jim Gordon from The Dark Knight Rises, and Jason Clarke fails to prove just why he keeps landing leading roles (seriously, the man has zero screen presence). But what works, works like gangbusters. There is a little if Battle in Dawn’s DNA, and the increased budget and modern technology allows director Matt Reeves to craft the awesome human/ape clash that was so bungled back in ‘75. The action is terrific, with the high point being an unedited take of militant chimp Koba hanging off a tank as it sweeps an arc across the battlefield. The bearing heart of Dawn is, of course, the apes and the incredible motion capture work done by the actors. Andy Serkis continues his reign as the facto king of motion capture, imbuing his Caesar with a quiet dignity that hides violent determination. Caesar must decide how human he wishes to become in his struggle to secure independence for his kind. As in Battle, come the end, the apes have indeed joined the human race.
- Rise of the Planet of the Apes
It was with no small degree of trepidation that audiences went to see the latest reboot of the Apes franchise. After all, the last time someone attempted this, it resulted in the mess that languishes at the bottom of these rankings. What a lovely surprise, then, that Rise of the Planet of the Apes turned out to be a great film. Rise’s strength lies in its treatment of its primate protagonists, both figuratively and literally. Figuratively, Rise is the first Apes film to show due respect to the animals that inspired the series. Rise’s apes, like their real world counterparts, are intelligent, thoughtful beings, and at the same time, dangerous, powerful creatures. It is the combination of these traits that really sells Caesar and his cohorts as the species that will eventually take over the planet. On screen, the (mis)treatment of the apes is what drives the narrative. Any film in which oppressed animals get revenge against their human tormentors scores points in my book. And, boy howdy, do the apes get their revenge. Rise does things that J. Lee Thompson hadn’t even dreamed of doing. Conquest took a great deal of inspiration from the Civil Rights Movement, and Rise takes this to the next level, staging its climactic bridge battle like a high concept version of the Selma to Montgomery marches (a gorilla takes on a helicopter, and it is awesome). What is most satisfying about Rise is that it takes its time. The action only comes after two acts of slow, often poignant character development. Andy Serkis provides yet more fantastic motion capture work as chimpanzee Caesar; along with the visual effects artists, he really gets us to believe that this is a real character. Seriously, just give the man an Oscar already. As is Apes tradition, the human characters are largely bad eggs, with David Oyelowo and Tom Felton leading the villain brigade. Even ostensible good guy James Franco realises too late the suffering the apes have endured, so wrapped up is he in his own research. The only genuinely good character is John Lithgow, and that’s because he has Alzheimer’s. That’s an interesting conceit on Rise’s part, and brings echoes of the mute savages of the original: the only good human is a mindless human.
- Planet of the Apes (1968)
Almost fifty years on, and the original Planet of the Apes is still a singularly peculiar film. It is at once a high concept sci fi romp, a warning against nuclear proliferation, and a diatribe on the inadequacies of mankind. Charlton Heston’s Taylor remains the best human character in the Apes canon. He is a high-functioning misanthrope, who left Earth because, “somewhere in the universe there has to be something better than man. Has to be.” Taylor has nothing good to say about human society, and then it turns out that ape society is little better. Zira and Cornelius are compassionate and reasonable scientists; but Maurice Evans’ Dr. Zaius is both Minister of Science and Chief Defender of the Faith, a muddling of government and religion that is sadly more relevant than ever. The heart of the film is the kangaroo court, called to ascertain if the newly talkative Taylor is a genuinely intelligent creature. We know that he is, of course, which makes Zaius’ circular logic infuriating to listen to. What really stings, though, is that his fallacies are not much different from those used by our own zealots and despots. John Chambers’ ape makeup is still a marvel to behold, even after the advent of CGI. It is suitably simian, while still allowing the actors a freedom of expression that ensured they could go on to carry four more of these films. Finally, Planet of the Apes has what must be one of the best twist endings in cinema. The shattered Statue of Liberty lying derelict on the beach shocked audiences back in ‘68, and still has the power to unsettle now. It proved, not only that this was Earth all along, but that Taylor was right all along. We really did it in the film’s past, and we might really do it in our real future. We are maniacs, who deserve whatever’s coming to us. Damn us. Damn us all to hell.
And there you have it: That Film’s Site’s ranking of every Planet of the Apes film. Feel free to loudly disagree in the comments.