This week the newest of the new blockbusters is also the oldest. Slipping into theaters surrounded by remarkably positive buzz, Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes continues the freshly rebooted franchise in an action packed summer movie spectacle laced with social commentary. It’s the seventh film in a franchise that also included two TV series. Granted, the bulk of the Apes movies came out in the 1970s with almost a 30-year gap before the unfortunate Tim Burton reboot. The fact that there’s still brand name recognition for a series that kicked off way back in 1968 is a sign of just how special this franchise truly is. While Star Wars often gets credit for being the first mass merchandised blockbuster phenomenon, Planet Of The Apes actually got there first and filled toy stores with every conceivable brand of merchandise throughout the 70s. Those John Cambers apes were everywhere before Star Wars stole the franchise’s thunder and yet somehow they survived.
Combining a goofy kid-friendly concept and groundbreaking make up effects with brain-tingling think piece sci-fi for adults as well as one of Rod Serling’s finest ironic twist endings, Planet Of The Apes was a full on phenomenon when it hit theaters in 1968. A risky production that turned into an unexpected hit, it was uncommon for the film to kick off four sequels in the early 70s. Yet, it happened, and while the series’ reputation is a campy one, the truth is that even the sequels were surprisingly strong. In fact, there are only two crappy Planet Of The Apes movies to date, making it one of the most consistent sci-fi franchises in movie history despite the fact that most people only know the Charlton Heston classic and the recent relaunch. So, with Dawn Of the Planet Of The Apes about to revive interest in the series amongst geeks everywhere, we thought the time was right to highlight the special pleasures of this deeply bizarre series. So without further ado, here’s the definitive ranking of the Planet Of The Apes movies. It kicks off with the two movies that you should never see unless by gunpoint, before getting into five of the strangest, smartest, and just plain brilliant pop sci-fi movies to ever slip out of Hollywood.
7) Planet Of The Apes (2001)
When Tim Burton was handed the keys to the Planet Of The Apes franchise in the year 2000, it seemed like a match made in heaven. After all, this one of the most unique artists in Hollywood who’d darkened up Batman, honored Ed Wood, and delivered a string of brilliant original visions like Beetlejuice and The Nightmare Before Christmas. The world of damn dirty apes seemed like a perfect franchise to get a rebirth from the Tim Burton treatment. What went wrong? Well, everything. Despite making $362 million worldwide, it was impossible to find anyone who walked out of Burton’s ape movie happy in 2001. The plot was nonsensical, the dialogue deadly, the attempts at social commentary were placid at best, and Burton’s ill-advised attempt to out-twist the greatest twist ending of all time was legendarily confused. The movie was a disaster on pretty much every level, even serving up the worst/laziest performance of Marky Mark Wahlberg’s career until The Happening. Simply put, this Planet Of The Apes movie is a disaster and rather than relaunching the franchise, it actually killed it off for another decade. Ironically, the worst movie of the Apes franchise does have the arguably the best apes of the series. Rick Baker’s make-up effects were astonishing and served the actors well. It’s just a shame that his glorious work was wasted on the worst movie Tim Burton ever made.
6) Battle For The Planet Of The Apes (1973)
Sadly, the proud original Apes franchise ended on a whimper rather than a bang. With the two previous films having set up the revolution that turned earth into The Planet Of The Apes, this should have been a massive ape/human war climax that brought the series full circle. Unfortunately, the final film faced a number of production problems that prevented that from ever happening. First, the controversial (and brilliant) Conquest For The Planet Of The Apes faced a battle with the ratings board to avoid an R-rating and still scared off a number of kiddies in its eventual truncated theatrical release. So, the studio demanded that the war film finale be rated G to sell more toys and insisted that it have a happy ending to set up the TV series they planned to debut shortly after Battle’s release. To make matters worse, screenwriter Paul Dehn who masterminded the Apes sequels got ill and was unable to finish his script. And then, most fatally, the production was given a miniscule budget that not only prevented director J. Lee Thompson from shooting on the scale he craved, but led to a horrendous bastardization of the iconic Apes make-up that looked worse than a Halloween store knock off. In short, Battle For The Planet Of The Apes is a giant mess of a movie and an undignified end to a brilliant series. Admittedly, the movie is not without its charms (particularly the scenes in which Paul Williams and John Huston play apes), but the original Apes run is best enjoyed if you simply pretend it ends with Conquest For The Planet Of The Apes (and what an ending that is!).
5) Beneath The Planet Of The Apes (1970)
The first Apes sequel is one weird movie. With Charlton Heston only willing to show up for a few minutes of screen time, a new Heston-lookalike astronaut had to fall onto the Planet Of The Apes for a second adventure. For a while, it plays out like a remake/sequel that simply replays the events of the original with slight twists that don’t add up to much. Then things change. The new hero uncovers a bizarre secret world Beneath The Planet Of The Apes featuring gross skinless psychic humans who worship an undetonated, doomsday cobalt missile like a god. Yep, that’s quite a twist and one that pushes this sequel into horror movie territory, boasting a devastating ending that blows up the entire planet. Sure, it’s not a masterpiece, but Beneath The Planet Of The Apes is a creepy and nihilistic follow up that is far more creative than most cash-grab sequels. The unexpected success of this movie proved that there might be more life in Planet Of The Apes series than anyone could have expected, leading to a pair of brilliantly bizarre movies that deserve to be remembered as classics.
