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Best To Worst: Ranking The ‘Planet Of The Apes’ Movies

Best To Worst: Ranking The 'Planet Of The Apes' Movies

By now, unless you’re totally deaf to advance buzz or have been living on a Luddite commune for the last few weeks, you’ll be aware that Friday’s “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” will open wide with a great groundswell of critical approval behind it (you can read our own extremely positive review here). Whether that will translate into box office is anyone’s guess, but the omens are in its favor: ‘Dawn’ seems destined to benefit from strong word of mouth, especially around Andy Serkis’ motion-capture performance, the trailers have been playing like gangbusters (even if their violence sparked complaints during the World Cup) and most importantly, it’s the sequel to the remarkably successful “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” which itself took nearly half a billion dollars worldwide.

The franchise, which has been so triumphantly rebooted, now consists of eight big-screen outings: the original 1968 Charlton Heston classic and its four sequels, the abortive reboot attempt that was Tim Burton’s 2001 film and now the two new Rupert Wyatt and Matt Reeves additions to the canon. To celebrate the release of ‘Dawn’ (and it is cause for celebration indeed) we’ve taken a helicopter view of the whole lot and ranked them in order of quality. If you’re planning a pre-’Dawn’ viewing session to get yourself in the mood, or if you leave the theater buzzing for more ape-on-human action, here’s our rundown of every ‘Planet of the Apes’ film, from worst to best:

8. “Planet of the Apes” (Tim Burton, 2001)
Of all the film ideas that do not benefit from being rendered in style-over-content form, perhaps the sci-fi story of an ape civilization that has risen to compete with the primacy of humankind is the most exemplary: what makes any “Planet of the Apes” film great is how thematically weighty it can be and how fertile a ground it provides for social and political allegory, not that it gives someone an excuse to spend loads of money making it look cool. But enter 2001-era Tim Burton who entirely seemed to mistake the surface of the concept for its substance (this was before this very tendency had fully manifested itself as his fatal flaw), and so managed to deliver a totally incoherent and tin-eared version of the story, while still spending $100 million on it. And in fairness to him, a lot of that money is up there on the screen: Rick Baker’s make up and creature effects are pretty outstanding; the apes’ clothing and armor is wonderfully well-designed; and the world is built with an eye for scale and spectacle. But underneath that impressive gloss (which occasionally feels almost distractingly overdesigned, viz Helena Bonham Carter’s Ari with her eyeliner and shaggy but unmistakably coiffed bob) the actors struggle to invest a paper-thin story with any real emotional heft, not helped by Mark Wahlberg delivering one of his most blank, bland and overwhelmed performances at the center. Worst of all, in a franchise kind of famous for spectacular dismounts, Burton’s films ends in a way that simply feels unearned, with a kind of unexplained gotcha! that seems more designed to cliffhanger us into a sequel than to actually round out a plot that has been until then both needlessly overcomplicated and thematically simplistic. Despite the film’s decent showing ($360 million worldwide) that sequel never came to pass, thank God–reportedly Burton himself said he “would rather jump out of a window” than do another ‘Apes,’ and the franchise, which had been dead on the big-screen for nearly 30 years was put on ice for another decade before being rebooted into “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” which, while not a 100% home run, certainly seemed to have learned many of the lessons of Burton’s turgid misfire.

