"Planet of the Apes" is the franchise that just won't quit.
It began nearly 60 years ago and spawned four sequels, inspired two television series (one live action, the other an art deco animated show) and was the basis for a successful remake and several adored reboot/prequels (the latest of which, "War for the Planet of the Apes," arrives in theaters this week). Hallmarks of the series (technological breakthroughs, twist endings) are only established so they can be subverted; this is a saga that continually surprises. While most of the films are downright wonderful, some are definitely better than others; here's the definitive worst-to-best look at the "Planet of the Apes" films.
I think this is apes we're talking about, but a dog sound effect is more appropriate when talking about Tim Burton's painfully dull "Planet of the Apes" remake: woof. Technically speaking, the movie is nearly unparalleled: the drum-heavy, electronically embellished score from Danny Elfman, the dusty cinematography by Philippe Rousselot and, in particular, the expressive make-up effects from the legendary Rick Baker, are all top-notch. But the rest of the movie is beyond drab.
The screenplay lifelessly interpolates the original film while stripping away much of the subtext and instead turns a timely parable into a standard issue chase movie. Even worse is the WTF-worthy twist ending which simultaneously attempts to replicate the shock value of the original while also making incredibly little sense.
Since the first "Planet of the Apes" was a huge hit, a sequel was quickly commissioned. Charlton Heston agreed to return but with an equally huge caveat: he'd show up for the first scene and the last scene and that was it. Instead, "Beneath the Planet of the Apes" spends much of the running time following another band of crash-landed astronauts who are dealing not only with the simian overlords of the Planet of the Apes but also with the race of subterranean, atomic bomb-worshipping mutants.
A lot of the movie is a limp rehash of the first film but it does get bonus points for having a supremely downbeat ending that somehow manages to one-up the original by destroying the entire world. Ah, 1970's blockbusters, you were depressing as hell.
What makes "Battle for the Planet of the Apes" so frustrating is that it is, perhaps, the most thematically ambitious movie in the entire series, but with the most restrictive budget. That means that ape make-up that should have been convincing looks like flimsy Halloween masks and large-scale war sequences are cheap and unconvincing.
It's a shame, too, because there's so much to love about the movie, from the genuine sense that this is the all-out confrontation that the last few movies have been building towards (and not just between the apes and the radiation-scarred mutant humans, but between the apes themselves), to the occasionally sly direction of journeyman filmmaker J. Lee Thompson (who directed the previous, superior installment "Conquest for the Planet of the Apes"), to the charming supporting performances by Paul Williams and John Huston. Still, after some truly affecting films leading up to this, "Battle for the Planet of the Apes" can't help but feel like a bit of a letdown.
When "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" was released in 2011 nobody thought it would do much. After all, it had big shoes to fill in the still-beloved original and was immediately following Tim Burton's woeful remake. But it's hard to think of a reboot that captured as much of the original film's spirit while pushing it to new and modern places the same way this film did.
Under the skilled direction of British filmmaker Rupert Wyatt, the origin story of the Planet of the Apes is told as a bleeding heart buddy story between a scientist (James Franco) and the ape that the government has been experimenting on, Caesar (Andy Serkis, disappearing into yet another performance capture role) that eventually becomes a white knuckle prison escape adventure. Re-watching the film, you can tell that they didn't think the movie was going to succeed the way it did; there are a ton of references to the original film including (but not limited to) a missing spaceship that is an explicit homage to the 1968 classic.
Director/co-writer Matt Reeves's first visit to the Planet of the Apes is "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes," a beautiful, meditative wonder. It's been 10 years since the events of the last film and the apes (under the leadership of Serkis's Caesar) are living in the woods in a robust society. But, of course, humans infringe on their compound (led by Jason Clarke) and a scuffle with the local military (under the command of Gary Oldman) soon follows.
While the stakes at first seem somewhat low (much of the humans' concern is with re-powering a busted dam), the film eventually reveals itself to be able the conflict that wages not just between humans and apes but the battle that we fight inside ourselves each and every day. Points are taken away for it being the only non-widescreen "Planet of the Apes" movie (a concession made for the film's extensive use of 3D) and for its somewhat apolitical nature, but still, a great entry.