4) Escape From The Planet Of The Apes (1971)
With Beneath The Planet Of The Apes proving to be an unexpected success, screenwriter (and secret franchise MVP) Paul Dehn faced the unenviable task of trying to continue the Apes story even though the previous movie ended with the planet exploding. Thankfully, Dehn came up with a pretty ingenious solution. It starts with a dumb idea: three Apes somehow managed to figure out how to fly Charlton Heston’s discarded spaceship shortly before the Beneath climax and then ended up in a time warp that sent them back to present day earth. It’s a clumsy setup, but one that yields possibly the strangest movie in the series (and that’s really saying something). The time traveling apes turn into pop culture celebrities in 70s America, leading to a hilarious camp comedy that pokes gentle fun at the success of the franchise. Then, Dehn cleverly spins the story into darker terrain as the humans realize that if these apes are allowed to live (or worse, procreate), it could lead directly to the ape apocalypse. So, the deeply bizarre movie starts as a camp comedy in the 60s Batman mode before rushing towards one of the darkest twist endings of the entire series. It’s a wild ride and one that brought the racism allegory running through the series to the forefront, setting up one of the finest entries in the entire franchise in the process.
3) Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes (2011)
When Rupert Wyatt’s franchise reboot was announced, few people cared. After all, we’d all been fooled by Burton’s Ape flick and had learned a valuable lesson. Then the film was release, became an instant hit, and we all shut up. A loose remake of Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes, the movie once again followed a super intelligent ape named Caesar kicking off an ape rebellion. The difference this time was that Wyatt and screenwriters Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver ingeniously set the film in contemporary times with all too real scientific animal abuse being the cause of their apes’ unease. With motion capture acting genius Andy Serkis cast as Caesar, this new vision of the series presented CGI apes that felt all too real. The contemporary themes of animal abuse and the classic Frankenstein horrors of scientists playing god led to a brilliant reinvention of the series. Rise felt like a possible prequel to the 1968 classic while still redefining the franchise for a new generation (not to mention a stunning ape attack action finale set on the Golden Gate bridge). Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes pulled off a rare trick of not only reviving a classic franchise, but also delivering a reboot that was better than most of the original films. This set the bar high for a new run of Apes films, and the early glimpses of director Matt Reeves’ (Cloverfield) sequel suggest that it might even get better from here.
2) Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes (1972)
Made on the cheap by Cape Fear director J. Lee Thompson, Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes is possibly the most disturbing and emotionally devastating Planet Of The Apes film to date. Picking up where Escape left off, the film takes place in a world slightly ahead of our own where humans have enslaved apes and turned them into abused servants. The child of the future apes from Escape returns named Caesar and played by franchise star Roddy McDowell (who is remarkable in this film). Choosing to keep his gift of speech and heightened intelligence a secret, Caesar lives as a tortured slave ape before pulling all of the repressed apes together for a revolution. Thompson’s film starts in silly Escape mode, but quickly becomes extraordinarily dark as Dehn’s script pushes heavily on the racism allegory. It all peaks with a race riot finale so vicious that it had to be substantially chopped up for theatrical release and a dark ending that shifts sympathy entirely to the side of the apes that had to be re-shot. Thankfully, the film finally exists in its original director’s cut on Blu-ray and that version stands as easily the most affecting, powerful, and exciting film in the franchise other than…
1) Planet Of The Apes (1968)
Yep, there’s no doubt which movie would top this list. 46 years later, Planet Of The Apes remains a timeless classic. Almost every line is quotable, the production design and make-up are groundbreaking, the message hits hard, and of course, it’s just pure fun. Hard though it might be to imagine now, before Planet Of The Apes (and the concurrently produced 2001: A Space Odyssey) no one in Hollywood could even imagine taking science fiction seriously. Yet here was a science fiction movie given a large budget, a movie star lead in Charlton Heston, and a future Oscar-winning director in Patton’s Franklin J Schaffer. Based on a brilliant sci-fi novel Pierre Boulle and packing an extra ironic screenplay by Rod Serling (The Twilight Zone), this was a science fiction film that adults could ponder seriously while still delighting kids with the finest spectacle that 1960s Hollywood could afford. Simply put, the film is a masterpiece: influential, iconic, and ageless. While none of the subsequent Apes films have quite matched its cracked brilliance, few science fiction movies in general have. Planet Of The Apes is a landmark of genre filmmaking and the fact that it’s bred so many successful followups is a testament to its enduring brilliance. Yep, science fiction doesn’t get much better than this. Damn you for making a movie this good. Damn you all to hell!