7. “Battle for the Planet of the Apes” (J. Lee Thomson, 1973)
The fifth and final entry in the original franchise ‘Battle’ is rightly regarded as the least of them, largely due to drastic budget reduction which led to skimping on things like production design and number of extras (it’s by far the emptiest ‘Apes’ film as regards people milling around in the background). It’s hard to get the same feeling of awe and epic scale that the series’ best installments can offer when you’re essentially watching ten guys squabble in a forest, and yet, shoddiness of staging and editing aside (take the risible climactic Caesar vs Aldo tree battle for a prime example of both) you can still see enough here story-wise to justify the fact that it forms the loose basis for this week’s triumphant ‘Dawn.’ Roddy McDowall returns as Caesar, some years (either 12 or 27, depending on who you believe) after the events of ‘Conquest,’ and this time he is the king of Ape City, an enclave of survivors from the war, in which apes and humans co-exist but the humans are distinctly subservient. The belligerent Aldo, the gorilla general of the ape army chafes against Caesar’s pacifism, however, and so while the film also has antagonists in the form of a mutated human army (again, of about ten, who ride to war on a school bus), it’s really more about the factionalism within the ape ranks. One casualty of that is the human characterization—while McDowall is strong again in his signature role, his assistant MacDonald (Austin Stoker) is the only human with any amount of dialogue apart from Severn Darden as the enjoyably batshit irradiated rebel General, and what he has is mostly expository. Still, there are flickers of previous ‘Apes’ movies’ nuances and politics—even the mutant humans get a speech in their defense by Caesar’s wife Lisa (Natalie Trundy), and if the ape vs mutant battle looks about as dramatic as a few kids playing soldiers around a bonfire, it still does call into question the value of pacifism in an interesting way. Interesting, but somewhat confused—it’s possible there is simply too much factionalism going on at this point, too many mini-internal conflicts, not to mention references to God, to work out the film’s overall position or philosophy. Still it does provide, as ever, a vehicle for a very peculiar kind of meta species self-disgust for us humans, as when Aldo the gorilla is found out to have committed ape-on-ape murder and MacDonald wryly observes that it “looks like they’ve joined the human race.” Poorly shot, carelessly thrown together and outside of McDowall and Darden rather listlessly acted, what’s surprising is that there’s still enough story juice here to power ‘Battle’ along, and almost enough to make the John Huston cameo that bookends the film and delivers its last reveal in the year 2670, oddly touching.

6. “Beneath the Planet of the Apes” (Ted Post, 1970)
The original “Planet of the Apes” is a hard act to follow, and “Beneath the Planet of the Apes” isn’t really up to the challenge. The movie begins right after the big reveal that capped off the first movie, with Taylor (Charlton Heston, who supposedly donated his sizable check for what amounts to a “guest appearance” to a charity of his choosing) venturing further into the Forbidden Zone. After the earth starts to crack and flames shoot out of the ground, Taylor disappears, leaving the mute (but incredibly hot) Nova (Linda Harrison) to find help. It turns out she doesn’t have to look far, because Brent (James Franciscus), an astronaut who has traveled into the same portal looking for Taylor and his crewmates, shows up. This is problem #1 with “Beneath the Planet of the Apes:” James Franciscus is fucking awful. He looks sort of like Heston, something producer Richard Zanuck later said was a deliberate attempt to confuse the audience, but none of his gravitas or gruff charm. (His beard is pretty good though.) The movie is rather plodding, with Brent going through the same motions that Taylor did, although there are some delightful flourishes: James Gregory as warmongering gorilla commander General Ursus (who utters the immortal “The only good human is a dead human!” line); a long, unbroken tracking shot of the gorilla training camp; and more upfront political commentary, like when the apes, bound for battle, encounter a group of peace-loving chimpanzees with signs that read “Unity in Peace.” (The movie’s lively last 30 minutes, when Brent encounters an underground society of mutants that worships an atomic bomb, and runs into Taylor, is pretty trippy too, if completely nonsensical.) Still, in addition to Franciscus’ wooden performance, there are a number of things that make “Beneath the Planet of the Apes” one of the least engaging entries in the franchise: the large crowd scenes, where extras are clearly wearing Halloween-style plastic masks, the wonky pacing, the lack of Roddy McDowall (he was directing a project in England at the time) and the bleak ending which tries to top the shock of the first film (and doesn’t) and seems to have been designed almost exclusively so Heston wouldn’t have to show up for another sequel.