If you want the real "Conquest of the Planet of the Apes" experience, I will refer you to the film's Blu-ray release, which contains the original cut of the film that is darker, heavier, and more politically pointed. It's ballsy and brilliant. And the film that was actually released is only slightly less powerful. Taking up from the events depicted in "Escape from the Planet of the Apes" (more on that in a minute), we see Caesar as he leads a revolution against the human oppressors.
Made in 1972, the apes' fight for freedom can be interpreted as a metaphor for any number of real-life movements, but given its timing and message it most likely serves as a stand-in for the Civil Rights movement, still raging in the United States. Roddy McDowell, a series mainstay, continues Caesar's arc from jovial time traveler in the previous film to resistance leader, full of anger and energy, and the images conjured by director J. Lee Thompson, are full of dread and darkness. This is one of the most openly confrontational studio movies ever made and one of the most brilliant.
The latest entry in the Apes franchise is also one of its best. Matt Reeves's "War for the Planet of the Apes" picks up almost immediately from where the previous film ended, with Caesar (Serkis) living in the woods, fearful of human soldiers and the apes that have switched sides. Early sequences brim with a kind of anxious intensity, which eventually gives way to a lengthy midsection inspired more by classic revenge westerns than science fiction spectaculars. By the time the third act comes around, culminating with a confrontation with Woody Harrelson's power-mad Colonel, it feels like not only a culmination of the three newer films but a heartbreaking conclusion to the entire saga. (Keep in mind the cyclical nature of the series.)
Not only does this film return "Planet of the Apes" to its gorgeously widescreen glory but it also, in a more pointed way, regains its allegorical power. This is an Apes movie for the here and now, where soldiers tromp through a forest and refer to the enemy as "Kong" (get it?), while a power-mad maniac becomes consumed with building a wall to keep out those he foggily thinks will rob him of his power. These movies have always been the most powerful while holding up a mirror to contemporary issues and "War for the Planet of the Apes" succeeds spectacularly in that regard.
Instead of concluding with a mind-melting twist, "Escape from the Planet of the Apes" begins with one. A spaceship not unlike the one used by Taylor in the first film arrives in modern day but inside are three apes who have traveled backwards in time sometime before the nuclear holocaust that concluded the previous film. (And you thought the "Terminator" timeline was convoluted.)
What starts off as a rather lighthearted romp (sold largely by Roddy McDowell and Kim Hunter's zippy performances) soon becomes darker and more harrowing, as a fish-out-of-water comedy turns downright tragic as religious, political, and racial overtones filter in. (It's also a brilliant use of its lower budget since so few of the characters are actually in ape make-up.)
This is the series as its funniest, saddest, and sharpest; everything from director Don Taylor's snappy direction to Jerry Goldsmith's jazzy update of his score for the original film is totally spot on. Goofy and poignant, "Escape from Planet of the Apes" is series' very best sequel. And if you haven't seen it, you'll probably go bananas.
It shouldn't have worked, but it did: an adaptation of a French science fiction novel about a planet inhabited by super-intelligent apes, "Planet of the Apes" was a big-budget gamble that paid off thanks to its assured storytelling, groundbreaking make-up effects, and the committed (if not exactly nuanced) lead performance by Charlton Heston.
It's the kind of movie that is so iconic that it's hard to believe it was ever not around. But it was. In fact it took a fair amount of effort to wrangle the project to the big screen, including a lengthy period when the script was whittled down to a more manageable size (there was a version where the ape society was much more advanced; they'd fly helicopters and drive tanks).
Co-writer Rod Serling, creator of "The Twilight Zone," made sure that the movie would have razor-sharp social commentary and a wicked twist ending. This is a movie so chock full of powerful ideas, eerie imagery (the opening space stuff is just as dreamy as the apes stuff is nightmarish), and smuggled satire that its still being mined today. You can't keep a good ape down.