The ongoing pandemic has taught us a lot about how selfish and greedy humans can really be. One might even start to wonder...maybe it’s time to give another species their shot? With a new Planet of the Apes movie in the works, we decided to rank all the entries in the iconic sci-fi series so far.
Prior to 2001, Tim Burton had crafted such gothy masterpieces as Ed Wood, Edward Scissorhands, Batman, and Beetlejuice. Post-Apes is when his filmography segued into movies like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Dark Shadows, and last year’s Dumbo. All of this is to say that when Burton’s Apes came out, people weren’t yet primed for the quirky filmmaker to turn in a truly mediocre movie, which somehow makes its disappointment sting so much more.
Not everything about the 2001 Planet of the Apes is shrug-worthy—Rick Baker’s special effects make-up work is fantastic, even knowing that 10 years later a new series of Apes movies would dazzle with their use of realistic motion capture technology. Helena Bonham-Carter, playing sympathetic chimp Ari, brings a warmth to the movie that’s otherwise lacking, and you can appreciate that Burton’s version crafts a new twist ending for audiences who are already well familiar with Charlton Heston’s big last-scene discovery back in 1968. (Heston has a cameo playing an aging ape here, which is a nice touch.) But that twist requires a certain amount of “this makes no sense” forgiveness; meanwhile, Mark Wahlberg’s hero is resolutely one-note, the “Calima” reveal feels like a Zardoz rip-off, and overall, the tone is too inconsistent for any of the movie’s big moments to make much of an impact.
Directed by J. Lee Thompson, the last of the original Apes movies is told in flashback, with the apes’ esteemed Lawgiver (John Huston) in the year 2670 spinning the tale of what happened to intelligent chimp Caesar (Roddy McDowall, who also played the original Cornelius) after he incited 20th-century ape rebellion (as seen in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes). There are some interesting new characters in this installment—including Paul Williams as Virgil, a philosophical orangutan—and the film digs into the origins of the divisions between ape factions, an important theme throughout the series, while further emphasizing the fact that humans and intelligent apes will never be able to co-exist peacefully. But despite its exciting title, Battle is actually kind of boring—and it ultimately feels like a movie that was made to pry one last box-office haul out of the franchise, rather than bring anything new to the table.
This first sequel to the original Apes (directed by Ted Post, who went on to make immortal cult classic The Baby) introduces Charlton Heston lookalike James Franciscus as Brent, who crash-lands as part of a search party looking for fellow astronaut Taylor (played by the returning Heston, who makes a brief appearance). There’s some retread of that familiar “a planet where apes evolved from men?” disbelief, and the addition of a gorilla character, General Ursus (James Gregory), who makes the anti-human zeal of Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans) look mild in comparison.
However, the movie’s big event involves Brent and mute bombshell Nova (Linda Harrison) discovering a tribe of haughty mutant humans dwelling in the ruins of New York beneath the wasteland—worshiping a doomsday nuke they’ve dubbed “the divine bomb,” wielding their radiation-spawned psychic powers, and plotting against Ursus’ advancing army. Nobody wins this war—planet Earth included—but the movie’s big bummer ending kind of helps elevate a follow-up that’s not really terribly thrilling otherwise.
The fourth sequel to the 1968 original is, like Battle, directed by J. Lee Thompson; Paul Dehn, who wrote all the sequels except Battle (on which he got a story credit) once again pens the script. It’s set 20-ish years after Zira and Cornelius were tragically killed in Escape From Planet of the Apes (further down this list); as that movie showed, their baby son Milo secretly survived, thanks to a benevolent circus owner named Armando (Ricardo Montalban).
In Conquest, Milo is called Caesar (Roddy McDowall) and has lived a sheltered life with Armando, so he’s shocked to see the dystopian state of America, circa 1991. After a plague wiped out all dogs and cats, apes became the domestic pet of choice—though they proved so adept at learning, they were soon enslaved and pressed into service as waiters, store clerks, beauty salon assistants, janitors, and so on. That doesn’t mean humans treat them with any kindness whatsoever, and an outraged Caesar eventually sparks the ape revolution we’re all rooting for, delivering a fiery speech at the end that ultimately preaches compassion: “We, who are not human, can afford to be humane.”
The first film in the re-imagined Apes trilogy, directed by Rupert Wyatt, marries a fresh take on the Apes concept with incredible special effects, elevated by Andy Serkis’ nuanced performance as Caesar—an ape born in a San Francisco lab who inherits the super-intelligence of his mother, who was being treated with an experimental drug. Since this is an origin story, Rise still has reason to contain a lot of human drama, mostly revolving around James Franco’s Will, a scientist who’s working with chimps as a way to discover an Alzheimer’s treatment for his father (John Lithgow). Will adopts Caesar until domesticity proves too confining for a creature that’s smart but still wild—and for the plot, too, since it’s not until Caesar is moved to a sanctuary that he meets others of his kind and starts planting the seeds of ape revolution.