5. “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes” (J. Lee Thompson, 1972)
The “Planet of the Apes” films had always been political, but with “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes,” things got angry. And it was awesome. Continuing the tradition of the sequels having bigger canvases but smaller budgets, “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes” takes place in the nebulously phrased “North America – 1991” and was filmed in the newly opened, starkly modern Century City, an urban tangle built on land formerly owned by 20th Century Fox. In the years since “Escape from the Planet of the Apes,” a virus has killed off most of the domesticated pets on earth, leaving apes to supposedly fill that role (and so much more). These apes are basically slaves, and so it’s up to Armando (Ricardo Montalban, back again, this time sporting some wispy facial hair) to protect the super smart child of Cornelius and Zira, Caesar (Roddy McDowall, this time playing his own son, something he described later as “a unique acting challenge”). Of course, Caesar is found out and put through the process the rest of the apes face, a kind of training program/internment camp, which serves to militarize him, until he eventually leads a violent ape revolt against the human oppressors. McDowall is, once again, flawless, and one of the most touching moments in the entire franchise is when he discovers that the human government has murdered Armando. As tears roll down McDowall’s make-up-coated cheeks, there’s no doubt that this character is 100% real. Shortly before “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes” was released, the studio got skittish about the movie’s level of violence and its incendiary political subtext (which referenced everything from America’s history with slavery to more contemporary issues like the Watts riots), and softened the ending, which had Caesar leading an all-out execution of the human prisoners (“Ape management is in the hands of the apes”). That version has been beautifully restored for the Blu-ray release and is the essential incarnation of “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes,” which has its share of cheap drive-in moments but is also surprisingly cerebral and dark. It also set the stage to a truly explosive finale to the series, which unfortunately ended up not coming to pass (see ‘Battle‘ above).

4. “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” (Rupert Wyatt, 2011)
With ‘Dawn’ by all accounts eclipsing the first entry in the rebooted franchise, it would be easy to undervalue “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” by comparison, but that would do an injustice to just what a Herculean task Rupert Wyatt’s film achieved. Bursting out of the gates from the standing start of a moribund franchise whose last attempt at rejuvenation (Burton’s 2001 film) had become more or less a punchline, where it was remembered at all, ‘Rise’ had a seemingly insurmountable mountain to climb to claw back any relevance to the modern filmgoer. But two major factors allowed it to do just that: an industry in which the fields of motion-capture technology and computer generated imagery had made exponential strides forward in achieving photorealist creature effects, and a cracking script that makes the characters of the apes, particularly Caesar, as unforgettably performed by mo-cap superstar Andy Serkis, among the most complex and rounded of recent blockbuster protagonists. Again, perhaps the human characterization suffers a little by comparison—James Franco is not on quite the sleepy-eyed autopilot he is elsewhere but he’s not an especially interesting human foil, and we instantly forgot Freida Pinto was even in this—but perhaps that’s all the better for us to become invested in the apes, not just Caesar but the Maurice the orangutan who knows sign language, Buck the gorilla and the bitter bonobo Koba. For the majority of its run time, the film is a complex, absorbing piece of work, as we watch the watchful Caesar progress from observation to comprehension to the planning and organizing that indicate vastly superior intelligence, all through the minutest of performance details. Indeed the almost-silent-movie-style heist sequence in which Caesar leaves his “prison,” to steal the intelligence-enhancing gas is as fine an example of pure cinema as the tentpole has yielded recently, all culminating in that first, shocking spoken word–“No.” In fact, ‘Rise’ could even have outflanked 1971’s ‘Escape’ and even maybe the 1968 original on this list were it not for its final battle scenes which become suddenly a bit daft by comparison: as action scenes they’re well staged and exciting, but it’s hard to maintain the same level of intellectual engagement when you’re watching a gorilla make a twenty foot jump off the Golden Gate bridge and into a helicopter. Still, ‘Rise’ largely delivered the last thing any of us were really expecting—an intelligent, thrilling ‘Apes’ movie that must surely go down as one of the most successful and welcome franchise reboots ever.

