This summer, the latest Planet of the Apes film hits theaters. Join us as we take a look at this decade-spanning science fiction franchise and rank its films from worst to best.
The Planet of the Apes franchise started as a movie adaptation of the 1963 French novel entitled La Planète des Singes. That original 1968 film was a hit in theaters, and spawned 4 direct sequels. After many attempts to bring another Planet of the Apes film to theaters, Tim Burton finally put the pieces together with his 2001 “re-imagining” of the original film. In 2011, a new Planet of the Apes franchise started with Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which told a new story with similar themes and ideas. War of the Planet of the Apes is the latest film of the series, and will be released in theaters on July 14th of this year. War will be the 9th film in the Planet of the Apes franchise, the second sequel to the second remake, and the second film to be directed by Matt Reeves.
To honor one of film’s most venerable science fiction franchises, I decided to review all of the previous films and rank them from worst to best. Here are my thoughts on each of these films.
8. Planet of the Apes (2001)
Burton’s remake/reboot is perplexing, simply because it is so dull. We’ve known Burton to exude creativity and it seemed like Planet of the Apes would be a good fit simply because it was a bit weird, yet at times charming - just like Burton’s best-loved films. Yet, Burton’s Planet of the Apes suffers from budget cuts, inconsistent acting, cheap-looking sets, and many rage-inducing plot inconsistencies and thematic missteps. Sure, the original sequels had miniscule budgets, but they made up for it with thought-provoking ideas and a general commitment to the science vs. religion doctrine of the original film. Burton’s film flips flops its way through that central topic, climaxing with a divine intervention to save the day. In doing so the film doesn’t really address anything, and the struggles of the characters amount to zilch. It essentially writes off completely what made the original series so interesting - the downfall of man as a result of our greed and shortsightedness - into something so convenient as “just don’t fly through temporal rifts in space”.
On top of that issue, you have the problem of Mark Wahlberg being a complete bore as the main character, Davidson. He’s too serious in a dumb movie. It lacks the bombast of Heston to give it an emotional charge and the charm of McDowell for us to be able to take it seriously. If Burton would have played the film as tongue-in cheek, it may have worked. May have. Equally perplexing is that there is so much about this film which simply doesn't make sense. The dramatic ending is a perfect example. Davidson returns to Earth to find a modern society run by apes. Yet, the ape society is supposed to exist only in the future from which he just travelled. Maybe it’s an homage to the switch of setting made halfway through the original films, but like everything about this movie, there’s not much thought about it. It’s simplified, mindless entertainment at the expense of a film franchise of which featured a ton of creativity and originality. Burton’s Planet of the Apes is a perfect example of how much wrong can be committed by contemporary movie studio’s obsession with remakes.
7. Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973)
The final film in the original Planet of the Apes series unfortunately finds that franchise at its lowest point. Despite continued success at the box office, each subsequent Planet of the Apes sequel was given a smaller and smaller budget. While this had the effect of limiting production values on the previous films, those films were interesting enough and well-written to get by. This fifth film is not as lucky. The budget constraints squeeze almost all of the potential out of this one. Battle is supposed to be a action-oriented finale, a sort-of prequel to the original film and a denouement of the ape’s story from the last film. It was supposed to complete the series in an uplifting and endearing way. Except it doesn’t do that at all.
Thanks to low low production values it feels more like the series is limping to the finish line rather than making a grand conclusion. It is obviously continuing the story just to wring out as much money as possible from the franchise. The film starts out well enough, showing us a future society where humans and apes are living in harmony, but not quite equality. However, the film goes downhill from there. Terrible costumes, atrocious lighting, cheesy special effects, and a lame battle scene that goes on far too long make this the only boring Planet of the Apes film. Part of the problem with Battle is a problem that pervades through all of the other sequels as well. Due to the small budget, the scope of the story is limited. We’re supposed to believe that what is happening in this one small village is representative to the entire future earth. It seems too quaint and narrow-minded to pull off the philosophical musings that are presented. Battle also exudes a significant shift in tone. While the previous Planet of the Apes films had a strongly pessimistic view on humanity, this one first makes us sorry for them, and then ends on an optimistic tone. That contrast from the previous sequels ruins the themes of the series that it had set up so far, all for a happy ending.
6. Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970)
Beneath is a weird movie, and an even weirder sequel. Instead of just continuing Taylor’s journey from the original film, this one introduces a new human protagonist. Ignoring the logical fallacy regarding a second space ship from Earth sent as a rescue vessel, this new human follows in the footsteps of Heston’s character from the original. He finds the apes, is outraged by human’s treatment, and earns the sympathy of Cornelius and Zira. But James Franciscus, the actor who plays Brent (the new human protagonist) is not Charlton Heston. He doesn’t bring the same intensity to the role that is required, and being a no-name actor unfortunately makes the film feel like it is cutting corners right of the bat.
There are some good ideas, which help to make the film at least watchable. First, it carries forward the same type of allegorical plot that echoes the current events at the time of the film’s release. For this sequel, the apes are riled up into a Vietnam War-like conflict due to their fear of humans. The second half of the film also introduces some interesting alternate antagonists, but the film can’t have it both ways. It feels like two different stories jammed together, and both needed to be polished and more completely flushed out. I understand that it’s not easy to figure out what to do with the franchise after the incredible reveal at the end of the first film, but throwing a bunch of half-baked ideas at the audience isn’t a good start. The original film was an epic, original, and thought-provoking. Beneath is only a weak attempt at replicating that success. More effort would have gone a long way to build something substantial, but it’s obvious the filmmakers were looking for a quick reprise rather than another risky masterpiece.
5. Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)
Rise starts the franchise off on a new foot. It echoes some of the ideas from the original films, but changes many of the details in order to begin the story anew. Gone is the time travel, which in the original films allowed the filmmakers to clearly explain the implications and reasons behind certain actions. Instead, Rise builds from the ground up. Here, Caesar is a genetically engineered ape - born of our modern fascination with science and the inspiration of corporate greed. From this simple observation, you can already tell that the focus of the new franchise takes into account contemporary issues, but it is somewhat at the expense of more pointed social commentary.
Indeed, Rise and its sequel channel the modern blockbuster formula. There are feel-good moments interspersed between adrenaline-pumping action sequences. The budget is suitable to create that type of film, with top notch special effects - something that hurt the original films. Serkis does an incredible job in another motion-capture performance, but there is just something about the heavy reliance on CGI that makes the film feel a bit cold. McDowell’s performance in his ape suits throughout the original series of films was undoubtedly a highlight - he was able to create emotion and evoke feelings for the apes, despite the heavy makeup. Rise doesn’t really have that. It’s an interesting movie that is a good modern-day interpretation of the original ideas behind Planet of the Apes, but it feels more predictable than it should.
4. Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972)
As far as low-budget sequels go, Conquest is a good one. It manages to recreate the tension and pointedness of the original film without treading on familiar territory like Beneath did. While it’s not as solid a film as Escape, Conquest is instead its own little monster. This is the ape takeover that we’ve long been waiting for. In the previous films it was spoken as lore, but in this film we actually get to see it happen, and it doesn’t disappoint. Conquest is a bit insane, we see both humans and apes at their worst. Violence is the logical conclusion, but it isn’t provided only as a means to create entertainment. Conquest has something to say, and like all of the best moments of this franchise, it speaks through controversy.
Conquest is set in a dystopian future where our fears for the apes and their human owners has come to fruition. For the apes, we see them as slaves, an homage to the portrayal of humans in the first film and their condition is the catalyst of the entire franchise. So too is the human’s condition, brought to this point by disease and our own selfishness. I actually believed the genesis of the ape revolution in Conquest more so that that in Rise, which is why I ranked this film higher. The apes act out because of how they are being mistreated as a whole. It completes the cycle started from the first film, and echoes the pattern of humanity as a whole. It hints that the only escape from repeating past mistakes is for someone to step up and show compassion and understanding to those that are different. The end of Conquest may not seem as shocking as the endings in the films that came before, but I think it is much more profound, and because of this, the best in the series.
3. Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971)
The best of the original sequels manages to eschew its meager budget and the repetitious premise of its predecessor by flipping the table. The end of Beneath was an attempt by producer Richard Zanuck to end the franchise after being fired himself. But Escape took a negative and made it a positive. With the ape’s world being destroyed, the franchise had no choice to bring the story to the world of humanity instead. Apes arrive on earth, having repaired the spaceship that first brought the humans to their future. It doesn’t make practical sense in terms of a bronze-age like society repairing a sophisticated future spaceship, but it does make sense in basically giving the franchise a new, interesting angle to explore.
That intrigue is what makes Escape so good. With the apes arriving in modern times, there are more opportunities to expand on the themes and ideas of the original film. More importantly, the film doesn’t just repeat the story from the original by simply switching the apes with the humans. Instead, it takes a lighter, more comedic tone as they try to adjust to their new home. That lighter tone echoes the bombast of the original, without becoming a full-on farce. Impressively, this lighter tone is chiselled away piece by piece by a series of unfortunate events centered around misunderstanding, which is ultimately what Planet of the Apes is all about. The film’s ending is disheartening to say the least, but it needed to be. For as much fun as we had seeing Cornelius and Zira visit the 20th century, there was also a message and a reason for it. It’s rare that films can be so easily entertaining while also uneasily thought-provoking.
2. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)
In a future where mankind has been ravaged by a deadly deadly disease, the apes and humans are at a crossroads. Unlike in any of the original Planet of the Apes films, Dawn, gives us a good reason for the ascension of apes to become the dominant species of future Earth. For one, it has the budget to be able to pull off the large scale requirement of the story. It also has a detail-oriented script that somehow comes off as intelligent and incredibly entertaining. Telling the story of the downfall of man due to our own shortcomings is not supposed to be easy - society’s problems aren’t entertaining, they’re frightening. Blockbusters are supposed to help you escape your modern challenges. The old films had to rely on bluster and bombast to get the audience to swallow their difficult pill, but Dawn doesn’t rely on tricks. It delivers it straight with polished filmmaking and an engaging story.
When comparing Dawn to the original films, it comes closest to the finale, Battle of the Planet of the Apes. In both films, the apes and surviving humans come to an armed conflict that will ultimately decide the future of both races. However, Dawn’s reasoning for that conflict is much more compelling and fully-developed than in Battle. Part of what makes Dawn work is that despite the giant scale of the film, it remains intensely focused on the relationships of several key characters. Here, we see the apes have the same conflicted views on humans that the humans first had of the apes in Escape from Planet of the Apes. The original franchise always made the assumption that it was man’s hubris that led to their downfall. While there were moments that showed that the apes weren’t all united (specifically in Beneath and in Battle) the implication of that concept was not fully explored. Dawn rights that wrong, explaining that the conflict between man and ape is as much the fault of man as it was a misunderstanding and a perceived threat by both races. In this way, Dawn is a remarkable turning point. It’s not a just a doomsday prophecy exploited for entertainment, it's a warning that the small things, individual perspectives and feelings, can be just as dangerous.
1. Planet of the Apes (1968)
There’s a reason that the Planet of the Apes franchise has persevered for 8 additional films and 49+ years; the original film had all the right stuff. Science fiction films have a reputation to be more about special effects than substance, more about escapist entertainment than meaningful social commentary. Planet of the Apes manages to be entertaining while also having something very important to say. The best films are the ones that are influential at the time they are released, and continue to have the same sort of impact even decades later - Planet of the Apes is one of those films. Civil rights, racism, science vs. religion, and the hubris of humanity are the important ideas in the subtext of the plot, and those discussion points are still hot topics today.
I think what makes Planet of the Apes stand out is that, at its core, it is a dark movie. That iconic ending is not a happy one. Yet, it is a movie that draws you in rather than pushing you away due to its difficult nature. Yes, the concept is a bit silly, and the makeup and prosthetics aren’t as impressive today as they once were, but I think these aspects of the film help it rather than hurt it. For one, the cheesiness helps to make the film fun to watch. Charlton Heston puts on a very dramatic performance, which only helps to amp up the intensity as well. There’s also that chaotic, demanding score. All of these aspects work together to make a film that occupies a perfect place. It has an enduring and powerful message, but this message is delivered in a uniquely entertaining way. It’s themes are deathly serious, but they are offered in a weirdly charming manner. Planet of the Apes is the type of film that will never and can never be made again, which is what makes it so special.