The climactic rampage through San Francisco, capped with an epic showdown on the Golden Gate Bridge, feels appropriately like the turning of a tide, and since Will’s drug has inadvertently unleashed a plague deadly to humans, the stage is set for the power shift across Earth—something that’s explored to great effect in Rise’s two sequels.
Actor turned director Don Taylor helmed this surprisingly engrossing threequel, which turns the Apes premise on its head by imagining that a trio of chimpanzee astronauts—Cornelius (Roddy McDowall), Zira (Kim Hunter), and Milo (Sal Mineo)—manage to flee the 40th-century destruction of Earth (as seen in Beneath the Planet of the Apes) and travel back in time to the early 1970s. While Milo doesn’t make it past their initial incarceration in the Los Angeles zoo, since gorillas are militant assholes no matter the timeline, Zira and Cornelius take the world by storm. But their excitement over their new surroundings (and their soon-to-expand family) is crushed when the U.S. government grows nervous at the fact that their existence confirms humanity’s eventual downfall, and takes drastic steps to try and alter the future.
Hunter is especially good here, and there are several fun scenes (including a campy shopping montage!) before Escape takes its bleak third-act turn. Escape proves especially effective at using its unique premise to further explore themes introduced earlier in the series—particularly the unnecessary cruelty to animals in the name of science.
Some years after the events of Rise, retrovirus ALZ-113—also known as the Simian Flu—has left only scattered pockets of humankind around the globe. North of San Francisco, the intelligent apes led by Caesar (Andy Serkis) communicate with sign language and speech (they talk more and more as the movie progresses) and have carved out a harmonious existence among the trees. Humans, of course, arrive to upset the balance, looking to bring a dam back online to power what’s left of the nearby city—an intrusion that sparks conflict not just between apes and humans, but between the apes themselves, some of whom don’t agree with Caesar’s willingness to negotiate with the enemy.
Matt Reeves’ Dawn is once again a showcase for dazzling special effects and Serkis’ equally dazzling performance, as seen in Rise, with the addition of Toby Kebbell as Koba, the fierce, human-loathing bonobo who challenges Caesar’s reign. (The humans in the movie are an afterthought, as they should be.) Overall, Rise is emotionally stirring and often extremely brutal. Apes may have passed a plague to humans, the movie points out, but humans have passed another right back, in the form of war.
Fifteen years after Rise and two years after Dawn, war rages on between the apes and the U.S. military team summoned by the desperate human survivors at the end of Dawn. Making things worse, the special force’s commander (played with characteristic wild-card danger by Woody Harrelson) has actually gone rogue with his troops, which include a handful of apes who’re still loyal to Koba and are therefore anti-Caesar, which means they’ve twisted around to align themselves with Koba’s hated humans. It’s dark, it’s extremely messy, and the struggle for ultimate survival has never been more intense for either side. The apes are prepared to battle until they have their longed-for peace; the humans, meanwhile, have learned that the dreaded retrovirus has mutated and returned, this time keeping infected people alive but rendering them less intelligent and unable to speak.
War isn’t a total gloom-fest—Steve Zahn’s Bad Ape injects a little levity, and there’s a sweet subplot involving a human child named Nova, just one example here of Apes movies naming characters (and things; the military unit is named Alpha Omega, a Beneath reference) in homage to movies past. But overall its message is both weighty and meaningful, bringing real emotion to a sci-fi story about talking apes that (thanks to, once again, those stunning technical achievements) feels like an urgent wake-up call for the real world too.
Though it may not have the stunning special effects of the recent Apes films, the 1968 original—with an incisive script co-written by The Twilight Zone’s Rod Serling, and direction by Franklin J. Schaffner (who went on to win an Oscar for 1970's Patton)—clearly reigns supreme. Without this movie, based on Pierre Boulle’s novel, there’d be no Apes legacy to begin with, with an enduring popularity that not only inspired the sequels and the more recent films but countless other pop culture moments, including a classic Simpsons episode in which the family takes in a musical version of the story.
Nearly everything about Planet of the Apes still feels as powerful as it must’ve back in 1968—Heston’s fierce lead performance as a stranded astronaut; the range displayed by Kim Hunter, Roddy McDowall, and especially Maurice Evans as the intelligent apes who’re startled to find him in their midst; Jerry Goldsmith’s distinctive, dissonant score; the striking use of landscape and creative set design; and most of all that twist ending. Even if you know what’s coming (and who doesn’t, by now?) it’s still a gut-punch moment every time.
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