3. “Escape from the Planet of the Apes” (Don Taylor, 1971)
Fox wanted another sequel, and that’s what they got, with this inventive, wholly underrated time travel romp. Before the bomb went off at the end of “Beneath the Planet of the Apes,” it seems that a trio of chimpanzee scientists – Cornelius (Roddy McDowall, back thank god), Zira (Kim Hunter) and Dr. Milo (Sal Mineo) jumped in Taylor’s derelict spacecraft and traveled through the same wormhole that brought him to the planet of the apes, only this time they were the ones landing on a human-filled earth circa 1971. It’s an ingenious set-up that works well, complete with a dynamite pre-opening credits sequence where the spacecraft returns to earth, greeted by adoring members of the military who assume it’s Taylor and his crew (or, we suppose, that wet blanket Brent) but instead are greeted by a trio of human-sized chimpanzees—the sequence sets the tone for the movie, with its mix of fish-out-of-water commentary and uneasy tension. The first half is the lighter half, with talking apes Zira and Cornelius being given human clothes and treated like celebrities (“The biggest story since the moon landing” is one reporter’s grave opinion). This section of the movie is fun and funny (we love it when, while making an introduction to a tribunal, a priest gets worked up over the fact that Zira and Cornelius are married) but leads to a darker, more morally complicated second half, when Zira announces that she is pregnant and the government, aware that the visitors have come from an ape-dominated future-world, do all they can to terminate the pregnancy. The real star of “Escape from the Planet of the Apes” isn’t the ape make-up, which, with so few ape characters, returns to the sophisticated glory days of the original, but McDowall, who is able to show surprising range as Cornelius, first displaying his fine comedic chops (when the same tribunal asks Cornelius if he can also speak, he says, “Only when she lets me”) and his penchant for drama, especially towards the tragedy-streaked conclusion. Feminism briefly becomes one of the series’ political concerns, as Zira speaks in front of a women’s group and the notion of terminating the pregnancy coming across as a thinly veiled look at women’s reproductive rights in the early ’70s. And while the movie’s ending is just as grim as the previous two, there are, at least, glimmers of hope, with Zira and Cornelius’ baby taken in by a kindly circus owner played, with typical gusto, by Ricardo Montalban (“Yes, yes, a thousand times yes!”) A special shout out also should be reserved for Jerry Goldsmith‘s groovy score, which nearly eclipses the groundbreaking work he did on the original film (he wisely sat out the sequel). “Escape from Planet of the Apes” is, in fact, a superior film in many ways to the first, but is lacking that film’s freshness and originality. Still: an undeniable high watermark for the franchise.

2. “Planet of the Apes” (Franklin J. Schaffner, 1968)
In the beginning, there was only, simply, “Planet of the Apes.” The passion project of publicist-turned-producer Arthur P. Jacobs, it was based, somewhat loosely on a 1963 French science fiction novel by “Bridge Over the River Kwai” author Pierre Boulle (who privately thought the novel was one of his lesser works and unworthy for a screen adaptation). In the film, a quartet of astronauts (including a woman, who goes uncredited of course) slips through a wormhole in space and winds up on a savage planet. At first things seem okay, with primitive humans belonging, seemingly, to an simple agrarian society but then, following a famous chase sequence through a cornfield, the true rulers of the planet are revealed: a race of highly intelligent apes. The astronauts are separated, leaving only Taylor (Charlton Heston) to fend for himself on this strange and merciless planet, until reaching the final, shocking conclusion as to what this planet is (a twist ending every bit worthy of original screenwriter Rod Serling, who after several drafts was replaced and almost all of his work jettisoned). The original “Planet of the Apes” was unlike anything that had come before it—bleak, apocalyptic, but also playful and strange and scary (like when Taylor comes across the remains of one of his fallen astronaut chums or it’s revealed that one of them has been lobotomized). The political subtext that would become straight-up text in the later installments is also present, although slightly toned down and stuffed into the background and Franklin J. Schaffner, whose next film would be “Patton” and would go on to direct “Papillon” and “The Boys from Brazil” helms with sure-footed fluidity. And while the apes got the notice as being a technological breakthrough, with John Chambers‘ make-up effects winning him an honorary Academy Award the following year, really everything about the film felt odd and groundbreaking (like Jerry Goldsmith‘s eerie score and Leon Shamroy‘s sun-drenched photography), and as impressive as the effects were, it was the performers themselves, especially Roddy McDowall as Cornelius, Kim Hunter as Zira, and Maurice Evans as Dr. Zaius, that made them so iconic and beloved. A brilliant synthesis of story, theme, performance and innovation, it’s no wonder the original “Planet of the Apes” spawned the pop culture phenomenon we know today.

1. “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” (Matt Reeves, 2014)
Maybe the biggest surprise of “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” a movie that played like a seemingly never-ending series of surprises, was the emotional connection formed between the audience and Caesar. So it’s not much of a surprise that almost all of the sequel, directed by “Let Me In” and “Cloverfield” filmmaker Matt Reeves, would hone in on that connection, resulting in easily the most emotionally complex (and, at times, scariest) entry in the entire franchise. Set ten years after the events of “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” after the world has been ravaged by the killer virus seen in the first film (the outbreak dramatized in a beautiful, nearly wordless prologue), this film is set largely in the burgeoning ape community that has cropped up in the overgrown forests now surrounding San Francisco. Caesar is leading peaceably, sometimes using tenets from earlier movies (“Ape shall not kill ape” is one of the elements appropriated from “Beneath the Planet of the Apes“), a harmonious ecosystem that is dangerously threatened when human survivors from San Francisco (led by Jason Clarke) encroach onto the apes’ land while looking for a new source of power. Tensions gradually mount until an all-out war begins between ape and human. Reeves establishes a deliberate mood and pace early on, with the first 20 minutes or so spent in the apes’ camp, watching them use sign language and go on hunts (everything is mossy and earthy). With the introduction of the human element, Reeves pumps up the tension (this is easily the scariest apes film since the 1968 original) and maintains an almost unbearable level of suspense, right up until the credits roll. But it’s the film’s emotionality that makes it so special. Andy Serkis’ performance is even better and more nuanced than it was in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” and the sequences he shares with his wife Cornelia (Judy Greer) and Clarke, are hugely powerful. While the human drama is somewhat throwaway and there has yet to be a strong female character introduced on the level of Zira, it’s hard not to be dazzled by “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”—everything from its jaw-dropping 3D photography to Michael Giacchino‘s delicate (and at times, muscular) score, to Gary Oldman‘s more nuanced human villain. This represents the peak of the series, not because of its cleverness or political allusions or technological innovations, but because of the size of its heart. It’s positively planetary.

There is also more tangential “Planet of the Apes”-related content that is interesting, if not essential. There was the 1974 “Planet of the Apes” television series that ran on CBS for a whopping 14 episodes in the fall and winter of 1974. The decision to do the series on CBS was due, in part, to the tremendous ratings that the first three movies racked up when CBS aired them as movies-of-the-week. Taking its cue from “The Fugitive,” the series featured a pair of goofy astronauts (played by Ron Harper and James Naughton), who crash land on the titular planet and then go on the run from the oppressive ape forces that rule. So, yes, they would basically get caught and escape every week. The series is slightly interesting for yet again featuring Roddy McDowall, this time playing a young ape named Galen (who, of course, tries to keep the humans out of trouble) and for the fact that “Twilight Zone” mastermind Rod Serling, who had a hand in the original film’s screenplay, wrote scripts for the first two episodes (these were never filmed). In 1980, the series would live on, sort of, as five made-for-television movies. A year after the live action series aired, an animated series also ran, for 13 episodes, as part of NBC‘s Saturday morning line-up. Entitled “Return to the Planet of the Apes,” the series was cheaply animated but is, as yet, the only representation of the more advanced ape civilization as depicted in author Pierre Boulle‘s original novel. More essential than either series is “Behind the Planet of the Apes,” a 1998 made-for-TV documentary by Kevin Burns and David Comtois that was hosted by McDowall and delves into the entire franchise, including the somewhat problematic sequels and the ahead-of-its-time merchandizing blitz that accompanied the series. There are lots of juicy behind-the-scenes details crammed into the documentary, although just as many went unexplored, leaving us with a slight pang of longing for a follow-up chronicle. But that’s a characteristic of almost the entire “Planet of the Apes” franchise: always leaving you wanting more.

Let us know your feelings about the franchise and our rankings, (are we “hail Caesar” or “damn dirty apes”?) in the comments below. — Drew Taylor, Jessica Kiang

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